Some Thoughts On The Ongoing Split Oak Forest Toll Road Invasion Discussion

One of the key conservation discussions in central Florida over the past few years has involved the proposal to allow a toll road to be built through a corner of a state conservation site called Split Oak Forest in Orange and Osceola counties north of us to accommodate more urban sprawl in the greater Orlando-Kissimmee megaplex. Osceola County officials are pushing for the idea. Orange County officials (and voters) are resisting it.

That discussion continued today in a feature story published in the Orlando Sentinel that posited that allowing the toll road to take a piece of the preserve in exchange for awarding conservation land on the other side of the cut and millions of dollars offered by development interests to manage the new fragment would make everything fine and preserve an important wildlife corridor for Florida panthers and other wildlife.

Unfortunately for that argument, the story included a map that illustrated that these hard-fought conservation lands were in fact the last green islands in a sea of current and proposed development in the surrounding private property that dominates the area.

In the background is a discussion that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees the management of Split Oak, over whether to approve the road project proposed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which has already constructed a network of toll roads that have forever changed the character of what were once wild lands in this part of Florida.

Given the politics in Tallahassee, cynics might conclude that the fix is already in.

But there is an important principle involved in this discussion.

Several years ago, former Gov. Rick Scott floated an idea to surplus a bunch of state conservation lands, including Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in the Green Swam Area of Critical State Concern.

The idea fortunately did not go anywhere.

This proposal is more troubling. That is because it would amount to essentially surplusing state conservation land to accommodate commercial development interests, which would set a troubling precedent.

As was pointed out in this space earlier, the idea has local implications when you consider the long-game priorities of the road-building and development lobbies.

There is a project on the so-called transportation “needs” project list in Polk County that involves realigning Deen Still Road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern to create a new truck freight route through a state wildlife corridor with the goal of connecting U.S 27 and U.S. 98 via a shortcut that would run through the two state conservation lands–Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Hampton Tract and Collt Creek State Park—to complete the link.

As they say, if you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask for a glass of milk.

Be careful what you agree to give away,

Florida May Get New Specialty Auto Tag To Encourage Recycling

Even as curbside residential recycling programs are disappearing in parts of Florida, there is plenty of commercial recycling occurring and a proposed new specialty tag is intended to give the effort more visibility.

Legislators are considering a pair of bills (HB 911 and SB 858) that would create the tag and direct the proceeds to an Ocala-based organization called Recycle Florida Today Inc.

The organization, which was founded in 1990, is composed of a coalition of public agencies and private companies involved in various aspects of the recycling industry in Florida. It includes some companies that have locations in this part of the state.

The sponsors listed on the Recycle Florida Today website include companies and organizations that operate recycling businesses, market recycling equipment and provide information on recycling businesses and recycling education.

According to the legislation, the purpose of the tag is to raise money to ” increase public awareness about the importance of recycling, resource conservation, and environmental stewardship; to promote robust, comprehensive, and sustainable recycling programs; and to support the professional development of persons employed in fields relating to recycling, conservation, and sustainability.”

The legislative session still has a month ago, but so far the legislation has not faced any opposition.

Will Legislature Make Agencies Less Accountable, Privatize Public Water Resources?

As conservative business groups make their case before the U.S. Supreme Court to rein in what they consider the excesses of federal agency actions, the Florida Legislature is trying to protect local and state agencies from any outside oversight, especially from the environmental community.

A pair of bills (SB 768 and HB 789 ) moving through the committees would force citizen groups to pay agencies’ legal fees if they challenge what they consider bad permitting decisions and lose.

This is not about frivolous lawsuits intended merely to gum up the process. Judges already have the authority to drop the hammer on that kind of foolishness.

Instead, this is about serious issues.

The most recent case cited that would have been affected if the proposed law would have been in place was a suit filed by the Florida Springs Council that challenged the decision by the Suwanee River Water Management District to allow a water bottling company to divert nearly 1 million gallons a day from a spring, They unsuccessfully argued about the withdrawal’s effect on stream flow in local rivers as well as the larger issue of why the idea of producing bottled water from public water bodies is a beneficial use of a public resource.

Many people consider the bottled water industry’s marketing a hoax in the first place, but apparently the judge in this case was unmoved and upheld the permit.

The question is if the Legislature passes the bill and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it, will it mean the end of citizen challenges to questionable permit decisions because of the financial consequences if they lose.

In other words, it comes down to this: If you do not have deep pockets, you might think twice before you try to take on the deep state.

The term “deep state” is often cited by conservatives, but in reality, it cuts both ways.

Meanwhile, there is another bill (SB 1386) that has been proposed that includes a provision to allow water-use permits to be granted for 30 years instead of 20 year if permittees agree to some conservation and water reuse measures.

One question that merits further discussion is whether a 30-year permit, which would likely outlive the career of the water management district official who granted it, could become another foot in the door to efforts to turn water permits into water rights. Such efforts have so far been unsuccessful so far in Florida, but the issue bears watching.

One of the next stops for the lawsuit bill is the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose membership includes two members of the local legislative delegation, Sen Ben Albritton of Wauchula and Sen. Colleen Burton of Lakeland. It would not hurt to drop them a line and let them know how you feel.



DeSantis’ State Of The State Green Claims Fall Short

It took a while sitting through Gov. Ron DeSantis’ typical whiny list of his culture war grudges in this week’s State of the State address to state leaders before the environment rated a mention.

His comments, of course, didn’t last long, left out some key facts and ended on a troublesome note.

Yes, thanks to federal funding assistance, Florida will spend $5 billion on what passes for Everglades restoration projects and another $1 billion or so for other conservation and water-quality projects.

There is no mention of the $18 billion or so he and his allies in the Florida Legislature left on the table by ignoring the public’s support for a 2014 constitutional amendment that they worked hard to quash in court to prevent the restart Florida’s ambitious land-acquisition program.

There was no mention of the fact that he appointed a panel of experts to devise solutions to the pollution discharges that were fueling blue-green algae outbreaks and then ignored their recommendations.

There was no mention of the ongoing efforts by legislators with his support to continue to weaken any vestiges of growth management in an increasingly overcrowded state that DeSantis incorrectly describes as the nation’s third largest state. The facts are worse. Florida is the 22nd largest state in the nation, but the third most populous, which is at the root of the problem. Add to that the efforts by DeSantis and his allies to make it even more crowded and to suppress efforts by local officials to do otherwise and any Tallahassee greenwashing fades quickly.

His wrap up comments referred to unnamed people who want to take away the right to hunt and fish even though no such movement with any political support exists.

That leads to the question of whether that pronouncement was about something else.

The right to hunt and fish is already contained in state law and the regulations for doing so sustainability are contained in rules promulgated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

However, there is a National Rifle Association-backed proposed constitutional amendment to the Florida Constitution headed for this year’s ballot that would put the right to hunt and fish into the Florida Constitution and further declare that hunting and fishing are the supreme methods of wildlife management in Florida.

Critics have expressed concern that the passage of this amendment could mean creating an open season on bear hunting, undoing the commercial net ban and endangering private property rights.

Whether DeSantis’ comments means he is endorsing this amendment is something to watch.


Warmest Year On Record? It’s Complicated

There have been a lot of stories published lately proclaiming 2023 was the hottest year on the planet since temperature records were first recorded in the 19th century.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature records in this part of the world were not that uniform.

It was the hottest year on record in Lakeland, where records stretch back to 1915. But to complicate things a bit, it was the 39th warmest December.

Across the county in Winter Haven, where temperature records begin in 1941, it was the 6th warmest year and the 32nd coolest December, tying the record set in 1987.

Farther south in Bartow, 2023 was the second warmest year behind 1998. It was the 35th warmest December. Temperature records there go back to 1892.

Even farther south in Wauchula, where they began correcting temperature records in 1933, it was the 8th warmest year and the 40th warmest December.

Looking at the 10 hottest years and months, fractions of a degree Fahrenheit separate many of the rankings. Although most of the hottest recorded temperatures have mostly occurred in the past 30 years, there are a few clinkers in there.

There is a tie for second warmest year in Wauchula between 2008 and 1948.

The third warmest December in Bartow occurred in 1948.

The second warmest December in Lakeland occurred in 1931.

Stay cool.





ICYMI Environmental Hits and Misses For 2023

Land protection, waterway restoration and zoning disputes were among the highlights of environmental news during the past year in the area.

As the year began, Polk County officials began discussing plans to study replacing septic tanks with centralized sewer treatment in the headwaters of the Everglades in eastern Polk. The study results are due anytime now, or at least that was the plan.

In another Everglades headwaters issue, work continued in Congress to give sections of the restored Kissimmee River the Wild and Scenic River designation.

In March, a National Rifle Association-sponsored measure to put hunters’ rights into the Florida Constitution emerged, generating a lot of discussion about its need—hunting rights are already covered in state law—and its potential to cause some mischief and legal entanglements on issues ranging from private property rights to commercial net bans.

In May, regional water managers concluded the Peace Creek may not be the bountiful future alternative water supply that was once envisioned by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative. Meanwhile, Polk officials are poised to spend millions of dollars to restore some of the wetlands that were drained when the Peace Creek Drainage Canal was dug a century ago.

June saw a victory for local land-protection advocates when the County Commission voted to levy the entire amount of property tax approved by voters in 2022 to fund environmental land purchases. Polk officials soon thereafter sought nominations from property owners interested in participating in the program.

In July Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that authorized the study of the feasibility of using a slightly radioactive fertilizer production byproduct called phosphosgypsum to build roads. The study is supposed to be concluded by April 1 (no fooling).

In September the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft report for land preservation goals for a vast section of southwest Florida and Polk County approved the purchase of a large tract on the east side of Lake Marion at the Everglades headwaters to provide better access to the lake and to protect scrub habitat.

Also in September the Polk County Commission approved a plan to develop a ranch in eastern Polk County that could potentially affect an existing wildlife corridor between a string of public and private conservation lands in the Everglades headwaters. However the property owner is also pursuing the sale of the property’s development rights to either the state or Polk County and establishing a permanent conservation easement. However, the Polk County School District is considering a site for a new high school at another nearby ranch that would include athletic fields and their nights lights that could diminish dark sky conditions om the area.

In October, Polk utility officials announced plans to study the feasibility of treating sewage from a plant in the northwest section of the county to drinking water standards. There are also plans to create a pipeline to pump treated sewage from less populated to more populated areas of the county to provide more water for lawn irrigation.

Also, a long-running controversy over a soil treatment plant call BS Ranch and Farms on the outskirts of Lakeland near Saddle Creek came to a head when state environmental officials announced they were no longer inclined to grant the facility an operating permit, forcing it to quit accepting waste from septic tank companies. This led to a renewed discussion of establishing an environmentally sustainable facility to handle these wastes.

At years end, Polk officials agreed to support the continuing study of the feasibility of extending the SunRail commuter rail line into Polk County, though it was clear this will be a challenge and any extension, if it occurs, is likely years away.

Meanwhile, the Polk County Commission voted down a request to put a sales tax increase on the 2024 ballot to pay for road improvements. The environmental upside of that vote is that it could prevent the construction of road projects that would encourage more urban sprawl in eastern Polk and send more truck traffic into the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern on a road that already bisects key wildlife corridors.

There was good news on the wildlife corridor front in 2023. State officials completed the construction of a wildlife underpass beneath Interstate 4 north of Lake Alfred in Hilochee Wildlife Management Area and are planning a wildlife overpass in the area north of Tenoroc Public Use Area near Lakeland. The construction of these wildlife crossings, which will reconnect links to the Green Swamp that were severed by the construction of I-4 in the 1960s came about in part as the result of lobbying by Ancient Islands Sierra Club for the past few decades.

Happy New Year.





The Polk Road Sales Tax Discussion Gets Weirder

The ongoing feud between Polk County Commissioners George Lindsey and Neil Combee over a proposal to increase the sales tax to pay for road projects has taken an odd turn.

The Ledger reports Combee has filed an ethics complaint against Lindsey, alleging he met with Commissioners Martha Santiago and Rick Wilson to try to persuade them to vote for the half-cent sales tax he was proposing in exchange for being appointed as commission liaisons to two committees in which they were interested.

However, when the vote occurred, only Lindsey voted to put the measure on the ballot.

Nevertheless, this is a serious charge and it seems prudent to await the outcome of the investigation before anyone draws any conclusions.

In addition to the ethics complaint, which is a non-criminal violation, holding a private meeting involving two or more elected officials concerning an item on which they are likely asked to take action is a second-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

According to The Ledger, Commissioner Wilson has denied any such meeting occurred.

Meanwhile, the article alluded to the politics surrounding the whole discussion.

There could be something to that.

Lindsey is term-limited as a commissioner, but may become involved in a citizen initiative to put the tax measure on the ballot.

If he were to be discredited by a successful ethics investigation, that could certainly affect the initiative effort.

Combee, who is a real estate agent, is running for property appraiser, which would likely increase his state pension. The salary for the property appraiser is higher than for county commission or state legislator, the other offices in which Combee has served. An official’s top salary is one of the factors determining pension payments.

That means Combee certainly has a financial stake in winning a higher-paying position.

And in any election campaign, the more publicity you can obtain for any measures you think the public would support, the better.

That includes voting against controversial items, such as the development of Creek Ranch, when you are sure they are going to pass anyway to make yourself look good in the public’s eyes.

This will certainly be something to watch as it develops.