Polk Commissioners Reject Race Track In Wildlife Corridor

Polk County commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to deny approval for a race track on former ranch land near the shore of Lake Walkinwater, the county’s largest lake.

The proposal drew opposition from area residents, including the manager of the ranch next door whose owner sold the applicant the land. A recurring concern was the noise the facility would have generated, which they said would diminish their peace and quiet, nearby livestock operations and a nearby bald eagle nest.

The land also lies in an area designated as part of the Florida wildlife corridor that connects tens of thousands of acres to public and private conservation lands.


From The People Who Hyped The BS Ranch Mistake, May We Present The Lake Walk-in-water Race Track

Several years ago county planners, notably Erik Peterson, presented a rosy picture of an alleged soil recycling and manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Lakeland called BS Ranch.

County commissioners bought the hype and approved the permit. They have regretted it ever since.

They should have known better than to trust someone who started a business without getting proper permits, but that’s the way things are done in Polk County sometimes.

There were constant odor complaints that kept county code-enforcement staffers occupied for years and eventually ended in a legal fight and the state environmental permitting agency’s conclusion that this wasn’t such a great project after all.

That brings us to Tuesday’s appeal hearing before the County Commission over a proposed private race track in a rural area adjacent to Lake Walk-in-Water east of Lake Wales.

According to the county staff report, Peterson assured the applicant this was a doable project when he first put out feelers before investing his money.

But the staff report accompanying Tuesday’s hearing raises red flags for anyone paying attention.

It states “little improvement is needed to make this site suitable (for its proposed use)” I guess that depends whether “little” means an asphalt race track, a dirt track, associated buildings and retention areas and facilities to contain fuel spills.

The staff report concludes there is no problem with incompatibility with surrounding land uses. The voluminous comments from area property owners seem to belie that claim.

The staff report states there are no plans to alter the natural drainage patterns after earlier confirming that the land drains toward the lake.

Additionally, the county staff seems to be confused about the location of the property, noting repeatedly that it would require permits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District when in fact the property lies well within the boundaries of the South Florida Water Management District. The applicant’s consultant made the same mistake at the Planning Commission hearing.

Beyond that, there are other questions.

Why is this not spot zoning?

Why isn’t the applicant required to submit a binding site plan to ensure lakeshore habitat is protected or amend the land-use change to impose a conservation land use on that portion of the property?

The applicant may claim correctly that he made a substantial investment in the property to achieve his dreams.

However, that seems to be his problem, not the County Commission’s.



Sumter County’s Nichols Spring Gains More Protection

The state’s first Springs Protection Zone was approved this week by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for Nichols Spring and its spring run to the Withlacoochee River in Sumter County, according to an agency press release.

Nichols Spring is a second-magnitude spring that is surrounded by land owned the family of former Florida Sen. Charles Dean, an advocate for spring protection in Florida.

The action came after state officials had determined that anchoring, mooring, beaching and grounding vessels along the shoreline had caused damage to vegetation in and around the spring. Those activities will be prohibited in the protection zone.

This will not prohibit public access to the spring and will not restrict the use of rafts or inner tubes, FWC officials said, vessels will have to be moored outside the protection zone.


Creek Ranch May Not Be Developed After All

The controversy over the potential development of Creek Ranch near Lake Hatchineha has taken an unexpected turn.

Owner Harold Baxter has applied for consideration to seek the state’s purchase of a conservation easement over the property.

His application is scheduled to be discussed by the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council when it meets Dec. 8 in Tallahassee.

The property lies in a corridor that contains thousands of acres of public and private conservation lands north and south of the ranch.

Marian Ryan, conservation chair for Sierra’s Ancient Islands Group, plans to testify in favor of the proposal.

The property has been the subject of intensive public discussion after the longtime cattle ranch was purchased by Baxter, a local developer, and was announced as the site of a housing development and a new high school.

Area residents objected to putting a new high school in what they contend is an important wildlife corridor. There have been documented sightings of Florida panther and Florida black bear nearby.

Residents and at least one area property owner have proposed alternate school sites. School officials are evaluating the proposals.

Obviously, if the conservation easement purchase occurs, the ranch would no longer be available for a school site because the state would have purchased the development rights and school officials would be forced to look elsewhere.

Stay tuned.

More Thoughts On Nov. 8 Environmental Victories

The voters are ahead of the suits, it seems, based on the results of the Nov. 8 referendums in six counties in which the electorate was asked to tax themselves to preserve more green spaces.

Voters in Alachua, Brevard, Indian River, Nassau, Pasco and Polk approved a mix of property tax and sales tax increases to preserve what they can ahead of the bulldozers.

A couple of things were striking about the votes.

In two counties—Alachua and Polk–in which the local Republican Party recommended rejection, the measures passed anyway. There was a red ripple in Florida after all when it came to conservation.

And it was not as though voters were tax happy this year. Voters rejected proposed sales tax increases in Hernando, Hillsborough, Orange, St. Johns and Walton counties that were primarily proposed to catch up with transportation backlogs. Those backlogs are the inevitable result of approving development hand over fist without levying adequate impact fees to put development costs on a more pay-as-you-go basis.   

Looking ahead, the next challenge will be implementing the results of the elections. That will involve appointing committees to review acquisition proposals and finding landowners willing to participate with the expectation that they will receive fair compensation for their property. Once lands are purchased, management plans will follow and the public should be involved in this process.

Also, there is the prospect that the development community will propose a sales tax referendum in 2024 to finance so-called priority road projects. This would be the latest attempt in a history of local transportation sales tax referendums stretching back to 1992. Voters rejected all of them.

For Sierra, the issue has been some of the projects that have been listed as priorities that could be funded by any approved tax.

One involves realigning Deen Still Road to build a truck route through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern and then continuing straight through thousands of acres of conservation lands—including a portion of Colt Creek State Park—to make a more direct connection between U.S. 27 and U.S. 98.

Others involve building brand-new roads through a corner of the Green Swamp and through rural lands in northeast Polk in what seems to be a way to build a controversial section of the Central Polk Parkway by other means.

Remain vigilant. Remain involved.




Polk School Board Needs Fresh Look At Haines City School Sites To Avoid Blocking Key Everglades Wildlife Corridor

Polk County School Board members need to take a really fresh look at suitable locations for a new high school that is intended to relieve overcrowding at Haines City High School.

The issue came up earlier this year when word reached area residents that the board was seriously considering a developer-initiated proposal to locate a new school at Asana Ranch on Hatchineha Road near Poinciana. The ranch lies in a corridor between Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Everglades Headwater National Wildlife Refuge and The Nature Conservancy’s Hatchineha Ranch property to the south and the South Florida Water Management District’s Lake Marion Creek Wildlife Management Area and TNC’s Disney Wilderness Preserve property to the north.

There are documented occurrences of Florida panther and Florida black bear movements in this corridor.

The proposed school site would be nestled somewhere into a proposed residential subdivision, which still requires a growth map change and development approval from the County Commission. Whether those approvals are forthcoming is unknown at this point.

Since then another area landowner reached out to school officials and a group of residents opposed to the original site provided school officials with other potential school sites.

However, at last week’s board meeting, the staff was quick to try to cast doubt on the other sites in favor of the site that was originally offered, but the staff analyses of the other sites seem misleading at first glance.

For instance, the Bowen Brothers property at the corner of Hatchineha Road and Firetower Road was flagged as having potential wetlands and endangered plant species “in the area.”

A look at the property on the Polk County Property Appraiser’s website doesn’t seem to support that claim. The 332.65-acre site contains only 0.95 acres described as a swamp. The bulk of the property is improved pasture, which is an unlikely location for listed plant species.

There are listed plant species (which, by the way, for good or ill cannot be used to stop a project) “in the area,” but they are likely located on nearby conservation lands.

Then there was the analysis of another site that the staff ominously reported was located in a utility enclave area and may not have adequate water or sewer capacity, though no numbers were mentioned in a press account of the meeting. The “utility enclave” is Grenelefe Resort, which was in a relatively isolated rural area when it was first developed in the 1970s, but is now at the edge of city limits of Haines City.

There’s a good argument that it is no longer the enclave it once was and securing adequate utility capacity may not be an issue.

These two examples, instead, are an argument for Polk School Board members to seek a more objective, independent analysis of potential sites than they were getting from their staff planner.

There’s no question the current overcrowding in Haines City justifies the construction of a new high school, but school officials should not pick a site that crowds out wildlife in the process.





The Sierra Club backed local referendum in Polk County to restart funding for the environmental lands funding was decisively approved Tuesday by voters.

The victory, by a 58 percent to 41 percent majority, occurred despite opposition by the Polk County Republican Party, which prevailed in statewide races.

The referendum, which went to the ballot on a 3-2 County Commission vote, will allow the purchase of additional lands to fill gaps that were not addressed from funding voters approved in 1994 to establish the Polk County Environmental Lands program.

The margin was decisive, unlike the 51-49 percent margin in 1994.

The win occurred despite a recommendation by the Polk County Republican Party to ask party members, whose numbers have surged in recent years, to vote against the referendum.

However, the grassroots effort launched by a group called Polk Forever, whose members included Ancient Islands Sierra Group activists, heard from residents concerned about the destruction of native habitat to make way for the development of sprawling subdivisions in a county whose population is projected to increase to 1 million residents in the next 20 years.

Now that the referendum has passed, the hard work will begin to attract willing landowners to sign up to participate in the program when funding becomes available beginning in the 2023-24 fiscal year.

The effort focused on four key areas: the Green Swamp in northern Polk, which is the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers, the high point of the Floridan Aquifer and a hub for a statewide network of wildlife corridors; the Peace River, which connects to the Charlotte Harbor Estuary and is a major wildlife and recreational corridor; the Lake Wales Ridge, which is a network of prehistoric desert islands that is the home of plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet and the Upper Kissimmee River Basin, which is the headwaters of the Everglades and a mosaic of habitats vital for the protection of a number of rare an endangered species.

The program would be open to willing sellers who would either seek to sell their property outright or to sell development rights under a conservation easement that would allow the property to remain in private ownership but restrict future development.

All proposed purchases would be a reviewed by a committee appointed by the County Commission that would submit its recommendation to the commission.

All purchases will require County Commission approval.

Polk was one of five Florida counties with environmental land referendums on the ballot Tuesday .

Voters in Alachua, Brevard, Indian River and Nassau counties were also deciding on this issue.

Preliminary results in those counties Tuesday evening showed those measures passing by comfortable margins