Neil Combee Proposes Peace River Land Swap to Swiftmud Board

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..

Hello Highway, Goodbye Oaks; Trails’ Future Undecided

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.

Will Toll Road Devour Hampton Reserve? Show Up Tuesday Night And Get Answers

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 tollĀ  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.

Attempts To Squash Citizen Ballot Initiatives Are Nothing New In Florida, Polk County

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.

Don’t Give Up Fight Over Toll Roads

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.

Business Interests Unsurpisingly Push Signing Of Toll Road Bill

As Sierra Club and other environmental groups organized rallies around the state Tuesday  to urge Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto a bill that would siphon state general revenue into a proposal to build new toll roads through rural sections of Florida and the habitat of some of the rarest species in the state, business interests predictably launched their own publicity campaign to support it.
As reported in Florida Politics, a procession of statewide and local business leaders argued the roads are the answer to an increasingly overdeveloped state’s traffic congestion and freight movement problems.
The fallacy in this argument is that the congestion lies in urban areas and the proposed roads will be built elsewhere while already busy corridors that need improvements are being ignored.
A traffic accident recently shut down a two-lane section of State Road 60– one of Florida’s major east-west corridors– for nearly half a day. That’s a real transportation infrastructure problem, not an imaginary one.
Business groups raised the same familiar questionable arguments.
They want better access to ports. Florida’s major ports are in Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville, not Naples and Steinhatchee.
Long-distance hurricane evacuations are too rare to justify these new roads, especially  when improvinge local shelters would be more cost-effective in keeping people safe.
Local economic-development officials always want new roads because the resultant real estate sales and road contracts will  fatten a few well-connected colleagues wallets.
This isn’t really a fight about relieving traffic congestion, but a fight over what kind of vision we should have for growth-management and preservation of green spaces in this state.
Excuse us if we have little confidence in study commissions that will likely have pre-set agendas. And,  if they come up with questions about the feasibility or the projects, they will be dismissed as merely advisory.
Legislators, after all, always know best. All you have to do is ask them.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision on this proposal will affect Florida’s environmental sustainability for generations.
Let’s hope he makes the right decision.

Polk Commission Accepts Ancient Islands Proclamation On Endangered Species Day

Ancient Islands Chair Tom Palmer and County Commissioner Rick Wilson

There are plenty of endangered species in our own back yard.
That led Ancient Islands Sierra to draft and propose to the Polk County Commission a proclamation declaring May 17 National Endangered Species Day.
The proclamation was read at Tuesday’ morning’s session.
Commissioners were also presented with copies of a power point presentation depicting some examples of endangered species found locally.
The importance of protecting wildlife was underlined this week by the release of the summary of an international report that predicted human alteration of the planet could put as many as 1 million species in danger of extinction.
The causes for this threat include poaching, land alteration and the consequent loss or fragmentation of habitat, pollution and climate change.