Polk Commissioners Reduce Size of Chicora Solar Farm

Tampa Electric’s plans to build a solar farm on three unconnected parcels around the historic Chicora community in southwest Polk will be downsized, the Polk County Commission voted 3-1 Tuesday.

The proposal is the latest in a series of approved and planned solar energy facilities TECO is planning in Polk and adjacent counties to increase its renewable energy portfolio.

However, a roomful of Chicora residents compared the collection of parcels wrapping around groups of rural homesites to an anaconda suffocating its prey.

They questioned how compatible the solar farm—even if it is buffered as proposed—would be when it lies across many residents’ back fences.

Residents said they favor solar power, but wanted it to be located farther from their homes.

The compromise commissioners agreed to will eliminate the sections of the solar farms closest to homes and in the middle of Chicora, leaving the sites south of Albritton Road and northeast of the South Prong of the Alafia River. Commissioner John Hall’s dissenting vote came after he said he thought the entire project was incompatible with the community.

TECO officials could not tell commissioners Tuesday whether the reduction in the size of the solar farm will affect the project’s viability.

They said they selected sites based on its proximity to power lines and the developability of the property, which rules out a lot of slime ponds and other mined lands in the area.

TECO officials also earlier told Polk officials that they are scaling the solar farms to a size that requires only local planning review and does not trigger a more extensive review of the Florida Power Plant Siting Act.

Solar farms have been previously approved in a number of locations in the Lakeland and Bartow areas and in Fort Green. More applications are pending the Bartow-Mulberry area.

Crooked Lake West Plan Advances; Public Access Coming

 

Crooked Lake West may be closer to getting its first public visitors by the end of this year.

Polk County Environmental Lands staffers held a public meeting recently on the site’s draft management plan.

The 11,4000-acre area that includes the project contains a mixture of ranches and the legacy of a failed Florida land-sales scheme.

The site also contains two miles of shoreline on Crooked Lake, which is classified as an Outstanding Florida Water.

The property was first acquired a decade ago, but management plans have been slow to come together because of a combination of staffing shortages and the fact that the property is jointly owned by Polk County, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA holds a conservation easement on a large section of the property.

The only section open to the public is Crooked Lake Wildlife Environmental Area, which is accessed from U.S. 98. It was created to be a gopher tortoise mitigation site and contains an extensive network of hiking trails that are good for nature observation.

The only improvement planned for the property is a small parking area on an upland portion of the property.

Much of the property is seasonally flooded. That includes some of the areas of the hiking trail depicted above.

There is scrub habitat on the property that contains a good variety of endangered plant species, but it will be accessible only to groups by special arrangement.

The site also contains an archeological site of Midland, an abandoned town that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries..

The long-term plan is to restore more of the site’s wetlands and to reduce direct discharges to Crooked Lake through canals that were dug for agricultural drainage.

A wildlife passage area that was constructed for cattle movement will remain in place.

The site contains diverse wildlife including a variety of resident and migratory songbirds, sandhill cranes, wild turkey, Florida scrub-jays and great horned owls. The area near the lake contains striking patches of wildflowers.

Sierra Wins Amendment 1 lawsuit

A Tallahassee judge has ruled in favor of Sierra and other Florida environmental groups in a 2015 lawsuit filed to force state officials to spend money approved by voters in a 2014 constitutional amendment election as intended.

The case had been scheduled to go to trial next month, but the judge ruled Friday in favor of environmental groups.

Legislators planned to appeal.

Environmentalists sued after legislators diverted the money approved by voters to cover routine environmental agency operating costs rather than restarting the Florida Forever program to finish purchasing land approved to protect Florida’s remaining targeted conservation lands.

The priority list included additional purchases on the Lake Wales Ridge and the Green Swamp in Central Florida.

Sierra and other groups have repeatedly asked legislators to spend the money as voters intended, but so far the expenditures have fallen short of the amendment’s intent.

Below are reactions to the ruling.

Alisa Coe of Earthjustice, one of the attorneys who represents plaintiffs Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Sierra Club, and Manley Fuller:

“Today’s decision is a big victory for the millions of Florida voters who demanded that the legislature reinstate land buying programs for parks, wild lands and the Everglades.  Four million Floridians approved a constitutional amendment to devote almost a billion dollars a year to purchasing conservation lands. The legislature and agencies thumbed their noses at the voters by spending the money on other things. This ruling will help protect some of Florida’s most beautiful and environmentally important areas for generations to come.

In 2014, an overwhelming three out of four Florida voters approved the Land and Water Acquisition Amendment to the state constitution—it was the most popular item on the entire statewide ballot that year. Today’s ruling means that the state must honor the voters’ will to preserve our precious natural resources through conservation.”

 

Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director:

“Judge Dodson’s ruling today is a landmark decision making it clear that amendments to Florida’s constitution are orders by the people; they aren’t suggestions which the Legislature can decide to ignore.  After four years of blatant misappropriation of taxpayers’ money, the Legislature has been forced by the Florida Courts to obey the voters mandate that it use a dedicated source of state funds to preserve and protect Florida’s natural lands.”

Lake Kissimmee Golf Resort Plan Gets Denial

The Polk County Planning Commission voted 4-3 Wednesday to recommend denial of a plan to develop a golf resort on Lake Kissimmee.

The developer’s representative and county planners described the project as a low-intensity golf resort on 300 acres within a 2,906-acre tract just north of Polk County’s Coleman Landing at Shady Oaks campground and park that would attract tourists and would only marginally increase the intensity of development allowed today.

But a procession of area property owners, environmental leaders and the property’s former owner testified that the project was a bad idea planned on marginal land that was purchased by the South Florida Water Management District so it could flood the property in connection with the restoration of the Kissimmee River.

They testified the property would be better suited to become part of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge that is being put together by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because it was unsuitable for development.

Although all that was before the panel Wednesday was a revision of the county land-use map, approving the requested change would make it more difficult to deny any development proposal it allowed, said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Florida Audubon.

Longtime rancher Cary Lightsey recalled seeing the entire property flooded in the 1950s.

Ben Speight, the property’s former owner, said he was told before the property was condemned by the government to reduce septic tank pollution from the hundreds of residences that once were located there that there was no place on the property suitable for construction of a sewer plant.

A package sewer plant is in the developer’s proposed plan.

Additionally, the project lies within the path of low-altitude military flights engaged in training at the Avon Park Air Force Range and adding new development conflicts with a 2010 plan intended to reduce development conflicts around the military base, commissioners were told.

Some other interesting facts emerged from the hearing.

The land-use designation that was proposed to be expanded was a legacy from the time when fish camps and mobile home parks existed on the property more than a decade ago and was never revised to reflect the changes.

County staff would not/could not give panel members a direct answer when asked how much land was in the Leisure/Recreation designation there now compared to the 300 acres total involved in the development plan.

The case is not over.

The Planning Commission vote is only a recommendation to the County Commission, which will hear the case in a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 7.

Crooked Lake West Plan Is Meeting Topic

Plans for future public access and use of the Crooked Lake West property will be the topic of a public meeting June 14 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Babson Park Women’s Club on State Road 17.

Polk County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District bought the property 10 years ago after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service purchased a conservation easement on a substantial portion of the property. It is a former private cattle ranch—some grazing still occurs on the property—on both sides of U.S. 27 west of Crooked Lake and south of Lake Wales.

USDA officials plan to eventually restore extensive wetlands on the site that were drained by a network of ditches to create pasture. Planning public access to the property has been delayed, pending the county’s getting more information on the federal plan for the property to avoid any conflicts.

Although the area of the site nearer to U.S. 27 consists of extensive wetlands, sections farther west contain scrub habitat.

The property also is being used by Swiftmud officials to drill an exploratory well to test the feasibility of pumping water from the Lower Floridan Aquifer to meet future water demand as more people move to Polk County.

Some potential uses for the property include hiking, nature observation and waterfowl hunting.

May Rainfall Causes Mixed Results

It was a wetter-than-normal May in Polk County.

Rainfall ranged from a record 19.19 inches in Lakeland to 7.58 inches in Winter Haven, the 7th wettest month on record.

The rain has increased flow in the Upper Peace River to well above average for this time of year, ending the usual spring dry spell that usually temporarily curtails some local paddling.

The rain also overwhelmed some local utility systems.

Earlier this week Lakeland officials reported a 100,000-gallon spill from an manhole near Lake Hunter south of downtown Lakeland.

Hurricane season began today signaling the beginning of the normal rainy season in peninsular Florida.

 

Polk Commission May Boost Solar Co-op Movement

The idea of promoting solar co-operatives, a method for neighbors to band together to obtain more affordable solar installations, first surfaced in Polk County earlier this year at a forum organized by the League of Women Voters .

The idea had already gained some support in other Florida counties.

Now the idea is getting some official support.

Next Tuesday the Polk County Commission will consider approval of a resolution supporting the concept of solar co-operatives and offering support from its communications staff to educate the public about this issue.

The item has been placed on the commission’s consent agenda, which is a group of items approved by a single vote of commissioners.