Home Solar Co-operative Kickoff Wednesday

Wednesday morning in Bartow solar power advocates from all over the state will attend a meeting to formally launch the Polk County Solar Cooperative.

The meeting will begin at 10 a.m. in the County Commission chambers.

The meeting is the culmination of several months of planning and grassroots groundwork that included an introductory meeting in Lakeland in February.

The idea behind the effort is to promote more renewable energy and to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The idea is to reduce the costs of home solar installations by banding together to obtain bulk discounts negotiated by whichever solar contractor the cooperative agrees to hire.

These installations are in addition to a number of solar farms that are either operating, under construction or planned in Polk County, primarily by Tampa Electric.

Polk’s effort follows similar efforts in other Florida counties.

Ancient Islands Sierra Club is joining with representatives from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Solar United Neighbors of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Polk County, the Polk County Commission, Bartow and Hillsborough County in the presentation.

The meeting is open to the public.


Polk Officials Gearing Up To Show Residents What Not To Try To Recycle

Two years after a new recycling system began in unincorporated Polk County, it is clear the word didn’t get out to recycling customers.

City officials are facing some of the same problems and one of them, Lakeland, has already hired a company to improve the situation.

Polk officials are in the process of hiring a public relations firm to do the same.

There is no word yet on when residents can expect to learn the details of these new campaigns, but there is supposedly some effort to coordinate the efforts to reduce public confusion on this issue.

There is already some confusion caused by the fact that there is no uniformity across Polk County about what residents are encouraged to put in their recycling carts.

Some allow magazines and phone books, some don’t. Some allow aluminum foil. Some don’t. Some allow plastic garden pots. Some do not. The same goes for glass and plastic bottles. You get the idea.

The problem these campaigns will attempt to address is excessive contamination in recycling containers caused by residents putting in stuff that has never been acceptable such as disposable diapers, polystyrene and pizza boxes in the bins.

This contamination has two effects.

One is that really contaminated loads are simply sent directly to the landfill, which thwarts recycling efforts by residents.

The other is that the cost of having sort contaminants out of the recycling line makes recycling less cost-effective.

Local governments don’t make money from recycling, but recycling does reduce the need to expand landfills, which are very expensive to design, permit and construct.

This is not simply a Polk County problem, it is a nationwide problem.

The contamination problem has been aggravated by changing markets led by China, which no longer accepts as much of the world’s plastic waste as it once did.

Add to that the drop in oil prices has made it less economic feasible to recycle plastic (you did know it was a petroleum product, didn’t you?).

The situation is even forcing many local governments to rethink how or even whether they will continue curbside recycling.

In the meantime, there are things you can do to help.

Make sure you understand what materials are acceptable to recycle in your community so that you are not part of the problem.

Buy less throwaway products in the first place. Take reusable bags to the store. Use a refillable water bottle.

Support legislation that puts some of the responsibility for recycling waste on the people who create the products that enter the waste stream in the first place: the manufacturers. This is already done in Europe.

Plan For Clear Springs Phosphate Recovery Topic Thursday Night

A proposal to reprocess waste piles at the former Clear Springs mine in Bartow to extract phosphate from them will be the topic of a talk at Thursday’s meeting of Ancient Islands Sierra Club at Circle B Bar Reserve.

Speaking at 7 p.m. will be Lance Mc Neill, owner of Mineral Development LLC, who first proposed the project in 2016 using what he says is a new patented process.

This reflects the results of research to improve methods for recovering phosphate from low-grade sources to meet commercial demand for fertilizer.

His talk will preceded by a brief presentation on the planned Sept. 26 launch of the Polk solar co-operative. The launch presentation is planned to occur at 10 a.m. in the County Commission chambers in Bartow. This is part of an effort to encourage homeowners to install more solar energy equipment to reduce their carbon footprints.

That will occur during the covered-dish supper portion of the gathering, which will begin at 6:30 p.m.

The meeting is open to the public .


The Politics Of Septic Tank Permitting

Polk County commissioners are launching an effort to get out of septic tank fee subsidy business.

It’s not that Polk commissioners don’t mind subsidizing new development. They’ve done that for years through cut-rate impact fees and a developer-friendly development regulations and tax breaks for new businesses.

What they don’t like is taking the heat for county fees that properly should be state fees, even though the state authorizes counties to impose the fees.

There are many such fees, but the ones that got the County Commission’s attention were the ones for inspecting the installation of septic tanks for new homes. The inspections are done by the Florida Department Health’s staff in Polk County, commonly referred to as the Polk County Health Department.

This is an issue because the number of new permits has been increasing steadily in recent years with the rebound of new construction following the burst of the housing bubble in 2008.

Polk has an estimated 100,000 septic tanks, health officials said, but admitted they don’t know where 86,000 of the tanks are because they were installed before the Florida Legislature authorized health officials to regulate them. The current statute dates to 1975. There reportedly were other earlier regulations, but they were intended to deal with disease prevention rather than pollution control.

Septic tanks had become more widespread in Florida during the post-World War II housing boom that outstripped the ability of cities to provide sewer service.

The problem the County Commission and state health officials are dealing with today is that the fees the state has set for septic tank inspections leaves the Polk County Health Department with a $126,492 deficit in the current year alone, according to a presentation during a work session Wednesday.

State law allows health officials to seek approval for local surcharges to help the operations to break even.

Polk commissioners passed a resolution containing a revised list of fees to accomplish that in 2016, but they didn’t know and were not told by staff that there were fee increases included for their friends in the development industry.

When health officials began charging the fees earlier this year, the stuff that goes into the septic tanks hit the fan.

The Polk County Builders Association contacted Commissioner George Lindsey, a longtime member of the organization, and he pressed their case with health officials.

The result tentatively worked out during this week’s work session is for the local surcharge for new septic tank inspections to be $50 instead of the $125 originally proposed, which will leave health officials with smaller deficit of $72,792, which they say they can cover by cutting back on other things.

But Dr. Joy Jackson, the director of the Polk Health Department, emphasized the importance of making sure the department’s programs are properly funded because any lapse could potentially increase the risk to public health.

For instance, there was discussion of cutting back on the frequency of inspecting drinking water systems in order to make up for the funds lost by lowering local septic tank surcharges.

Commissioners tentatively agreed to temporarily reinstate some local fees for septic tank inspections—they had already approved the fee schedules for non-developer-related businesses such as tattoo parlors and tanning salons—but want the fees to expire next June in hopes of pressuring the Florida Legislature to approve a new state fee schedule that will get counties out of the supplemental fee business.

Good luck with that.

If experience is any guide, any changes the Legislature makes—absence some well-publicized crisis—will take more than a year.

The other part that’s certainly no slam dunk is what level of fees the state will charge in its revised list.

You can bet lobbyists for the development industry and any other industry or trade group affected by these fees will be seeking to keep the fees as low as possible.

That means the deficits and compromises on providing adequate public health inspections and prevention programs will continue to be a struggle in Polk County and elsewhere.



Mosaic, DeSoto Commission To Hold Talks On Mine Denial

The DeSoto County Commission agreed this week to enter into mediation with Mosaic over the phosphate company’s attempt to get approval to rezone 14,000 acres to allow phosphate mining.

Commissioners voted 4-1 on July 25 to deny the request.

Mosaic officials formally requested mediation in an Aug. 14 letter to the commission, according to news reports.

The prospect that the mediation may result in a reversal of the July 25 vote has angered mining opponents.

The principal issues in this debate over mining include water use, protection of the Peace River and its tributaries and loss of native habitat and productive farmland.

Two major landowners are seeking protection via conservation easements for ranches in this area of the Peace River Basin.



Cabinet Hearing On BS Ranch Case Reveals Troubling Problems For Polk

This week Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously to uphold Polk County’s decision to reverse itself and amend its growth plan to correct a bad decision to change its development rules simply to accommodate the developers of a soil manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Lakeland that was built in the wrong place without the proper permits.

But it’s not really clear whether the ruling means much in the long run.

The dispute between Polk County and the owners of BS Ranch is still unresolved in the court system and that venue, not Tallahassee, is where this will all be sorted out.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s hearing exposed the malleability of Polk County planning decisions.

The staff report at the 2016 hearing that carved out an exemption for BS Ranch to accede to the company’s request to remain in its industrial location used the same data from a survey of a handful of Florida counties as was used in the 2017 hearing that pulled soil manufacturing back into the same land-use category has landfills.

The only thing different in the 2017 staff report was the absence of gushing praise for the facility, which the staff report described as “like no other in Polk” in the best sense of the term rather than in the reality that ensued and brought the turnabout.

The change the commission approved in 2017 still allows BS Ranch to continue operating, but it may have problems expanding substantially or marketing its operation to another corporation as long as it is a legal non-conforming use.

One of the key findings in this week’s Tallahassee hearing was that it within county commissioners’ discretion to change their minds about issues.

The dispute as the legal fight continues is not over whether Polk County can use its discretion in making planning decisions, but how well based those decisions are.

This case, in some ways, is reminiscent of the fight over another business, which like BS Ranch, opened without getting the proper permits and sought an after-the-fact approval.

I’m talking about Thomas Landing on Lake Kissimmee.

This fish camp, which started out as simply a request to build a lakefront home on a lot that didn’t have frontage on a county road, opened in 1989 and finally came in for proper permits in 1991.

Polk commissioners denied the initial permit request and the owner successfully sued. A judge ruled in 1992 the denial was unjustified because it wasn’t based on sound data and analysis and ordered Polk County to give the man his permit.

The County Commission approved a permit with conditions in 1994.

Thomas violated those conditions by opening an RV park on the property in 2001, again without proper permits.

The case dragged on for years and Thomas Landing is still operating.

The BS Ranch case could drag on for years, too.

Trying to accommodate scofflaws will get you every time.




The Road That Will Not Die

If you thought the eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway was dead, think again.

State transportation officials in late 2015 had shelved the project because they concluded it was not economically viable as a toll road and could not be justified as anything other than a toll road.

Thursday the Polk Transportation Planning Organization approved the draft amendments for the Florida Department of Transportation’s Transportation Improvement Plan.

Included in the list of projects was $13.2 million for preliminary engineering for four sections of this proposed 25-mile toll highway, which would stretch from somewhere near the CSX freight terminal in Winter Haven across U.S. .27 and into rural areas east of Haines City before looping back to connect to somewhere on Interstate 4.

Sierra has opposed this road because it promotes urban sprawl, threatens wildlife habitat and makes management, particularly fire management, more difficult.

The road is being backed by the business community, which sees it as a tool for opening additional areas for development and providing a more direct route for freight transportation.

The purported reason local planners have advanced for the road, which was first proposed in 2008, was to offer an alternative to the increasingly congested section of U.S. 27.

However, it is worth pointing out that the congestion on U.S. 27 reflects general growth in the state as well as the growth decisions that local officials have made in the past two decades that has increased local traffic as well.

All new roads are development magnets and in the result is that we’ll end up with two congested corridors instead of one.