Highlands Commissioners Back Off Carter Creek Protection Plan

The Highlands County Commission on Tuesday unanimously rejected a proposal that would have injected them into the ongoing battle to prevent questionable development activities from occurring on a scattering of private inholdings within 3,302-acre conservation tract on the outskirts of Sebring.

The property is called the Carter Creek tract and it lies within a 17,530-acre archipelago of state conservation lands that stretches from Lake Placid to Auburndale in Highlands and Polk counties. The sites predominantly are composed of scrub habitat, the home of a number of species found nowhere else on the planet.

The Carter Creek property itself is home of 37 protected species, said Jennifer Myers, assistant regional biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The proposal that led to Tuesday’s discussion was a recommendation from the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee to require anyone owning a parcels totaling less than two acres within the defined Carter Creek megaparcel to secure an environmental clearance regarding the presence of endangered species before they could proceed with development plans.

Highlands County’s development regulations already require clearances for properties larger than two acres.

The rationale of the request was that there had been a number of instances recently in which landowners took advantage of the county’s seeming permissive building regulations and the lack of local environmental review to alter habitat for road building, home construction and land clearing that might be a prelude to development.

According to one commissioner, it seems that only about seven percent of the lots fall into this category. The rest are owned by the state or The Nature Conservancy, which has been serving as an agent to negotiate purchases of these private parcels.

Carter Creek, like many similar properties in central Florida, was originally composed of thousands of 1.25-acre lots that were marketed to investors all over the world in the 1970s and 1980s. Locating owners and securing purchases is typically a slow, laborious process.

Commissioners said they agreed with the need to protect rare and endangered species, but said this proposal could potentially violate private property rights because of the expense involved in complying and would add an unnecessary layer of regulatory review.

They said if someone violates state or federal wildlife regulations, it is up to FWC or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—not Highlands County—to pursue enforcement actions.

Nevertheless, they seemed to agree that local officials need to make it clear to anyone who applies for a permit here or in other environmentally sensitive lands that they bear the responsibility for compliance or face fines or imprisonment if they are caught.

Commissioners also encouraged state and federal officials to more aggressively pursue purchases, though it was clear from the testimony that there are obstacles to that approach.

That is because some landowners have unrealistic expectations about land prices for lots that are often landlocked with no access to public roads and that the presence of private homes within a fire-managed landscape would be impractical.



Polk Environmental Lands Panel Applications Open Following Approval of Referendum

If you think you could contribute to the work to help the County Commission to select more land in Polk County to protect from the bulldozers, now is your chance.

The application process has begun for positions on the county’s Conservation Land Acquisition Selection Advisory Committee, known as CLASAC for short.

The announcement came after the County Commission approved a resolution Feb. 7 establishing the committee to advise commissioners on acquisitions that will be funded by a tax approved by Polk County’s voters in a referendum that appeared on the Nov. 8, 2022 ballot.

For details on applying, go to the news tab at Home (polk-county.net)or contact Polk Parks and Natural Resources at 863-534-7377.

The referendum authorized a levy of 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable property for 20 years beginning in the 2023-24 fiscal year. The first year’s levy would raise at least $8.2 million in the first year it is in effect.

The deadline to apply for membership is March 15. Commissioners, each of whom will appoint two recommend two members to serve, are scheduled to make appointments in May.

According to the resolution, the committee will consist of at least 11 members, including a commissioner, who will serve as chair.

The membership will be composed of representatives from various sectors of the community.

They will consist of : two professionals with experience in water resource management, two from local environmental groups, two from agricultural community, one from a local sportsman’s group, one from local outdoor recreation group, one with public land management experience, one professional with experience in land use planning and/or education.

Members will serve four-year terms and will not be term-limited.

All committee meetings, which will be scheduled as there are acquisitions to be considered, will be open to the public.

According to the ordinance that authorized the referendum, the county will either buy land outright or buy a conservation easement, which means the land will remain in private ownership but its future development will be limited.

Purchase prices will be based on appraisals and negotiations. The County Commission will have the final say on all purchases.


Opportunities Coming To Learn About Birds

Birds are an important part of the planet’s ecosystems and there is plenty to learn about them.

This month, as winter winds down and the first stirrings of annual spring migrations are poised to begin, there are local opportunities to find out more about what’s happening in the world of birds.

Environmental consultant and local Audubon Christmas Bird Count compiler Cole Fredericks will present a program on trends in CBCs and other bird surveys in this part of Florida at the next meeting of Ancient Islands Sierra on Feb. 9 at Circle B Bar Reserve. The program begins at 7 p.m. and is preceded by a covered-dish meal and social gathering beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Circle B Bar Reserve is located at 4399 Winter Lake Road, Lakeland.

On Feb 15 at 6 p.m. naturalist, wildlife photographer and international tour leader Reinier Munguia will discuss what birds go through this time of year as they prepare for the annual breeding season.

Some birds migrate thousands of miles and others are more sedentary but still have deal with the basics of finding mates, nesting sites and food to make sure their species will survive.

The program will be held at Lake Region Audubon’s Street Nature Center, 115 Lameraux Road, Winter Haven.

Both programs are free and open to the public.

Finally the annual Great Backyard Bird Count will occur Feb. 17-20.

This international event is designed to collect information on the location and abundance of bird species in mid-winter.

Participation is free and open to all. It does require an eBird account to submit the results of your sightings.

For details, go to www.birdcount.org .



Charlotte Commissioners Weigh In On DeSoto Mine Debate

The Charlotte County Commission voted unanimously Jan. 24 to approve a resolution supporting the decision by commissioners in neighboring DeSoto County to deny a permit request by Mosaic to mine phosphate in a large portion of the county that includes areas along Horse Creek, a major Peace River tributary.

DeSoto commissioners took the action in 2018. Mosaic officials may reapply for a permit in the future, but announced in 2022 that they no longer planned for a 2025 resubmittal.

In the meantime, the DeSoto County Commission has scheduled a series of workshops involving various aspects of the effects of phosphate mining. The next session will occur Jan. 31 in Arcadia, when reclamation and radiation will be discussed.

Sierra members have participated in those meetings and have consistently opposed the mining permit and continue to monitor events related to any proposed mining expansion.

In the resolution, Charlotte commissioners said their main concerns were the effects of mining on the Peace River, which supplies drinking water to Charlotte and adjacent counties, and the fact that Mosaic has rejected repeated invitations to appear before the commission to address their concerns.

The resolution also cited the history of pollution discharges to surface waters and the aquifer.

The latest incidents involved stormwater discharges at Mosaic’s Four Corners and South Fort Meade mines in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian last year.

Commissioners also sought support for their position from the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority and its member governments.

Commissioners also requested in the resolution that representatives from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which have regulatory authority over various aspects of mine permitting, attend a public meeting and provide commissioners with an overview of mining regulations and review current regulations to ensure that they adequately safeguard regional water supplies.




Green Swamp Development Proposals Threaten Long-Ago Settlement Decision To Protect Most Sensitive Areas

Within recent months developers have submitted proposals to expand industrial development along Deen Still Road deeper into an area designated as the CORE area of the Green Swamp Area of Critical Concern where development intensity is limited by Polk growth regulations based on a decades-old agreement with state planning officials.

This merits scrutiny because if any of these proposals advance, it could set a troubling precedent.

The threat is especially true given the reduction of state-level growth oversight since the Florida Legislature stripped the state’s former agency that oversaw both compliance with state growth regulations and oversight of protection of the Area of Critical State Concern of much of its powers.

What was formerly called the Florida Department of Community Affairs was renamed the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity under Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. It has been downhill ever since.

To understand why this matters, a short recitation of recent history is appropriate.

In 1996, the Polk County Commission agreed to state-mandated restrictions on how deeply into the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern intense development could occur.

The agreement ended a six-year battle between the County Commission and what was then called the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the state’s Area of Critical State Concern Program.

In 1974 Florida officials designated 295,00 acres—189,000 acres in Polk County and 106,000 acres in Lake County—as an Area of Critical State Concern to protect the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers and a critical section of the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of Central Florida’s drinking water. Since then the area’s importance as a regional hub for a statewide network of wildlife corridors has added to the need to protect it.

The 1974 designation capped efforts to protect the area that dated from the 1950s.

The settlement agreement dealt with development along the U.S. 27 corridor—the ACSC’s eastern boundary—and the decision to create a boundary that separated intense development from conservation areas.

At the time of the designation, the U.S. 27 corridor was primarily farm land.

The settlement occurred in a period when two major events had occurred that changed all of that.

The Florida Legislature approved the state’s first strong growth-management legislation in 1985 that required local governments to approve tougher rules.

Meanwhile, a series of serious freezes in the 1980s wiped out citrus groves in the corridor, which created pressure on many small grove owners to sell their land to developers.

The settlement accommodated those land-use changes on the higher and drier land along the highway.

The reason the issue was not settled until more than a decade after state law changed was that Polk County officials actively resisted state officials’ attempts to rein in growth in the Green Swamp.

That resulted in the nearly continuous strip of residential, commercial and industrial development that exists there today.

The CORE area, which covered 126,800 acres in the more sensitive areas of Green Swamp, allowed only minimal development. It is this area where the industrial land uses have been proposed.

This is a fight we don’t need to fight again.


Polk Agrees To Study Septic Issues In Everglades Headwaters


The Polk County Commission voted unanimously today to approve a $272,243 contract with Dewberry Engineers to conduct a septic-to-sewer evaluation in the portion of the Everglades Headwaters in Polk County.

The study area stretches from Crooked Lake to the Kissimmee River and north to the shore of Lake Hatchineha in eastern Polk County.

This follows the completion of a Watershed Assessment Model by Polk County’s Parks and Natural Systems Division in cooperation with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The study will be conducted in cooperation with Polk County Utilities.

The Polk study was intended to improve data on the source of nutrients—primarily nitrogen and phosphorous–entering the creeks, rivers and lakes in the basin.

Discharges from septic tanks have been identified as one of the major sources of that pollution.

The study will examine what types of measures are feasible to reduce the pollution flow by connecting residences and businesses using septic tanks to central sewer systems and looking at measures that are needed as what is now rural or farmland in the study area is subject to more intense development.

The study is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.




The Right To A Cleaner Environment In Florida Has Been Considered Before; It Did Not Turn Out Well

A group called Florida Right To Clean Water is promoting a proposed constitutional amendment that they hope to place on the 2024 ballot.

The proposed ballot summary reads:

“Prohibits pollution of Florida’s waters by recognizing a right to clean water for all Floridians and Florida waters, including the Everglades, Florida Springs, the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Johns River, the Caloosahatchee River, Biscayne Bay, Tampa Bay, Pensacola Bay and all other waters within the state; provides for local lawmaking to protect clean water, and provides for enforcement and severability.”

Sierra has not taken a position on this proposal.

Interestingly, this is not the first time such a proposal to amend the Florida Constitution has been suggested.

When Florida’s Constitutional Revision Commission convened in 1997, then Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Virginia Wetherell suggested that the group consider an environmental bill of rights, according to Clay Henderson’s recently published environmental history.

Whetherell’s proposal included the right to live in an environment free of toxic pollution of manmade chemicals, the right to protect and preserve our pristine natural communities, the right to ensure the existence of the scarce and fragile plant and animal species that share Florida, the right to outdoor recreation and the right to sustained economic success within our natural resources capacity, according to Henderson’s account.

Predictably, by the time the proposal emerged from the other end of the process, it had been reduced a much vaguer declaration stating that “adequate provision shall be made in state law for the conservation of natural resources.”

By that time, of course, there were already a number of provisions in state law intended–at least in theory–to promote natural resource conservation. That was the result of progressive legislation approved in Tallahassee in the early 1970s and strengthened in subsequent years.

But the problem with including conservation provisions in state law is that another crop of legislators can come along later and remove them.

That’s pretty much what happened beginning in the Rick Scott administration and continued to some extent ever since.

Constitutional amendments can be repealed, too, but that requires voter approval. That is a heavier lift than simply allowing some lobbyist’s buddy in the Florida Legislature to do the dirty work.

Whether the current proposed constitutional amendment or some similar measure is the answer and whether it could somehow become torpedo-proof when the Legislature convenes if voters were to approve it is part of the ongoing debate.

However, history does not give us reason to be optimistic.