Polk Commissioners Vote 3-2 To OK Second Chicora Solar Farm

Solar farms appear to be becoming the dominant land use in Chicora, a community founded in the 19th century in southwestern Polk County.

Tuesday the Polk County Commission voted 3-2 to approve a proposal by Tampa Electric to add two more parcels to the two parcels already approved for solar farms. The solar farms are part of TECO’s move to increase its green energy footprint in this part of Florida.

The controversy wasn’t over the merits of solar power, but the fact that one of the solar farm tracts is right in the middle of the community on the site of a former citrus grove.

Residents argued the facility is an unwelcome intrusion that changes the character of their community.

TECO officials and their consultants responded that the solar farm would be a much less intensive land use in terms of traffic, noise and water use than any alternative.

During the hearing TECO officials did agree to relocate the barbed-wire-topped security fences deeper into their property and buffer the fence and the solar complex with a thick planting of cedar trees. In response to residents’ complaints about the esthetics. TECO officials also promised to work with the community toward their application to obtain a historic designation for the community.

The vote came during the first week of the 2021 session of the Florida Legislature during which legislation has been proposed to pre-empt local officials’ ability to decide on the location of solar farms as long as they’re in agriculturally zoned areas of the county. The legislation also doubles the size of solar farms allowed to be exempted from state power plant siting regulations.


Solar Zoning Bill Could Have Local Effect


One of sites for proposed solar farm within Chicora community in rural Polk


Tuesday the Polk County Commission will hear an appeal of the Planning Commission’s denial of a request by Tampa Electric to get approval to expand its solar farms in the Chicora community in southwest Polk.

Whatever the hearing’s outcome turns out to be, pending legislation being considered this year in Tallahassee will take away commissioners’ discretion on future solar farms in rural areas if the bill passes and becomes law.

The legislation, HB 761, would double the size of solar farms that can be developed without going through the Florida Power Plant Siting Act and allow them by right in any agriculturally zoned property.

Although Sierra supports the expansion of solar and other green energy sources, the effects on farmers and rural homeowners could be potentially significant.

The is also one of a quartet of proposed bills that seek to wrest local control over energy policy and the siting of energy infrastructure and place all of it the hands of the Legislature and the lobbyists.

The Chicora case is interesting because the residents aren’t even TECO customers. They are served by the Peace River Electric Cooperative.

Although the solar farm itself will be visually buffered by a line of trees, residents object to the prison-like security fence around the site, which was formerly occupied by a citrus grove.


Green Swamp Highway Idea Resurfaces

Fifty years ago the Florida Department of Transportation announced it was considering extending what was then State Road 54 across the Green Swamp to connect to the Gulf Coast via the highway’s western section.

It was the second proposal after an earlier idea was sidetracked because it would affect what was then a Southwest Florida Water Management District reservoir planned at the time as part of something called the Four Rivers Basin Project intended to prevent future flooding in the Tampa area. Flooding that occurred following Hurricane Donna in 1960 led to Swiftmud’s formation as a flood-control agency.

Demonstrating that old public works projects never die, they just hibernate, a proposal for the realignment of Deen Still Road, which now runs through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern from U.S. 27 north of I-4 to Rock Ridge Road off U.S. 98 north of Lakeland, is among the unfunded Polk transportation “needs” list. It was among the projects included in a recently unveiled proposal to push for a sales tax referendum to pay for this and many other road construction projects.

Jay Jarvis, Polk’s director of roads and drainage, said the project would involve removing some curves in the road that pose a hazard for truck traffic, which has increased since Polk officials decided to pave the road several years ago.

The idea of paving a road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern has long troubled environmentalists because the improvement could lead to more pressure for development. For now that is impossible because the critical area designation limits development in the main areas of the Green Swamp.

The Green Swamp contains the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers and the high point of the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of central Florida’s drinking water. It is also a major hub for a series of statewide wildlife corridors.

However, in addition to simply straightening some curves in the road (and probably raising sections that are now temporarily flooded during the rainy season) the proposed project would involve adding a new road section that would cut through Swiftmud’s 11,052-acre Hampton Tract and a section of 5,067-acre Colt Creek State Park and emerge somewhere near the intersection of U.S. 98 and State Road 471.

Jarvis said the road project faces some environmental permitting obstacles and the mitigation required to deal with the new highway’s environmental impact could advance some projects sought by land managers on the two properties.

There is no funding for the project, but if it obtains funding, the project is worth watching.



Old Florida Plantation Development Purchased; Can’t Be Used For Reservoir To Help Polk Water Supply

The former Old Florida Plantation property, which was once proposed for a megadevelopment on the southern shore of Lake Hancock, has a different future.

The Florida Department of Transportation and Southwest Florida Water Management District officials agreed last fall on a $12.2 million purchase part of the property Swiftmud officials purchased in 2003 for $30.5 million to implement a proposal to construct a wetlands treatment area on former mined lands south of the lake to reduce pollution flowing downstream to the Peace River.

Lake Hancock, which suffered decades of pollution from sewer plants in Lakeland and Auburndale, stormwater runoff from as far away as Lake Gibson in north Lakeland, is one of the most polluted lakes in Florida.

The FDOT purchase of about 1,104 acres of the former 3,347 development occurred in connection with plans to build a new toll road east of the lake.

The potential use of the property for water supply storage arose this week during a Polk County Commission annual retreat. Commissioner Neil Combee, a former Swiftmud Governing Board member, asked whether Polk could pressure Swiftmud officials to follow through with earlier plans to sell off part of the property for development.

Combee said the proceeds from the purchase of the property might be able toa advance alternative water supply projects being considered by Polk offiiclals.

He was unaware of the recent purchase, which occurred after he left the board.

Sierra has been following the disposition of the property in connection with attempts to develop an alternate entrance to the Marshall Hampton Reserve. The current entrance site lies in the path of the Central Polk Parkway, a toll road that will be constructed between State Road 60 and the Polk Parkway.

Polk Commissioners May Seek Another Sales Tax Hike To Build New Roads In 2022, But Idea Isn’t Unanimous; Past Attempts Failed

It is no secret that traffic in some parts of Polk County can be pretty slow-moving at times.

It is the logical result of decades of pro-growth policies enacted by the Polk County Commission that have made the county an attractive place to develop new subdivisions.

The regulations are flexible and contain some workarounds if you don’t get what you wanted on the first try. The so-called transit development overlay has allowed greater building densities than the original growth plan allowed.

Impact fees intended to pay for transportation improvements brought on by growth were low or non-existent for years and then suspended following the collapse of the real estate bubble. They’re back, but they can’t be used to pay for backlogs caused by past planning decisions.

The result is a $1 billion list of road projects county officials say are needed to handle future growth demands, though some appear to be proposed to open additional land for development.

Now, commissioners are discussing whether to ask voters in 2022 –for the fourth time in 30 years–to approve a sales tax increase to fix the mess they helped to create.

The three previous sales tax referendums in 1992, 1994 and 2014 were defeated, mostly by large margins.

Although commissioners have been unanimously behind such efforts in the past, during Thursday’s retreat commissioners split over whether this is a good way to deal with the road backlog.

Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, argued the tax is necessary to deal with the coming growth “tsunami,” arguing doing nothing is not an option.

But Commissioner Neil Combee, who was in office during some of the earlier sales tax proposals, said he said voters will see this as simply a measure to enable further growth when many voters feel the county is already overdeveloped.

“People are saying enough is enough,” he said, citing how the widening of Kathleen Road in his district was then used to argue for more development in what had been a relatively rural area of the county.

Commissioner Bill Braswell questioned whether Polk can ever raise enough money to solve traffic congestion problems, pointing to the situation in Orlando.

He said by the time they finish paying for the current list of unfunded projects, there will be another list ready for the next attempt to raise funds.

County Manager Bill Beasley said he will reach out to local business and civic leaders to gauge their support and report back to commissioners.

Commissioners won’t have to make a decision on whether to proceed with the referendum until the summer of 2022.



Greenbelt Tax Breaks Abuse Continues

The abuse of legitimate agricultural tax exemptions under Florida’s permissive Greenbelt law continues to be an issue, the Orlando Sentinel reports in the latest take on this problem.

This has been a long-standing problem.

Several years ago it was revealed that Polk County routinely granted these tax breaks to developers with vacant land in urban areas by classifying vacant land along six-lane highways and stalled residential developments with roads and utilities as “hayfields” and “agricultural waste lands” to shield land owners from rightful taxes at the expense of tens of thousands of dollars in local taxes.

This corrupt practice, which state officials have will been unwilling to address, will continue until Florida legislators tighten the law.



Proposed Albritton Water Bill’s Environmental Effects Unclear

One of

One of the key issues in a bill (SB 64) filed by Sen. Ben Albritton, whose district includes much of our membership area, is how the increased use of treated sewage (aka reclaimed water) will affect the environment.

At first glance, the bill has a laudable goal, which is to eliminate most discharges from sewer plants into lakes, rivers and other surface waters. This continues a trend that has been under way for many years that has involved diverting the water discharged by sewer plants to irrigate crops or lawns or to provide cooling water for power plants.

But like many seemingly environmentally-friendly proposals this one contains loopholes that have raised questions.

It allows the water to be discharged into water bodies to meet minimum flows and levels, though that substandard flow is typically the result of overpumping the aquifer to meet increasing development water demand or overdraining the surrounding landscape for commercial or agricultural development.

One of the issues in using treated sewage for augmenting surface water flows and levels or for any attempt to use it to augment aquifers to be used for future drinking water supplies is that its changing chemical composition.

At one time, the main concern was either bacteria or the release of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen that lower surface water quality, sometimes by quite a bit.

Today the concern is about a mix of sometimes hard to detect chemicals from pharmaceutical compounds whose health effects for humans and wildlife are not completely understood.

That also relates to another provision of the bill that involves something called “potable reuse,” which means treating sewage to the point that it can supposedly be used as drinking water, the so-called “toilet to tap” process that is already in use in other parts of the country.

The bill calls for studies. The outcomes of such studies will rely on who conducts the studies.

This comes against the background of this section’s preface that states ” sufficient water supply is imperative to the future of this state and that potable reuse is a source of water which may assist in meeting future demand for water supply.”

In that same vein, the bill proposes to mandate local officials to enact developer subsidies to get more homes per acre if they implement the installation of gray water systems, which are systems that reuse any water that does down the drain in showers, bathtubs and washing machines (but not toilets and kitchen sinks) for lawn irrigation.

This reduces the use of higher quality water for lawn irrigation, but doesn’t deal with the fact that lawn irrigation is an unnecessary water use in a state that already has a well-documented water supply problem caused by overconsumption.

According to a recent study, newer homes—most of which come equipped with automatic irrigation systems—typically use more water that older homes.

Additionally, the proposal would saddle homeowners will the responsibility of maintaining these systems after the developers have collected their density incentives and moved on.

This bill merits a lot of serious discussion.