Polk Rural Residents Once Again Survive Urban Invasion, But For How Long?

For the third time in the past couple of years, the Polk County Commission voted Tuesday to deny a proposal to bring urban residential density to edge of an enclave of rural homesteads in the Kathleen area north of Lakeland.

The proposals have been part of continued efforts by an investor who bought a piece of property that is predominantly wetlands to achieve some kind of return on the money he spent.

The vote was 4-1, with Commission Chairman George Lindsey dissenting.

Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, argued there were similar instances around the county where dense development has occurred near rural-density development with no ill effects, though some of the examples don’t exactly match this situation.

He said he wants to schedule a work session to look at the county’s development regulations to come up with a way to provide prospective developers with more predictable outcomes when they apply for project approvals.

I have some thoughts on this idea.

First, the predictability equation cuts both ways.

People who invest their hard-earned money to buy a home should have some assurance that the development density on adjacent undeveloped land will not be suddenly changed into something that they find incompatible.

The idea expressed by the applicant’s representative at Tuesday’s hearing that all kinds of residential development are compatible is a matter of dispute.

In decades of covering zoning cases, I have seen the owners of large houses oppose an adjacent development of smaller houses, owners of conventional homes oppose a mobile home development and mobile home owners oppose a proposed recreational vehicle park next door.

Second, a certain amount of the lack of predictability has its roots in the provisions in the county’s development code that are intended to accommodate developers by creating all kinds of loopholes.

Yes, the land-use map designates one home per five acres, but there are wetlands on the site so the developer can get density bonus points for not developing the wetlands (even though its restricted anyway) which gives him additional density. But wait, if we draw a line within two miles of the site and at least 60 percent of the land that is not wetlands or something (suddenly the wetlands don’t count as a benefit any more) then the site qualifies for a suburban planned development. Also, it may lie in a transit-supported development overlay area, which may allow additional density.

The fact is that the system in Polk County is mostly rigged in the developer’s favor.

Any move toward more “predictability” could be bad news for rural homeowners or anyone else who’s in the path of someone else’s development scheme.

Legislators Propose Reward For Fighting Invasive Exotic Plants

Ceasarweed (Urena lobata) is one of the serious invasive pests on public lands


There’s a bit of good news on the conservation lands front out of the Florida Legislature this year.

Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, and Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, have filed a pair of bills (SB 590 and HB 809) that would reward volunteers who spend at least 50 hours a year removing exotic invasive plants from state parks and other state conservation lands with an annual state park pass.

The park pass permits free or reduced entrance fees to all state parks.

The legislation has passed some preliminary steps, but will require additional committee hearings and floor votes before being sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis for signing.

The timing of the proposals is apt, since April is National Volunteer Month.

There are certainly no shortages of potential volunteer efforts around the state that could qualify dedicated volunteers to apply for the park pass.

The legislation does include a provision to make sure state officials come up with a system for monitoring volunteer efforts to ensure the program is accountable, as it should be.

The fact of the matter is that the staffs at Florida’s conservation lands can use all of the help they can get in dealing with the multitude of invasive exotic plant species that have caused serious problems.

The exotics management problem has also been used by critics of obeying the voter mandate to restart funding for the Florida Forever program to argue against buying more land if the state can’t manage lands it already owns.

The fact is that some of the public land exotic vegetation management problems are the result of lack of management of these pest plants on surrounding private lands that can be sinks of serious infestations of plants, such as cogon grass and Old World climbing fern, that are spread by the wind.

This legislation deserves wide public support.



Will Legislature Allow Plastic Straw Bans?

This plastic waste was photographed along a trail in the Green Swamp recently

One of the issues that will be before the Florida Legislature in the upcoming session that begins next month is whether to allow local governments to ban or restrict the use plastic straws, plastic bags and other single-use items that are increasingly littering our land and water.

Florida Sierra opposes any legislation that would pre-empt city or county officials from enacting restrictions in response to documented problems and citizen concerns.

This issue can also provide teaching moments to provide people with information on the role microplastics, the small bits caused by the breakdown of plastic waste, in marine and freshwater ecosystems and the food we eat.

It could also reverse the decades-old trend toward being a throwaway society in the name of “convenience.”

This growing accumulation of plastic waste in the environment is not convenient for the planet.


More Solar Farms Proposed For Polk

Polk County’s vast tracts of vacant land, particularly in some of the areas mined and reclaimed by the phosphate industry, are attracting interest of investors interested in developing new solar farms.

The latest potential entrant is San Francisco-based Ecoplexus, which is considering a 463-acre site near the intersection of State Road 37 and Doc Durrance Road near the Bradley community south of Mulberry.

This not far from where a scaled-back solar farm proposed by Tampa Electric was approved in the Chicora area last year.

Other projects have been proposed elsewhere in the Bone Valley area.

Meanwhile, Tampa Electric is actively constructing some solar farms in the Bartow area and another solar farm is under construction in the Fort Lonesome area just outside of Polk County.

This is making Polk County one of the centers for sustainable green energy generation in Florida.

Why Water Conservation Education, Enforcement Matters

Friday morning the Polk County Commission heard that water conservation education is being included in local school curricula to reduce increased water demand and to delay the need for enormously expensive so-called alternative water supply projects.

Local governments are poised to spend tens of millions of dollars on these projects in coming years unless demand subsides.

In mid-Friday afternoon I was driving down a street in Winter Haven near Lake Howard and noticed a yard with sprinklers going full blast about 2:45 p.m. a time when lawn watering is prohibited all over Polk County. Violators can face fines if they are caught, but I’ve never heard much indication that any active enforcement occurs.

While I stopped to snap a photo, a neighbor asked me what I was doing. I told him I was documenting unpermitted water use. He told me I ought to mind my own business. I replied this is my business.

In fact, protecting natural resources is everyone’s business, a point we should constantly make to anyone we meet.

Lawn irrigation is an important issue because it is the largest user of public utility water supplies, which are becoming the largest component in total water consumption in the area.

Before we build the first reverse osmosis plant to treat the water coming from deep wells in outlying areas of the county and piping that treated water to new customers and injecting the brine deep into the earth, we need to have second thoughts about our landscaping practices.

Break the habit of heavy water use and other intensive landscape management practices. They waste water and contaminate the environment.

These are practices we can live without.

Polk Commissioners Back Galvano Toll Road Plan

The Polk County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to support a proposal by Senate President Bill Galvano to extend toll roads into rural areas of Florida

Galvano has proposed working to find funding to extend existing toll roads into rural areas and to build new roads, claiming it will aid economic development in rural areas of the state, an area he claims has been neglected by such projects.

These road projects have generated criticism in the past from rural residents because they would bring urban noise and traffic to relatively peaceful sections of the state. Most of the push for the new roads is coming from business interests hoping to profit from the projects or their spinoff effects.

Polk’s main interest involves getting funds to advance the Central Polk Parkway.

The first phase, which would connect the CSX freight terminal in Winter Haven to the Polk Parkway, is being designed. A second phase, which would run through rural areas of northeast Polk near extensive conservation areas, is on hold because an analysis showed it was not financially feasible. The second phase has drawn criticism from rural residents and is mainly being championed by business interests in the Winter Haven-Haines City area, who view as an economic development project.

In the letter signed by Commission Chairman George Lindsey, local officials repeat the often-used claim that the need for hurricane evacuation routes justifies the project, adding completion of the Polk toll road could provide an important link for a larger toll route that would run southwest toward the Gulf Coast through rural and conservation lands.

Meanwhile, when commissioners meet in their annual retreat later this week is scheduled to include a presentation on the claimed need for other road projects to relieve traffic congestion, primarily in northeast Polk County. That congestion is partly the result of the approval of thousands of new homes in an area with little infrastructure to handle it and little planning to deal with it before the new growth was approved.

The congestion-related projects commissioners will hear about will be competing with these toll roads for limited transportation dollars.

Meanwhile, road impact fees are less than they should be. If new development generates the need for these road projects, that’s where the money should come from, but probably will not.





Sprawl Highways Back On State Agenda

I guess if anyone had any hopes of the new administration in Tallahassee’s reviving strong growth-management regulations in Florida, all they had to do was to listen to Senate President Bill Galvano’s announcement this week.

Galvano announced that he was going to push for the revival of some controversial toll roads that would cut through the still relatively rural Florida heartland.

The one that affects this part of the state is what I jokingly called the Loughman-LaBelle Expressway, a road that would cut from around the Polk-Osceola line at Interstate 4 almost to the Gulf of Mexico north of Fort Myers.

It was unveiled several years ago in a lengthy piece in Florida Trend magazine as a plan by some well-connected large landowners to open the rural lands to future development.

The only surviving segment of that idea at the moment is a section of the Central Polk Parkway, which is a proposed local toll road that would supposedly handle the projected increase in truck traffic generated by the CSX freight terminal and surrounding proposed industrial development on the south side of Winter Haven near State Road 60 on the outskirts of the rural community of Alturas.

Another section that would run through rural areas of northeast Polk County to I-4 is on hold at the moment after state turnpike officials concluded it wouldn’t generate enough toll revenue to justify its cost.

The idea behind these roads is a familiar one heard from the development/road-building lobby is that providing new highways is the path to prosperity, though they often couch the need in the old standby of improving hurricane evacuation routes to mask their true intentions.

The fact is that there already is a state highway system serving a lot of these areas, just perhaps not serving the exact tract that some people have in mind for development and perhaps not ample enough to handle the traffic from a new city.

Galvano reportedly brushed off past criticisms of these roads from the environmental community, arguing we’re always going to be opposed to something.

The facts are that we have sound reasons for our opposition.

The first is that these roads encourage urban sprawl that would cut off any chance of protecting Florida’s remaining network of wildlife corridors that would allow wide-ranging species such as Florida panthers and Florida black bears to survive. If you doubt this, look at the accompanying map of the study corridor and compare it with the alternative 2070 growth scenario for Florida and see if you see a pattern.

The second is that the existence of new roads restricts the ability to manage public and private conservation lands that already exist by presenting more challenges for smoke management related to the prescribed fire that is necessary to maintain healthy habitat.

Finally, it seems that public transportation funds could be spent in a more environmentally sustainable way.

The good news so far is that the expense of these projects will give us time to build a case against them because it will take years to generate the funds even to conduct some of the preliminary work to try to justify them.