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A potential extension of the Florida Turnpike threatens rural land

Pasture land with horses in the background
Courtesy: Joslyn Seefeldt
Corridor North A runs through Seefeldt's Levy County property.

Four separate proposals would extend the Florida Turnpike through rural land in Citrus, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties.

Joslyn Seefeldt lives on about 28 acres of land in Morriston, a rural exurb in Levy County.

Seefeldt, a 61-year-old retired farrier, or a horseshoe craftsman, spent two years searching for the perfect place to relocate from her home in Milton, Wisconsin. She longed for bountiful land to build the farm of her and her husband’s dreams. A lifelong endurance rider, Seefeldt also sought spaces vast enough for her four horses — Elvis, Fizz, Tater and Beau — and two mules — Harold and Rosie — to frolic. Morriston, a census-designated place in Levy County, offered her and 120 others that quiet oasis.

“This is where I was supposed to be living my entire life,” Seefeldt said.

For four years, she’s called Morriston home.

Now that might change.

There arefour separate proposals to the Florida Turnpike that would extend the interstate from Wildwood through combinations of these counties: Citrus, Levy, Marion and Sumter. Each of the routes would pave over large swaths of rural areas.

If the northernmost proposal to extend the interstate is selected, it would endanger Seefeldt’s equestrian sanctuary.

The idea for the extension began with the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance program (M-CORES), which proposed three new toll roads and aimed to strengthen rural infrastructure. The program was repealed in June of last year, but the state legislature still saw potential in the project. The Florida Department of Transportation has since continued studying the area and proposed the four possible routes, three of which run through Marion County.

The project aims to aid regional congestion and safety, accommodate for increased travel demand, enhance connectivity between regions and improve hurricane evacuation routes. As population, traffic and employment in the affected counties are estimated to increase, the extension aims to support the region’s growth.

At a kickoff meeting in Chiefland on Dec. 7, the project’s consultant program manager, Jeff Arms, said there are no official cost estimates or specific routes for the extension. But public outcry is already evident. Residents of Marion and Levy counties turned out to community meetings by the hundreds, voicing their concerns about the construction and urging FDOT to consider scrapping all construction plans.

Government leaders in the affected cities and counties are taking different bureaucratic approaches. Commissioners in Levy County and councilmembers in Dunnellon have passed resolutions against the extension. Meanwhile, commissioners in Marion County are hoping to cooperate with FDOT and reach a compromise.

County Commissioner Michelle Stone wrote in an email that Marion County understands the potential impacts to the community, but the construction is ultimately under the control of the state’s transportation department.

“We will continue to track this project for further developments and encourage citizens to participate in FDOT’s project study,” she wrote.

With varied responses from local governments, residents have taken it upon themselves to express their frustrations through letters, public meetings, online communication and mass organization. One Facebook group, the Suncoast & Northern Turnpike Connector, has almost 10,000 members, and the No Roads to Ruin coalition has received statewide attention.

Founded in response to the original M-CORES bill in 2019, the coalition aims to prevent construction from impeding on natural areas. Now that M-CORES has been repealed, they’re targeting the Northern Extension.

Michael McGrath, an organizer and representative for No Roads to Ruin and Sierra Club Florida, said the extension presents significant threats to Florida’s wildlife and natural resources.

McGrath said two of the proposed routes through Marion County could damage Florida’s aquifer recharge zone in the Rainbow River, and routes through Citrus County could harm the Crystal River Estuary and Kings Bay.

Limited access highways, like the Florida Turnpike, invite opportunities for mass development and urban sprawl. McGrath said this is not only concerning for local waterways and wildlife, but also for lifestyle in rural communities.

“These aren’t just blank canvases,” he said. “There [are] vital agricultural economies that are present there that would be impacted by these toll roads.”

Though some residents fear negative impacts, others look forward to the potential improvements offered by the transportation construction.

For truck drivers like Tim Hilton, the project’s commitment to easing congestion brings much-needed traffic relief along Interstate 75. He’s a 58-year-old Dunnellon resident and driver for Brook Ledge Horse Transportation who frequently travels through Ocala on the road. He lives just under 5 miles from the proposed Corridor North B and worries he will be forced to relocate because of the construction.

However, Hilton also said he is open to solving Ocala’s traffic issue, which he believes is in need of reprieve. He often opts for toll roads on his trips from Dunnellon to the Canadian border. Despite the cost of tolls, he said he recognizes their convenience.

“It’s the fastest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B,” Hilton said.

Seefeldt is among the residents who don’t see the need to enhance regional connectivity. Longer travel times, she said, are generally accepted by the residents of Levy County.

As for traffic, Seefeldt said it’s almost nonexistent.

“The only traffic in Levy County you’ll see is if you get a congestion of cars behind a tractor,” she said.

The extension proposal is still in its developing phases. An analysis examining the environmental impacts is underway by FDOT’s Project Development and Environment Study. Another study deciding between the four alternative route proposals is expected to conclude by the spring of next year.

In the meantime, residents are still rallying for the no build option, which scraps all construction plans.

Seefeldt said the resistance comes from a will to preserve the rural land that’s growing scarce in the state. With construction looming, she and others fear their natural havens will be lost forever.

“Once agricultural land is gone, it’s gone,” she said. “Once you pave over it, there’s no bringing it back.”

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