Sierra to participate in Colt Creek State Park event Sunday

Ancient Islands Sierra Club will be participating in Sunday’s annual Get To Know Colt Creek State Park event from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

The 5,000-acre park is located in the Green Swamp at 16000 State Road 471 just south of the Withlacoochee River.

Barbecue lunch will be provided by the Friends of Colt Creek State Park. Live music will be provided by Al & Rich of the Sofa Kings.

If you haven’t visited the park before Sunday’s even will be great chance to learn about its variety of habitats either via hourly tram rides or a ranger-led hike.

Sierra will have a table to educate people about owls and anyone who stops by will have a chance to learn what’s inside owl pellets.

Other scheduled activities include educational exhibits on recycling, fire management, butterflies and more.

In addition, there will opportunities for fishing and kayaking available.

Admission to the park is $4 per vehicle.

The park is open every day from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Polk Commission Needs To Support Amendment 1

There is a slow but growing movement among Florida’s county commissions to add another voice to those urging the Florida Legislature to do what the voters ordered in 2014—fund conservation land purchases.

County commissioners in Alachua, Orange and Osceola counties have already passed resolutions.

Commissioners in Citrus, Lake, Seminole and Volusia counties are considering action at the request of local Audubon chapters.

This would be relevant and not just trendy because some of the highest priority conservation properties on the state’s approved purchase list lie in Polk County.

When the County Commission decided in 2015 to end the .2 mill environmental lands tax, the hope expressed by County Manager Jim Freeman was that Polk County could find some matching funds for any parcels that Amendment 1 might fund.

But county officials cannot step up if state officials refuse to.

Since 2014 the Florida Legislature has authorized very little of the voter-approved funding for conservation land purchasers, diverting the money instead to fund day-to-day agency expenses and local infrastructure projects that have little to do with land conservation.


Legislature’s Troubling Growth Bills

There they go again.

This year’s legislative session is nearly half over and some troublesome bills affecting local growth planning are still out there.

One pair (SB 940 & HB 1309) would require local officials to add a private property rights element to their growth plans and supporting provisions to their development codes with an eye toward making every decision subservient to the interests of economic development.

There are two problems with this legislation. One is that it’s unnecessary. The Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution already protects private property rights. There is also a state law, the Bert Harris Act, that addresses this issue.

The other is that rather merely protecting private property rights, this legislation seems to attempt to stake out additional claims about what qualifies as an infringement on private property rights.

According to 1000 Friends of Florida, the main organization tracking growth bills, this legislation hasn’t gotten very far yet, but there’s still plenty of time left, so it needs to be watched.

Another pair of bills (SB 996 and HB 997) has the potential of stifling citizen challenges of zoning and environmental permits, even if the challenges are filed in good faith, by allowing the losers to be assessed up to $50,000 of the winner’s legal costs . (Frivolous challenges are already subject to sanctions).

As I understand it, both sides typically pay their own costs under current law.

The House version, filed by Rep. Sam Killebrew of Polk County and titled the Florida Equal Access To Justice Act, would single out the coverage to protect small businesses to benefit from the legislation.

I guess some people are more equal than others.

This one hasn’t gone to committee hearings yet, but the session is only half over.


Illegally Operating Soil Plant May Be Legally Shut Down

BS Farm and Ranch may not be stinking up the air in east Lakeland much longer.

The County Commission, led by Commissioner George Lindsey, told the plant’s owner-operators and their consultants Tuesday that they were tired of the complaints and the false promises and the evasions. They told County Attorney Michael Craig to take whatever legal action he could to shut down the plant until the owners comply with their county permit conditions and asked for a peer review of the plant’s operations plan to see if it contains any flaws.

This was an unusual move for the County Commission, which rarely says no when it comes to new development.

Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland sent a letter to Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials March 17 asking to be kept in the loop on the progress of the agency’s review of BS’ compliance. No other local legislators have weighed in as far as I know.

The commission’s action was unusual, but as I wrote yesterday, the problem may not have occurred somewhere else where scofflaw zoning applicants are not treated with such deference as they are in Polk County.

To recap, BS opened a business without proper county zoning permits and without a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,, got caught and was allowed by both jurisdictions to continue operating for a year or so while the owners sought permits, changes in the county growth plan and the county development regulations. This is standard operating procedure in Polk County.

“They have never been legally operating,” Craig acknowledged during the meeting, though that was already an open secret.

Lindsey also Tuesday set in motion a move to repeal the development code change that set the stage for attracting more soil manufacturing plants to Polk County.

Repealing a development code change, absence its replacement with a more up-to-date version, is unprecedented.

There’s a back story to this fiasco. It appears that BS had the support of Averett Septic Tank Co., whose representatives were in the audience Tuesday filming the testimony. BS did not have the backing of some of the other local septic tank businesses, whose owners are skeptical of BS’s operation and have been working with another company whose operating procedures they do like to set up shop in Polk County, but at a more remote location.

Part of the problem is the fact that BS picked a site in the middle of an urban area rather than somewhere more remote. The odor from their plant was so bad that even their neighbors in the industrial park were complaining. There have been off-site nuisances from time to time in the past at that industrial park though most of the tenants operations cause no problems.

But the other problem was even after BS was caught stinking up the area for at least a mile around, they tried to shift the blame and played word games with DEP staffers trying to work with them to bring them into compliance administratively. These days DEP rarely fines anyone for anything, according to analyses of recent case activity.

By the way, the atmosphere became a little tense toward the end of that portion of the commission meeting. BS’ owner cursed at residents after failing to win any sympathy by projecting images of Iron Eyes Cody, the Sicilian actor who played a Native American in those anti-litter ads you may have seen years ago that were really an attempt to shift attention away from the problem caused by lack of bottle deposits.

The meeting is archived on PGTV, available at . It was entertaining.

The Stench Of Permissive Planning No Surpise

Where can someone open a business on land not zoned for it, secure in the thought that they’ll be able to persuade county officials to amend the growth plan and development regulations to accommodate them to assure approval of an after-the-fact permit?

Polk County, of course.

That summarizes what happened at the site of the unfortunately named BS Ranch & Farm, which is operating a soil-manufacturing plant in an industrial park on Maine Avenue bordered by residential areas in east Lakeland.

Despite repeated assurances by county planners, who are sometimes hard to tell from representatives of permit applicants at public hearings, that there would be no odor, it didn’t work out that way.

The odor was detectable as far away as Circle B Bar Reserve.

It was so bad that even the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which in recent years has gained a reputation for soft-pedaling the shortcomings of permit holders, concluded there was a problem that needed to be fixed though there was no word in press reports on any fines.

Polk County code enforcement stepped in, too. It has scheduled a hearing for next month. In the meantime, the company will be allowed to continue operating.

The County Commission is still considering how it wants to deal with this problem.

The matter will be discussed at today’s commission meeting.

The accommodation by county staff that led to this situation didn’t happen by accident.

It reflects an official county policy for dealing with development permits that was completed last year and reflected existing practices.

The written policy was notable for directing county staffers reviewing development permits that they should be “advocates, not adversaries.”

I questioned that at the time.

My position is the staff should be neutral reviewers representing the public interest, not any other interest, so that they keep things in the proper perspective.

That would avoid the sometimes tortuous arguments county planners make to justify approval of cases that come before the Planning Commission and the County Commission.

However, the planners have their marching orders from the a crowd that hardly ever sees a development proposal they won’t eagerly embrace and to which they offer tax breaks and impose cut-rate impact fees.

Many residents think this approach stinks.

This time there’s proof.


Another Polk Lower Aquifer Well In Works

The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board will consider a lease for another Lower Floridan Aquifer test well complex at its next regular meeting March 28 in Brooksville.

The property is in Lake Wales in a citrus grove south of Lake Belle.

This is part of an ongoing effort by the Polk County Regional Water Cooperative to continue to explore beneath Polk County to find water sources that Swiftmud would allow local utilities to use to deal with growth-related water demand.

The approach has drawn criticism because of questions of whether this is a sustainable long-term solution to expected deficits in projected water supply demands in comparison to permitted withdrawals.

Meanwhile, Swiftmud officials are also scheduled to consider purchasing an easement near Lake Trout at the Polk-Highlands line east of U.S. 27 as part of the Central Florida Water Initiative effort to get a better idea of how groundwater withdrawals and changes in aquifer levels affect the maintenance of lake levels in this part of the region.

Swiftmud has determined in the past that groundwater pumping has affected lake levels in Polk County, particularly Crooked Lake.

Details of these agenda item are available at .

Go to the meetings tab and click on the agenda packet.

There is an executive summary at the top of the file, but if you scroll down you will find more detailed information such as maps, contracts, etc.

Swiftmud meetings are televised and can be viewed on line.




Amendment 1 Funding Diversions Continue

Amendment 1 was supposed to help to save the Everglades.

Instead, it is becoming somewhat like the Everglades.

That is, the money that voters authorized in 2014 for spending for conservation lands to reboot the gutted Florida Forever program is being diverted in ways that resemble the way South Florida water management system diverts water the Everglades needs to satisfy the political demands of agriculture and development interests.

Ever since voters overwhelming approved the measure, the Florida Legislature has worked hard to make sure it isn’t used as the voters or the amendment’s sponsors intended, falling back on legalistic arguments about the ballot language’s loose wording.

So, instead of working to take care of the backlog of high-priority conservation purchases in this part of the state along the Lake Wales Ridge, the Green Swamp and the Kissimmee River Valley, legislators are proposing to use the money for beach renourishment to keep the tourism industry happy and for a variety of water supply projects to keep the development industry happy.

The Legislature has also allowed state agencies to use Amendment 1 money for routine operating expenses, which is not only inappropriate, but short-sighted.

This is a problem because with the economy improving and development pressure ramping up again, the owners of some of the land targeted for conservation purchase and protection may get tired of waiting for the state to act and sell the land to someone else.

In addition, as the real estate market heats up again, the cost of the land will increase because its market value will increase, which will affect how far the conservation acquisition dollars go.

Some legislators are treating the Amendment 1 money as though it was part of the general appropriations fund that can be used for anything rather than restricted fund that’s only supposed to be spent on certain things.

This kind of financial deceit is nothing new in Tallahassee, but it’s usually not this blatant.

If legislators want funds to improve water infrastructure or any other worthwhile public project in Florida, why don’t they take a more honest approach and come up with a logical funding source that has some rational nexus rather than raiding another state fund for the sake of expediency.

It’s hard to characterize this as anything but grand theft.

Most people who get caught doing this are sent to jail, not to Tallahassee.

Maybe Florida needs another constitutional amendment to fix that problem, too.