Friday, January 28, 2005

Okahumpka awaits housing boom

Developers follow a new interchange for Florida's Turnpike and the widening of County Road 470.

By Martin E. Comas
Sentinel Staff Writer

OKAHUMPKA -- Joe Branham has lived most of his life on more than 70 acres of oaks, citrus trees and natural springs in this rural community.

"We had wild turkeys pecking around our patio the other morning," the 73-year-old retired biology professor said Thursday. A bobcat sat and watched him a few weeks ago while he worked in his yard.

But Branham's rustic peace and quiet -- along with that of other Okahumpka residents -- may soon come to an end.

Three miles up the road, a new interchange opened Saturday at Florida's Turnpike and County Road 470, southwest of Leesburg.

In addition to funneling hundreds of more cars through Okahumpka, the interchange also is attracting developers who have plans to build thousands of homes near the interchange.

"There's a general feeling of hopelessness, and there's nothing we can do about it," Branham said. "We knew it was bound to happen."

To accommodate the increased traffic, Lake County has plans to widen C.R. 470 -- the only road through town -- to four lanes between the new interchange and U.S. Highway 27 in the next few years.

The county also plans to improve the nearby C.R. 470 intersections at County Road 33 and U.S. Highway 27.

Along with these road improvements, thousands of new homes will soon rise around Okahumpka.

Leesburg this week agreed to annex about 245 acres near the turnpike just south of Okahumpka for the Triangle Lakes development of almost 950 homes. Construction is expected to start by next year, according to city officials.

Two years ago city officials agreed to a development of about 8,000 homes on almost 3,500 acres just west of Okahumpka.

Construction is yet to begin on that project. But with more than 16,000 people, it will be roughly the size of a small city near the turnpike.

James "Red" Fussell, 72, was born and reared in Okahumpka.

As a boy, he learned how to swim in a spring on Branham's property, much like the Seminole Indians did who lived in the area in the early 19th century.

Fussell isn't happy that cars and trucks will soon speed through his quiet community.

"I'm not in favor of all this growth," he said Thursday. "But I know we can't have a sleepy little town forever.

"There's a lot of history in this little bump in the road, and I hate to see it go."

For years, he would walk across C.R. 470 from his home to pick up his mail at the Okahumpka post office.

He doesn't do it anymore, "with all those trucks going by," he said.

If the land around Okahumpka develops as expected, daily traffic on C.R. 470 could triple to about 25,000 vehicles in the next 20 years, according to Lake County transportation studies.

As a two-lane road, C.R. 470 could not support that much traffic, said Jim Stivender, Lake's public works director.

Christa Deason, a turnpike spokeswoman, said the new interchange at C.R. 470 will relieve much of the congestion at the U.S. Highway 27 interchange. However, it will increase the number of vehicles crossing through Okahumpka, she said.

The $20 million interchange was built because of the recent development plans that Leesburg approved in the area and traffic generated from Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Deason said.

"We don't just go out and build interchanges on what may happen there," she said. "There is obviously going to be a need there soon. So this is very good locally."

To William Dempsey, 63, the surrounding growth is good. It means more shops, more businesses and more work for the painting contractor who has lived in Okahumpka for three years.

"It opens up more opportunities for us," he said. "Especially for the younger people that live in this area.",1,5194819,print.story?coll=orl-news-headlines-lake&ctrack=2&cset=true