Florida’s Amendment 1 stall and Trump’s monument grab have parallels

Sometimes seemingly disparate events are more related than they may seem at first.

Nearly three years after Florida voters overwhelmingly voted to amend the state constitution to provide the money to restart the Florida Forever program, the Florida Legislature once again has thwarted the people’s will by deciding to spend the money for something else, according to preliminary reports on state budget talks this week.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump this week has ordered a review of Barrack Obama’s decision to protect large tracts of federal lands in the western states by designating them as national monuments.

Both decisions reflect a political philosophy that is antagonistic to the idea that conserving natural resources for their own sake is a worthwhile public policy goal.

Both also present disingenuous arguments to justify their positions.

Florida legislators have taken advantage of the perhaps necessarily general language in the ballot language to argue that they can spend the money for projects to exploit natural resources—water supply projects come to mind—to further development interests instead of projects to protect them or to play fiscal games with state budget trust funds.

Trump’s monument decision, which he claimed was aimed at reversing a “federal land grab” without answering —or perhaps being asked by the press–how can federal officials “grab” land they already own?

What it’s really about is the disagreement about whether conserving land is worthwhile is useful or wasteful.

When federal public land receives monument status it is no longer open for mining, logging and other types of commercial exploitation.

The Trump administration’s real intent is to allow that exploitation, usually at cut-rate return to the federal treasury.

Critics of environmental land acquisition often ask us how much is enough?

It’s appropriate turn the question around and ask how many forests have to be clear cut and how many mountains have to be turned into rubble and how much of the aquifer, rivers and lakes need to be depleted before someone yells “ENOUGH!”

Think about Circle B Bar Reserve as a golf course development or Iron Mountain upon which Bok Tower sits as a sand and clay mine to support the road construction industry or the Green Swamp as the site of new suburbs for the Tampa and Orlando areas and it may be clearer where the philosophy that has been revived could have led if that philosophy had governed in earlier times.

We need to be vigilant.

Winter Haven Considers Water Plan Update

Winter Haven officials are poised to make some changes in the city’s long-term water policy in its growth plan.

The first hearing will occur before the Planning Commission May 2, followed by a transmittal hearing by the City Commission May 22. A transmittal hearing involves sending the proposed changes to Tallahassee for review and comments. Final action is scheduled for sometime in July.

The details are in the agenda packet are on the city’s website. Despite the recent redesign, getting information on planning still takes a few clicks to burrow far enough into the sit to find.

This is not a major overhaul, but does include some changes intended to make the city’s plan conform with Polk County and Southwest Florida Water Management District plans.

One of the centerpieces remains a plan to gain credits to pump more groundwater by making improvements in the Peace Creek system.

Some points I noticed in the plan were:

It uses a goal of lowering average per capita water use to 120 gallons per day, which is lower than current average consumption of about 129 gallons per day, in projecting future water demand.

It calls for “periodic” reviews to determine whether water consumption is affecting lake levels, but doesn’t define how often the reviews would occur, what the thresholds would be and what actions would result.

It calls for revising the development code to require Florida-friendly landscaping in new developments and in redevelopment projects.

It would extend the deadline for phasing out residential irrigation water meters from 2017 to 2022.


Commuter Rail Coming To Area

Construction is well under way on the new SunRail commuter rail station in Poinciana behind the WaWa store near the intersection of U.S. 17-92 and Poinciana Boulevard.

The scheduled start of service is early next year. By boarding a train there, commuters will be able to travel to various spots in the Orlando area.

There are plans to have local transit serve the station, providing a multi-modal element.

There has been interest in eventually expanding the line south to Haines City to provide more access to Polk residents, but there is no funding or schedule for that project.


Pay Attention To Future Road Plans

The still relatively rural swath of Florida’s heartland south of Polk County is home for some prime wildlife habitats for Florida black bears and Florida panthers with a basic road network that has served the area for decades.

To get an idea of how that might change in the future, you might want to view the Heartland Regional Transportation Planning Organization’s 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan.

The Heartland TPO is a relatively new agency just formed in 2015 to provide local input on future transportation projects in Hardee, Highlands, DeSoto, Okeechobee, Glades and Hendry counties.

The future project list includes the six-laning of U.S. 27 between Lake Placid and the Glades County line, the four-laning of State Road 29 in Hendry County and a discussion of the Florida Department of Transportation’s future corridor concepts for changes in the U.S. 27 corridor and for what was once called the Heartland Parkway, a new road from the LaBelle area northeasterly to Polk County to connect to Interstate 4.

The only active section of that project is the Central Polk Parkway, which is proposed to run through rural areas of northeast Polk County, but is mostly on hold because FDOT officials have concluded that most of it is not financially feasible at this time as a toll road.

The fact that the corridor is on a long-range state transportation planning map is important.

To learn more about the Heartland TPO, go to http://heartlandregionaltpo.org/about/ and follow the links.

More Polk Water $ On Swiftmud Agenda

A proposal to appropriate an additional $11 million to support early work on three projects proposed by the Polk County Regional Water Cooperative is scheduled for routine approval Tuesday when the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board convenes at 10 a.m. at the Lake Eva Center in Haines City.

The appropriation is included among the items on the consent agenda, a group of items that are approved by a single vote, because the main decision occurred earlier when the Polk cooperative met the deadlines for funding imposed by the agency as part of a long-term project to development an additional 30 million gallons per day of what have been termed “alternative water projects.”

The $11 million covers part of the $23 million first phase work on the projects, which involve Lower Floridan Aquifer projects in the Lakeland and Frostproof areas and a water project involving storing water in the Peace Creek Drainage Canal basin in hopes of getting credits that will allow Winter Haven to withdraw more water from its existing wells.

The $23 million figure represents only 3.6 percent of the estimated $640 million cost of the three projects.

The financing of the rest of the costs is still to be worked out. Swiftmud has committed to contribute additional money as the cooperative requests it. Where the cooperative’s share will come from remains to be determined.

Polk officials were hoping to get approval from the Florida Legislature to use sales tax funds if voters agree to a local-option tax increase as outlined in a bill sponsored by members of the Polk legislative delegation. However, I heard this week that the legislation may be revised to eliminate that provision.

Without the sales tax, other funding options–none of which require a referendum–include utility rate increases, property tax increases or an increase in utility impact fees.

How much the projects eventually cost or whether all of them will be needed will depend on the success of water-conservation efforts, which remains the cheapest source of water.

BS Ranch Case May Be Wakeup Call For Polk

I watched a good portion of Thursday’s code enforcement hearing on BS Ranch & Farm with great interest.

The special magistrate properly deferred a decision until he has time to go over his notes from the daylong hearing and to receive brief summaries from Assistant County Attorney Randy Mink and from Julie Ball, the lawyer representing BS Ranch.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Polk County’s review process, in a way, created this mess.

The fact that the company began operations to do something that had caused problems in other parts of Polk County without securing proper county zoning permits or state environmental permits should have given someone in Bartow pause.

But nooooo!

County staffers shepherded the project through the process with fanboy enthusiasm and deference.

Then after the final public hearing and assurances by county staff that they have an operational green light, the plant cranked up and soon county officials were fielding complaints from area residents and business owners about offensive odors that the business operators had assured county officials would never happen and the county staffers believed them so much they didn’t put any fallback conditions in the permit. Company officials denied responsilibity.

Now Polk County is trying to shut down BS Ranch over the odor problems, arguing the company hasn’t completed its required permit review and is violating its permit and has never been in full compliance for years while its permit worked its way through the system.

BS Ranch’s lawyer asked an interesting question during the code enforcement hearing.

If the lack of a completed permit was the problem, why didn’t Polk County tell the company to shut down long before this?

John Bohde, Polk’s development director, said they were trying to work with them, but the County Commission finally had had enough of both the odor complaints and BS Ranch consultants’ argumentative responses to the complaints.

That attitude continued during Thursday’s hearing when BS Ranch’s lawyer and engineer unbelievably argued they didn’t believe the company was required to complete the technical staff review of its permit that typically follows public hearing votes for approval.

This has been a standard requirement for years, but BS Ranch’s bs response was that that requirement was not specifically listed in some case documents so it didn’t apply.

Pending the outcome of the code special magistrate’s review and pending legal proceedings, let me add a couple of suggestions.

Later this year the County Commission will be working with staff on the biennial review of the county’s land development code.

In the past this has been a forum for the development community to present its grievances about how their experience with development review isn’t perfect.

Maybe this could be a golden opportunity to close loopholes that create more fiascoes like BS Ranch.

Many years ago Robert Reich wrote an essay titled How Nitpicking Regulations Get That Way.

He concluded that regulations often begin as general and non-threatening, but become complicated because people try to game the system to evade the original regulation’s intent.

I still have a copy. It would be instructional for any county official to read and consider.

Polk Water Bill Advances In Tallahassee

Legislation that would steer funding to the newly created Polk County Regional Water Cooperative is advancing in the final weeks of the 2017 legislative session.

The bill also would allow Polk County to ask voters for a sales tax increase to pay for water projects.

In exchange, Polk will have to provide legislators with an annual report outlining its priority projects, their costs and how much the cooperative and its members will be contributing to the cost.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Colleen Burton and Sam Killebrew in the House and Sen. Kelli Stargel, has passed all of its initial committee hearings and one more committee in each chamber before it goes to the floor.

Additionally, Sierra and others worked with bill sponsors to fix some problems in the draft bill language relating to the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.