If You’re Stuck In Traffic, Thank The Florida Legislature

Polk County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to update the impact fees they charge against new development to keep up with the increased traffic congestion that development causes.

But there’s a catch.

Legislators passed a law a few years ago that requires local officials to phase in the increases to provide relief for developers at your expense, commissioners were told as they prepared to vote.

That means the total effect of the impact fee increase won’t be felt for five years.

Add to that the local ordinance that gives developers several months of delay between the time the impact fee increase is improved and the time it actually takes effect.

The only somewhat bright spot in this imbroglio is that the County Commission has asked its staff to come up with a formula to determine how impact fee charges might be adjusted to account for developments such as warehouse distribution centers that generate more truck traffic than car traffic because of the obvious congestion truck traffic causes locally in places such as the State Road 33 corridor.

This is reportedly the first such attempt in Florida to deal with this disparity.

However, motorists may have to wait awhile on that change, too.

Happy driving.


East Polk Sprawlway Proceeds, Financed By Taxpayers, Not Tolls

While the long-sought eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway remains unfunded, the development community has come up with an abbreviated Plan B.

This involves the extension of Powerline Road from its intersection with South Boulevard along an arching northwesterly route all the way to U.S. 17-92 on the north side of Davenport just north of the predominantly African-American Jamestown community.

This will be a public road, not a toll road. The original proposed route of the toll road would have taken it to U.S. 17-92 somewhere near Loughman with some sort of planned connection to an already congested segment of Interstate 4.

On Tuesday the County Commission quickly agreed to a $10.8 million reimbursement package in impact fee credits and cash from the taxpayer-funded county budget to the project’s developers, who will handle design, permitting and construction costs.

County Manager Bill Beasley said the project aligns with the commission’s road priorities of creating a parallel route in northeast Polk County to relieve current and future congestion on U.S. 27 and 17-92.

That’s the official story anyway. But it is only half the story.

For one thing, most of the congestion on those highways involve travel headed to destinations along those highways or beyond in places like Orlando and Tampa.

Additionally, what this, as with any developer-backed road project, is not about regional congestion, but is all about is opening more land in the countryside to more intense development.

The list of corporations scheduled to be reimbursed are all housed in the offices of the Berry-Cassidy development entities based near downtown Winter Haven.

This may be a shocker, but it seems the Berry-Cassidy folks already own substantial acreage near the road’s planned route. Once the new road is constructed, the now landlocked parcels will be eminently developable. There may be other nearby major landowners, such as Standard Sand & Silica, that could be interested in taking advantage of the new road as well

That, coupled with some of the leapfrog annexation and development approvals that Davenport officials have supported within the past year will eventually radically transform once-rural areas east of Davenport into another urban sprawl complex similar to what’s already happened elsewhere in the area.

And the idea that this will relieve congestion on U.S. 17-92 is laughable, since what it will really do is dump a lot more traffic onto what is not a relatively uncongested section of US. 17-92. There will be a traffic light, though, to keep traffic from moving too quickly.

But hold on to your wallets.

This is just the first phase.

The second phase that has been discussed would involve extending Powerline Road from Hinson Avenue in a southwesterly direction through even more undeveloped farmland to link to State Road 17 and maybe U.S. 27 itself somewhere on the south side of Haines City.

The land ownership along that potential route is more mixed, but that same Winter Haven address pops up on corporate ownerships of some of the major parcels. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.



Legislature May Seek To Put The Rights of Hunters, Anglers In Florida Constitution To Follow Growing National Trend

A review of the upcoming issues that the Florida Legislature will deal with when it convenes next week includes a proposed constitutional amendment submitted by Sen Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, that would enshrine the right to hunt and fish into that document if legislators agree to put it on the 2024 ballot and if voters approve.

This was a head-scratcher at first, but a little research was enlightening.

It seems this is part of a trend in a number of states in recent years—Vermont passed a measure to this effect in 1777, but no other state bothered to raise the issue until Alabama did so in 1996—to enact such a measure.

Since then, voters in 23 states have enacted similar measures.

It seems to be a reaction to efforts by animal rights advocates, who are sometimes falsely portrayed in media reports as environmentalists, to limit hunting and to deal with the fact that population growth, urban sprawl and changing demographics in many states have reduced the amount of land available for hunting and that hunters comprise a much smaller part of the population than in earlier times and feel threatened.

There actually was a proposed measure that never made it to the Florida ballot a couple of years ago that proposed to ban hunting of “iconic species.”

It was actually an attempt to prohibit Florida black bear hunting, which was approved in 2016 for a single season and may be on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s agenda in the near future. The other species on the ballot measure’s list, such as red-cockaded woodpeckers and Florida manatees, had been protected species for decades or were never game species in the first place.

There is already an active campaign to oppose further bear hunting in Florida and this proposed constitutional amendment may have been filed in response to it or filed simply to make Florida’s constitution consistent with those in the other states in the Southeast that have already approved similar measures.

Stay tuned.



Massive Polk Water Pipeline Project Moving Ahead


If you have been driving along Walkinwater Road east of Lake Wales and wondered what’s up with the giant drilling operation near the entrance of Walkinwater Estates, it is all about providing enough water to keep the development machine humming until at least mid-century.

The project is being carried out by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative, a consortium of local governments that is using a combination of government grants and government loans to finance the planning, permitting and construction of what is probably one of the largest utility projects in the county’s history.

Here’s what’s happening.

Decades of unabated development as well as traditional agricultural operations and mining has depleted the Upper Floridan Aquifer to the point that there is no more water than can be sustainably withdrawn.

That means water users have to come with alternative sources. For public utilities that means tapping a previously unexploited underground reservoir called the Lower Floridan Aquifer.

The reason that part of the aquifer has never been tapped is because the water is not fresh and easily treated to standards required for drinking, cooking and bathing. That means it has be treated with a process called reverse osmosis. This is an energy-intensive process that pushes the water through a membrane to strain out the salt and other impurities.

The disposal of the waste products reverse osmosis produces requires the construction of an even deeper well—8,000 feet deep according to a presentation at a recent public hearing—to finish the job. Meanwhile, the treated water will be pumped into a 65-mile network of pipelines and sent to local water plants as far away as Bartow and Auburndale. Once the water reaches the plants, it will be blended with the water the plant is already producing and shipped through conventional water lines to customers.

The current schedule calls for construction to begin on the pipeline in 2024 and be completed by 2026.

How much extra the cost of the wells and pipelines and other infrastructure required to provide water for future customers will fall onto the backs of existing customers who did not create the demand the project is planned to meet, is still unclear at this point.

If you are a water customer anywhere in Polk County, you might want to pay attention. It will affect tens of thousands of customers.

Phosphate Gypsum Stacks For Roads Resurfaces, Kinda

The idea of using phosphogypsum for road construction is back in this year’s legislative agenda in Tallahassee.

Two bills sponsored by Rep. Lawrence McClure R-Dover, and Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, propose that the Florida Department of Transportation study the feasibility of using this material for road base. This would be an alternative to limerock, which is typically used for road base. The study is supposed to be completed by 2024.

This coincides with a recent advertising campaign by the Florida Phosphate Council, which has appeared in some online sites promoting this idea.

The bottom line is that if phosphate companies can export the thousands of tons of material from their highly regulated stacks to other uses, it would relieve them of the perpetual responsibility of monitoring and managing these waste piles

Politically, this may be a move to consider a change in federal policy (read US Environmental Protection Agency) to allow this, depending on the outcome of the 2024 elections.

The Trump administration agreed to consider using the material for roadbuilding, but the Biden administration revoked the idea.

If there is a GOP victory in 2024, the game could change.

The issue is the difference between gypsum, the harmless chemical found in wallboard in your house, with phosphopgysum, a byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing that contains a number of toxic and radioactive elements.

The issue is whether the use of the material in road building, manufacturing, home building products or agriculture nutrition will put public health at risk.

However, the existing statute doesn’t offer a lot of comfort.

It already allows coal ash and other problematic materials to be used.

It also based the presumption on declining landfill space, even though the material doesn’t go to landifills in the first place and there is no shortage in landfill space in Polk County after the County Commission voted a few years ago to allow the current landfill to be expanded a few hundred feet higher.

Stay tuned.


Tom Pelham Led Florida’s Growth Management Agency

Believe it or not, Florida once had a robust growth-management program overseen by an agency called the Florida Department of Community Affairs.

Tom Pelham (1923-2023), who oversaw the agency at its peak, died this week in Tallahassee.

Under his tenure, the agency was able to challenge weak local growth regulations by enforcing the Florida Legislature’s approval in 1985—when Florida’s population was about half of what it is today– of the first-ever effective growth-management regulations. Those regulations required local governments to come up with sustainable, financially sound growth-management plans.

Up until then, many local governments—Polk County was one of the poster children for this—had permissive zoning regulations and refused to adopt impact fees that paid for growth, leaving the financial burden and the traffic congestion on the backs of taxpayers.

The 1985 law also required concurrency, which meant development that would result in road or school gridlock would have to deal with the deficiency.

That’s all a dim memory now.

State law now makes road and school concurrency voluntary and the agency that oversees growth plan amendments, now given the Orwellian Department of Economic Opportunity moniker, no longer has the authority to challenge local growth decisions, no matter how misguided they are.

On top of that, Florida legislators support bills that would make it more difficult for citizen groups to take up the challenges in the breach lest they offend legislators’ developer campaign contributors.

Things didn’t have to turn out this way.

People like Tom Pelham and the responsible legislators who supported better ways to manage growth in Florida will be missed.



FWC Planned Crackdown On Invasive Exotics A Bit Late

The phrase better late than never certainly applies to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

We’re talking about the actual governor-appointed commission that sets policy for just about every aspect of hunting, fishing and wildlife management in this state.

At this month’ meeting an FWC press release reported that Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto directed the staff to come up with a new rule that would set criteria for evaluating the risk involving the introduction of exotic species to Florida that would lead to banning the importation of some species.

It is a great move even though it’s at least 20 or 30 years too late.

The reason for the delay was visible in plain view in the FWC press release.

“We are not trying to hurt the industry, but the time has come that we say Florida is off limits to any new species,” Barreto said.

The industry to which he was referring is the exotic pet industry, which is responsible for the Burmese pythons, tegus, Nile monitor lizards and untold numbers of species of parrots and other exotic birds as well as fish that together either compete with native species for food and nesting habitat or prey on native species to the point that it endangers local populations. Or in the case of iguanas, sometimes clog toilets and fall on unsuspecting yoga fans.

For too long FWC has been unwilling to take an aggressive position against the industry for a simple reason: politics.

The concern is that if wildlife officials crack down too hard on the exotic animal trade, business owners will complain to the Florida Legislature, which approves the agency’s budget.

It would not be unprecedented.

Several years ago an FWC proposal to classify white Ibis as a protected species brought a threat by some legislators to zero out the agency’s budget.

Maybe the tide is turning and it has finally dawned on more people in authority that wave after wave of invasive exotics is not a good thing for this state.

Meanwhile, it would be great if Florida’s new Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumers Services made a similar declaration to the nursery industry, which over the decades—sometimes with the active support of agriculture officials—has unleashed a long list of exotic plants into gardens and farms that eventually found their way into the wild, where they overwhelmed and degraded native habitat.

Critics of environmental land conservation efforts often ask “How much is enough?”

That’s certainly an apt question to pose to the businesses whose actions in promoting the sale of invasive exotic species—and aggressively pushing back on efforts to rein in the practice–have made managing Florida’s conservation lands more difficult and expensive.

It is well past time for a major crackdown.