It has been five years since an overwhelming majority of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to allocate state revenue to revive the popular Florida Forever land acquisition program.
We’re still waiting for the Florida Legislature to obey the will of the voters and amendment sponsors.
This week a lawsuit in which environmental groups prevailed in circuit court and legislators appealed was before appeals court judges in Tallahassee.
During the hearing, the arguments were familiar.
Lawyers representing Sierra Club and other environmental groups charged that legislators were using the voter-approved land-purchase appropriation as a slush fund for whatever they felt like spending it on.
Lawyers representing legislators and other state agencies argued the amendment’s language was vague enough to allow them to do as they pleased.
There is no word on when a ruling will occur.
The case is expected to be ultimately resolved by the Florida Supreme Court. Lawyers for environmental groups have sought to expedite getting the case to the high court.
Meanwhile, the price of land increases as the economy recovers following the recession that caused state officials to suspend most spending on the Florida Forever program and development pressure on rural lands is returning.
This lawsuit is not only the pursuit of a principle but a race against time.
One of the unanswered questions in the discussion of efforts by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative to develop future water supplies to take care of the next half century of projected growth is how the costs will be allocated.
That is, will new customers whose demand will require the expansion of water supplies and associated infrastructure pay the cost of will their costs be subsidized by current customers whose demands are already being met by the current system?
On Wednesday, a new wrinkle in this discussion emerged in the form a consultant study that will also examine, among other things, the feasibility of imposing a special assessment on the county tax rolls.
The idea drew quick pushback from County Commission Chairman George Lindsey and Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz.
Lindsey said utilities are enterprise funds whose costs should be covered in their rate structures.
“There is a distinction between rate payers and taxpayers,” Lindsey said.
Mutz agreed, adding this approach could allow a decision to be made in a way that gives the general public little input.
He also questioned the escalating consultant fees for this study, which has already grown from $6,000 to $25,000 as the scope of work has increased, arguing this may only be the beginning.
The origin of the decision to pursue the study was also unclear during Wednesday’s discussion.
The issue will be discussed further at the next cooperative meeting in September.
Any special assessment, utility fee increase or other revenue source is part of the PRWC’s contribution to the cost of planning, permitting, constructing and operating a countywide water-supply system envisioned by its consultants.
The cost will total hundreds of millions of dollars–the exact cost is developing as the project advances–and will be shared by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Polk officials have also lobbied for state and federal funds.
Neil Combee advanced a proposal this week to swap ranch land along the Peace River near Homeland for part of a dormant high-end a development in Bartow.
Combee, a former Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board member, appeared before his former colleagues at Tuesday’s meeting Clearwater to make the pitch.
Executive Director Brian Armstrong said he and his staff would take a look at the idea.
The properties Combee proposed to swap for the ranchland is part of the former Old Florida Plantation development or regional impact. Swiftmud officials have planned for years to declare some of the land surplus and sell it since having to buy the developer’s entire property for $30.5 million in 2003 as part of the agency’s plan to turn Lake Hancock into a reservoir to restore minimum flow to the Upper Peace River.
The property Combee proposes to exchange is the Peace River Ranch, which he said covers 2,550 acres . The property is located east of the river south of Homeland-Garfield Road.
“This needs to be looked at to help Polk County and Lakeland, ” Combee said, referring to efforts by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative to find a suitable location along the Peace River to build a reservoir to store high flows from the river as part of the cooperative’s long-term alternative water supply plan.
Armstrong said while the property may have value, any land deal would have to go through the normal acquisition process before the board could consider it..
Toll road shrinks Hampton Reserve
An aerial view of the planned route for the western leg of the Central Polk Parkway caused some anxiety at a public meeting Tuesday night in Bartow.
It came from people who regularly use the Marshall Hampton Reserve on Lake Hancock and Panther Point Trail.
The aerial shows a highway cutting through what is now a scenic live oak hammock that lies at the beginning of a network of trails on this property.
How the access to the Hampton property would be affected remains up in the air.
Polk officials said they’d like to see the access issue dealt with in the overall project design, arguing the money is available through toll revenues.
Another issue that remains undecided and probably would be until a later phase of the project, is whether any part of the Hampton Reserve will be used as a staging area or heavy equipment or construction materials, which could also affect the site’s natural features.
Finally, county officials are looking for some mitigation of the impact of increased traffic noise that could affect visitor experience.
The good news is that nothing is going to happen anytime soon other than the completion of the current design study.
A public hearing on the project, whose estimated cost is somewhere between $120 million and $160 million, will occur in the fall. This phase of the project is scheduled to receive approval in summer 2020.
No money has been appropriated for right of way purchase or construction.
The road is intended to divert truck traffic from State Road 60 and U.S. 98 in an already congested section of Bartow. The Polk County Commission shelved plans for another road that would accomplish the same thing but along a more benign route because county officials couldn’t get state of federal money to help with the cost.
The proposed road would be a toll road connecting to another toll road, the Polk Parkway.
That bad news is that this road lies at one end of a proposed larger toll road stretching to the Naples area that could potentially affect many of the region’s natural areas.
A study commission is scheduled to be appointed by Aug. 1 to examine the feasibility of various routes proposed.
County Commissioner Rick Wilson will represent Polk County’s Transportation Planning Organization on that panel, he said Tuesday.
The study commission’s report is due Oct.1, 2020.
State transportation officials will host a public meeting Tuesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the W.H. Stuart Center, 1710 U.S. 17 in Bartow to provide information and answer questions about a new toll road called the Central Polk Parkway.
The new toll road will run from somewhere near State Road 60 in south Winter Haven to the Polk Parkway somewhere around the intersection of Thornhill Road and Winter Lake Road.
It is intended to divert truck traffic from the CSX freight terminal and planned future industrial park development
One of the still unanswered questions concerning this project is how much of the Marshall Hampton Reserve will be sacrificed to make way for it..
The Marshall Hampton Reserve is a 1,167-acre former ranch purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Polk County Environmental. Lands Program in 2008,
It lies across Lake Hancock from Circle B Bar Reserve and is the northern trailhead for the Panther Point Trail that runs along the lake’s eastern shore and eventually will connect to the Fort Fraser Trail.
The trail system is popular with hikers, equestrians and bicyclists because it provides some good wildlife observation opportunities and preserves green space in an increasingly urban area.
Details on the road project are scant at this point. A website for the project will not go live until the day of the meeting.
Some of the questions relating to the road’s impact on the Hampton property include:
How much land will be taken for the road itself and how much more will be taken for related purposes such as retention ponds and construction equipment and material staging areas?
How will public access to the property occur during and after construction?
How will the increase in noise pollution resulting traffic on the toll road , some of which is likely to be elevated, affect visitor experience and whether there is any practical way to mitigate the impact?
Some of you may have other questions. Show up at the meeting and ask them.
There has been a lot of justified criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to sign a bill that will make it more difficult for the public to gather petitions to place constitutional amendments on the ballot.
The stated reason was to prevent out-of-state interest groups from interfering in Florida policy.
The real reason, of course, was that people were approving measures that the political establishment in Tallahassee opposed.
That is why legislators and the deep state bureaucracy in Tallahassee worked hard to thwart every successful citizen initiative from restarting the Florida Forever program to setting up a medical marijuana program.
The sad thing is that this was only the latest in a series of measures enacted on the state and local level to put a lid on citizen dissent.
Before the petition suppression legislation, there was the increased threshold enacted for approval so that majority rule was no longer the rule.
Here in Polk County, commissioners proposed charter changes developed in a back room somewhere appeared suddenly just before the ballot deadline in the fall of 2008.
The changes increased the 60 percent threshold for voter approval of citizen initiatives and narrowed the window for holding elections as a result of successful petition drives.
The change coincided with increasing support for campaigns to give citizens more control over local planning and zoning decisions.
There have been no successful citizen initiatives in Polk County since that time.
The only successful local citizen initiatives to amend the charter came in 2000 when voters approved measures to limit commissioners to two consecutive terms and to cut commissioners’ salaries in half.
The most recent Polk Charter Review Commission, which dependably defends the political establishment, voted in 2018 to put a measure on the ballot to loosen term limits to allow their political allies to serve longer terms, but refused to deal with the salary cap, which could attract political newcomers.
Before the first bulldozer clears the first tree to make way for the recently approved expansion of Florida’s toll road system. a study commission will be appointed and convene meetings to hear what the public has to say.
We need to be involved.
I will guarantee that the people who are paid to lobby for the roads will show up.
The legislation signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which calls for the roads to be under way by 2022, seems to guarantee that the study commissions will be simply a formality,
That is, it looks like a case in which Florida’s natural resources will be given a fair trial and shot at dawn.
That would be a mistake and probably won’t happen because nothing is that simpIe.
A lot will depend on whether local elected officials think the intrusion will affect their constituents’ quality of life, local traffic patterns and their local vision defined in their local growth plans.
A lot will depend on how skeptically participants in the process view the claim that the need for the roads is a given.
A lot will depend on what natural resources the roads’ proposed routes will affect.
There was recently a newspaper article that reviewed the history of how long it took to extend a toll road through the Wekiva River basin to complete the second half of a beltway around Orlando.
I would point out that the rest of the beltway was planned and constructed with much less discussion. That road is probably a better example of what opponents of the expansion of toll roads elsewhere in the state fear will occur if the turnpike system is expanded into more rural areas.
Over time, rooftops have replaced treetops in former rural areas as cities–mostly Orlando– extended their boundaries into the countryside.
There’s no reason to think the same thing won’t happen in other parts of the state if the roads are built.