Buttons, bumper stickers, shirts and signs — all adorned with calls to “save it, don’t pave it” and “stop the turnpike” — were the accessories of choice for several Inverness residents on Tuesday evening.
About 70 of these decorated locals gathered at the bi-monthly Inverness City Council meeting, where they voiced concerns regarding potential construction to the Florida Turnpike. The meeting included a lengthy public comment portion and concluded with the council’s decision to review a “no build” resolution, which several attendees requested.
Residents raised concerns in response to the proposed Northern Turnpike Extension (NTE), which offers four potential routes expanding the turnpike northwest through combinations of Citrus, Marion, Levy and Sumter Counties. It was conceived as part of the now-repealed Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) bill to improve traffic congestion and capitalize on economic development across the state.
Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, a division of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), introduced the extension as a standalone project last year. Since then, residents in the affected counties have expressed fears of land loss and environmental damage.
Inverness residents like Kevin McAdams, 67, worry that the construction of the southernmost corridor option, which reaches as close as two miles from downtown, will destroy the local nature and wildlife. During the public comment portion of the meeting, McAdams said he pictures a “landscape devoid of all the attributes and memories of the Nature Coast” if the project proceeds.
Environmental uncertainty was a major topic of discussion. In addition to resident comments, Michael McGrath, a representative from the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club and the No Roads to Ruin coalition, detailed the potential detriments to Florida’s natural resources in a presentation.
McGrath said the construction threatens vital natural areas like the Kings Bay springshed and the Withlacoochee River: two important waterways to Florida’s overall aquatic health. He said a no build option, which nullifies all construction plans, is non-negotiable.
“The no build is the only option to protect our state,” McGrath said.
FDOT representatives Jeffrey Arms and Jennifer Stults, who presented project updates and addressed questions from the council, said the department is working to minimize any environmental impacts.
The project’s schedule, Stults said, has “slid to the right about a year” to allow for more adjustments. Stults said will look to narrow the potential routes where possible, which will limit the areas affected by construction.
As Floridians, Stults said FDOT employees are conscious of the project’s consequences.
“We also want to do the right thing,” she said. “We live in Florida, too.”
The extension is in its Alternative Corridor Evaluation stage, which aims to designate one of the potential routes as the official option. FDOT will evaluate the final route against a no build option in the following Project Development and Environment study, set to conclude in 2024.
But residents want the no build now. Instead of breaking new ground, they suggested a Transportation Systems Management approach, which looks to improve existing roadways. They pointed to the expansion of Highway 44 and possible construction to Interstate 75 as alternatives to the extension.
Though not legally binding, local governments can pass no build resolutions to communicate that they are not in favor of the construction. Arms said FDOT will take these into consideration as it decides on a potential route.
More than a dozen residents participated in public comment regarding the potential construction, and all called for the council to pass a resolution immediately. Commenters like McAdams feel the move can slow the pace of the project.
“By this council endorsing a no build option, you’re sending a signal to pump the brakes,” he said.
The council ultimately sided with its constituents, unanimously agreeing to consider passing a no-build resolution. However, Cabot McBride, the council president, said the resolution will include a key revision.
McBride said the council will remain open to potential construction plans if further studies from FDOT deem them necessary. Though he and the council support taking the alternative management approach and exploring other alternatives, McBride said an extension to the turnpike through Inverness is a lingering possibility.
“We need to have the honesty, the integrity and the ability to say to all of these people sitting here that we may need to look into this again,” he said.
The council will meet May 17 to review a draft of the resolution. Council members will then vote to officially support a no build option.