Everglades Headwaters Highway Project Re-Emerges; Public Meeting Planned

A plan to build a road through wild areas south of Lake Tohopekaliga between Poinciana and the Florida Turnpike has received new life.

The Central Florida Expressway Authority, which is involved in planning road projects in Orange, Osceola, Lake, Seminole and Brevard counties, is in the early stages of studying potential routes. Most of the routes are overland on what is now ranch land north of Disney Wilderness Preserve but which has been proposed for development in something called the South Lake Tohopekaliga Master Plan. There has also been a suggestion to re-examine an earlier proposal to bridge a section of the lake.

The justification for the new road mimics typical arguments for all such projects: regional connectivity, emergency evacuation and congestion relief. There is traffic congestion in Poinciana, though it is primarily the result of local traffic in this sprawling unincorporated community that was planned and approved for development before stricter modern growth-management regulations took effect.

The idea of building a connector road from northeast Polk County to other highways to reach the Atlantic coast has been around for decades as an economic development scheme.

Expressway officials have met with environmental groups including the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, who have raised issues on listed species protection, wildlife crossings, preservation of wildlife corridors and smokesheds, which are areas affected by periodic prescribed fire management.

A public meeting will be scheduled sometime later this year, project officials told the Polk County Commission at a recent briefing.

If the study concludes the project is feasible, construction could begin by the end of the decade.


Lake Hancock Trail System Expansion Will Be Topic Of Meeting Jan. 23

County park officials will make a brief presentation from 2:30 to 3 p.m. next Saturday at a public meeting at the large picnic pavilion at Circle B Bar Reserve.

The trail system at Circle B connects to the Fort Fraser Trail, which runs along an abandoned rail corridor between Bartow and the outskirts of Lakeland.

The County Commission recently accepted the donation of easements to extend the trail system westward on land south of Edgewood Drive to connect to Lakeland Highlands Road . That extension, which has to be engineering and constructed before it becomes a functional link, will provide a connection to Lakeland’s system of bicycle and pedestrian trails.

Meanwhile, the Panther Point Trail, which begins at the Marshall Hampton Reserve across Lake Hancock from Circle B and runs along the lake’s eastern shore, will eventually be expanded to connect to the Fort Fraser Trail just north of Bartow via property managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Swiftmud officials have installed locks on the southern end of the current trail to prevent trail users from accessing the extended trail system until it is officially open.

One pending issue causing the delay in opening the final leg of the trail, according to Polk County officials, is the expected need to install a security fence around the equipment atop the structure that controls water flow from Lake Hancock via Saddle Creek to the Peace River.

Farther in the future there has been discussion of creating some kind of boardwalk or trail system though the swamp bordering the northern shore of Lake Hancock to connect Marshall Hampton Reserve and Circle B.

Circle B Bar Reserve is located at 4399 Winter Lake Road, Lakeland.

BS Ranch Delusion Gets Statewide Exposure; Changes Planned

The saga of the so-called soil processing plant called BS Ranch in the Lakeland suburbs about which Sierra and other local environmental advocates have been complaining for years is getting some wider attention.

Today the issue was highlighted by Craig Pittman in Florida Phoenix, an on-line journalistic effort to highlight what’s wrong with Florida’s approach to a number of issues.

As previously noted here, the plant was approved by state and local officials based on a misleading public relations effort—most of the permits were actually approved after the fact—under the guise of providing a few jobs and supporting business interests.

County Commissioner George Lindsey recently termed his vote to approve a zoning permit for this environmental disaster the one vote he regrets.

The back story of this project was an attempt by companies that hauled wastes from septic tanks and sewer plants which have to go somewhere to places where they could be handled without dealing with environmental fines from the state and odor complaints from neighbors in rural areas.

It didn’t work out that way.

The odor complaints came from suburban residents and motorists on the nearby Polk Parkway, a local toll road constructed to speed intra-county commuting and all kinds of development, and even the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, whose initials DEP were often used to signify “Don’t Expect Protection” under the pro-development and accommodation regimes in Tallahassee, finally stepped in and sued to require BS Ranch to fix its problem.

The fixes are still in process even though other Florida counties with less permissive philosophies had already required tougher regulations.

Meanwhile, the destination for the sewage wastes that were to go to BS Ranch will supposedly end up somewhere better, according to some preliminary planning being discussed by county officials.

The plan instead is to haul these wastes to county sewer plants, where a treatment facility will be constructed to handle these wastes at a cost of several millions of dollars.

Some of this is in anticipation of complying with coming state regulations that restrict where sewage waste can be dumped and some will involve a discussion that has occurred over the past decade or so about dealing with residents’ complaints about the current disposal methods.

This change is still at least a couple of years out and how this will affect what sewer customers and septic tank owners pay for services has not been specifically addressed, but it may involve some fuller cost accounting.

Stay tuned.



Green Energy Expansion Plans, Rural Communities Collide In Polk

Sierra Club supports the expansion of solar and other renewable forms of energy, but it seems the expansion plans by investor-owned utilities into rural areas have hit a snag related to rural environmental justice.

Today the Polk County Planning Commission voted to deny a plan by Tampa Electric to expand its existing solar farms in and around Chicora, a community in southwest Polk established in 1885 and still inhabited by descendants of the original settlers. Residents say they are working to get approval of the community’s designation as a historic district in hopes of gaining further protection from encroachment.

TECO and other utilities and private entrepreneurs have been active in expanding solar power in rural areas in Polk and adjacent counties for the past several years.

But this raises a sometimes overlooked aspect of the rural environmental justice debate over issues such as esthetics and quality of life rather than pollution, odor or noise complaints.

Specific issues include security fences that residents say make them think they’re surrounded by a prison camp. The fences also may hinder wildlife movement, they alleged. Others complained flashing lights interfere with their sleep. Overall, residents say they feel these facilities are being located too close to their rural homesteads without fully taking into account the effects on their daily lives.

The final decision will likely be made by the County Commission, which ruled in an earlier case in the same area that TECO was encroaching too far into Chicora and needed to scale back its plans.

Southwest Polk County, much of which was mined for phosphate beginning in the late 19th century has a long history of being chosen for controversial projects, such as power plants, that were opposed in more urban coastal areas. The arrival of the plants stressed on local water supplies. This area was also the proposed site for an ultimately rejected plan for the state’s first hazardous-waste incinerator near another rural community.

This is an issue that deserves more discussion.




Trail Extension, More Solar Power Expansion Coming To Polk

It is nice to see some good environmental news these days.

Today the Polk County Commission approved a deal with Sanlan RV & Golf Resorts and Orlando Health to secure a 40-foot wide corridor south of the Polk Parkway between U.S. 98 and Lakeland Highlands Road to eventually connect the Fort Fraser Trail and Lakeland’s system of pedestrian and bicycle trails.

No date was announced for construction, which will depend on further engineering and design work, County Manager Bill Beasley told commissioners.

The connection of the two trail systems has been discussed for several years to expand recreational facilities in this growing urban area of the county. One of the key issues has involved how to get under or around the toll road, which in the past has been a formidable physical barrier to connecting the trails.

Meanwhile, the Polk County Planning Commission will consider a proposal on Wednesday to expand solar power facilities in the Chicora area south of Mulberry as part of a series of projects mostly initiated by Tampa Electric to develop more solar within its service area. Another TECO solar project is planned west of Mulberry near the Polk-Hillsborough line.



Happy New Year; Hope Is On The Way

I wanted to wish all of our members in Polk, DeSoto, Hardee, Highland and Sumter counties a Happy New Year with a hope that the new year will bring better things for the environment.

The new administration in Washington promises to undo the damage that has occurred during the last four years on clean air, clean water, water conservation and the protection of our public lands.

With any luck, the efforts to bring the pandemic under control will eventually create a time when we can get together face-to-face and once again hold outings to share our love for the outdoors.

There also will be plenty of work to do to advance our environmental agenda to control climate change, protect native habitat and combat the forces that seek to undermine decades of hard work to protect out natural heritage.

We can do it.

Circle B To Host New Year’s Day Hike

The annual hosted hike at Circle B Bar Reserve will occur at 9 a.m. Friday at the popular outdoor venue.

The event will involve a 2.5-mile hike through a variety of restored native habitats. Volunteers will be present along the route to point out wildlife and other natural features.

Participants should dress appropriately with closed-toed shoes and bring binoculars or a camera. No registration is required.

The weather forecast calls for a windy and partially sunny day.

People can hike at their own pace and should practice social distancing and take any other measures in connection with the pandemic.

If you want to hike in a less-crowded venue, there are several other sites owned and managed by the Polk County Environmental Lands Program.

They include Lakeland Highlands Scrub in the south Lakeland suburbs, Gator Creek Reserve north of Lakeland, Sherwood L. Stokes Preserve east of Haines City, the Sumica and North Walkiniwater sites east of Lake Wales and Crooked Lake Prairie near Babson Park.

For more information on the county’s environmental lands sites, go to www.polknature.com