SUMTER COUNTY, Florida – It feels like nothing 10,000 feet in the air. Even the locals will tell you that. A few gridded streets, fields, churches and scattered chicken coops just down the road from The Villages. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know he had a name.
What Royal lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in history. Formerly known as Picketville, it was founded by freed slaves in 1865 during the “40 Years and a Mule” era of Reconstruction. Most of the plots, 40 acres each, are still inhabited by descendants of the original owners. Mules are few, although goats and cattle are common.
As you drive you are greeted by people greeting each other by name, calling out to each other from porches or along the paths of the community park. Wildflowers bloom everywhere in shades of pink, white and yellow. The sites are carefully maintained. Noise is kept close to zero. The community is at peace.
Residents fear that it will all be washed away by strangers and replaced by asphalt.
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Royal grew with the times, but he did not escape its consequences. Once located on miles of open fields with only the town of Wildwood in sight, it now has I-75 running through its westernmost part and is bordered by the Florida Turnpike to the south.
See a map of the proposed development below:
The Florida state government wanted to extend the turnpike northwest toward Marion County and the Gulf Coast to help develop the mostly rural area and provide another escape route for hurricanes. Work on the proposed extension has begun, maps have been distributed and possible routes drawn.
All routes follow the same path at the start of the expansion: curving north from the current end of the freeway, then west on I-75.
All crossing Royal.
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“We started to find out in January,” said Cliff Hughes, the de facto community leader. “Two prominent estate lawyers have just started mailing letters to property owners, concerned that the Turnpike extension will affect their property.”
Hughes said about 40 to 50 people received the letters, mostly in the southern third of the city. He showed a map drawn by the lawyers, highlighting a curved strip a thousand feet wide where the freeway and the buffer zone would be.
Beverly Steele’s 100-year-old mother’s house is located there.
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“How am I going to move my mother, at 100, from her house?” Steele asked. “She worked so hard to build herself [a life] on our family’s 40 acres.
That’s what a lot of people feel. Families torn apart, land sold beneath them. The fear of forcing people to leave the one place they call home.
FDOT is aware of their plight. After the letters were sent, a team came to talk to the residents and listen to their fears.
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“The Department is committed to refining current alternate corridors to avoid and minimize impacts to communities and ecologically sensitive features to the extent possible as the project progresses,” a spokeswoman sent via email on Monday, touting the benefits of the project. “As such, FDOT will refine corridors to minimize impacts to the Royal community.”
She added that the original maps were drawn with baseline data that did not consider the character of the community or its application for sites in the proposed corridors to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hughes, Steele and others want the freeway routed completely, preferably through a conservation district where the road currently joins I-75. Their other proposal is to have the turnpike join I-75 at its existing intersection, then split once it is safely north of Royal.
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“It’s about pursuing a legacy, pursuing what our ancestors and ancestors worked so hard to earn,” Steele said, adding that she understood the FDOT’s position and didn’t believe her neighborhood was being targeted.
No one knows if their wishes will come true, but confidence grows.
“We’re in for a win,” Steele said. “We’re going to let God fight it for us.”
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