OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — The Central Florida Expressway Authority unanimously approved a controversial plan to extend Osceola Parkway, in part, through a forest that protects endangered species.

The project would extend the Osceola Parkway by nine miles, connecting State Road 417 to new and planned developments. A portion of the roadway would go through Split Oak Forest, impacting around 160 acres.

The decision was made after hours of public comment that at times got heated.

“Split Oak is a conservation land in perpetuity," said David Bottomley of Orlando. "In other words, keep your hands off it, if at all possible, for our grandchildren, so that they can enjoy the wildlife that we’ve had all these years.”

Expressway officials say the toll road is needed to accommodate huge growth expected in that area — an estimated half a million people in the next 50 years.

Split Oak Forest was bought by the state in the 1990s as part of the now-defunct mitigation park program, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The program was funded through fees paid by developers who eliminated habitats for endangered or threatened species.

The 1,700 acre forest is home to state-protected gopher tortoises, Sherman's fox squirrels, sandhill cranes. The forest is also home to wild turkey and white-tailed deet.

An alternative route would have impacted close to 20 homes, properties south of Split Oak in rural Narcoossee.

“I would rather have my property taken than to have a highway built in my backyard basically," said Stacy Ford, who lives in Lake Ajay Village. "But for Lake Ajay, we don’t have that option. We can’t say take our homes because we are a community. You can’t take our whole community.”

The plan next goes to commissioners in Orange and Osceola counties for their approval. Even then there are still some more approval requirements at the state level.

Osceola Parkway extension map
Central Florida Expressway Authority map shows the recommended extension plan for Osceola Parkway. The extension is the green route that goes through Split Oak Forest.(Central Florida Expressway Authority)