Efforts Under Way To Plan Widening Of Green Swamp Highway

Although it’s still in the preliminary stage, there is an effort afoot by Polk, Hillsborough and Pasco officials to widen the section of U.S. 98 that runs from Lakeland to Dade City along the edge of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.

Polk’s Transportation Planning Organization approved a resolution earlier this year to endorse securing funding for this project.

The stated reason is to support freight movement—more large truck traffic—along this corridor as the logistics/warehouse industry grows in the region.

As the plans develop, it will be worthwhile to be involved and to discuss how this project could be implemented to recognize the need to aid wildlife movement.

The project will likely require substantial wetlands mitigation and that could play a part in this effort.

The route runs through the headwaters of the Hillsborough River, bisecting large conservation areas that are key regional wildlife refuges. River basins are often used as wildlife corridors.

This is particularly key in places such as the Green Swamp, which serves as a hub for a network of wildlife corridors for species ranging from Florida black bear to less obvious species of reptiles and amphibians and small mammal species.

There is no funding in the current five-year local Florida Department of Transportation tentative work plan, but the project is listed as an unfunded goal in Polk’s 2040i transportation plan.


Pick Your New Year’s Day Hike

New Year’s Day has become a popular time to go hiking to set your course for the next year.

If you want to hike with a group and a guide, there are three options.

Florida Trail Association is planning a hike at The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve near Babson Park.

Colt Creek State Park and Lake Kissimmee State Park will host ranger-led hikes.

If you’d like to head out into the woods away from the crowds, there are plenty of options.

If you live in Polk County, you might consider Polk County Environmental Lands’ Sumica , North Walkinwater or Gator Creek sites, FWC’s Wildlife Management Area, the Florida National Scenic Trail in the Green Swamp , Catfish Creek Preserve or Lake Wales Ridge State Forest’s Arbuckle, Walkinwater and Hesperides units.

There are more to explore in surrounding counties that include Withlacoochee State Forest, FWC’s Wildlife Environmental Areas, SFWMD’s complex of trails on conservation lands around the Kissimmee River.

Wherever you go get outside and have fun.


State Planners Give Polk A Pass On Warehouse Proposal

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has given Polk County a pass to change its growth plan to put warehouses next to residential subdivisions in the Four Corners area, which will be the subject of a lengthy public hearing Tuesday afternoon in Bartow.

The Polk County Commission had forwarded the change to DEO officials in Tallahassee last month for review.

DEO’s comments only address whether the change affects state resources, not whether the project is a good idea.

The debate over the change has instead involved local issues.

This case involves a request by a landowner, which had previously gotten approval to develop the site into a shopping center with a movie theater, now wants to develop it into a warehouse distribution center.

Some key issues in this case include:

What obligation does the County Commission have to bail out a developer whose original development plans didn’t work out as planned?

The original proposal occurred during the pre-recession real estate bubble that ruined or set back many real estate investments. The idea that two regional shopping centers—this one and Posner—would both succeed on opposite sides of the same highway interchange in this market seem far-fetched in retrospect and may have seemed overly ambitious at the time if you were unaffected by development fever.

Does allowing light industrial development to encroach into the edge of residential areas here set a precedent that could threatened homeowners elsewhere in Polk County?

This is a slippery slope. Although the county’s technical staff has recommended against this change, the County Commission is the ultimate decision-maker. If the County Commission decides this is OK, will there be any staff pushback on the next case? Commission policy, rather than the tenets of good planning, sometimes molds staff positions.

Should the County Commission deny the project without prejudice to allow the landowner to resubmit an alternative, less-controversial development proposal without having to wait a year?

One wonders whether other types of development might be suitable for the site to allow the landowner, who has held the property in an agricultural classification for decade—market value is about $5 million, but taxable value is about $40,000–to sell the property and move on.

Cities Balk At Solar Expansion

For the second time in recent weeks commissioners in two of Polk’s smaller cities have put the brakes on expansion of solar power within their city limits.

The first roadblock occurred in Lake Alfred, where commissioners blocked a landowner’s attempt to change the growth map to allow solar panels instead of rooftops.

Next came action by the Bartow commissioners, which delayed action on another solar farm until they can figure out how or whether to go ahead with it.

Both proposals were proposed by Tampa Electric, which has been aggressive in expanding its solar power generating capacity.

There was a common thread in both city discussions.

There was a claim by some city officials—based on nothing specific—that solar farms would be incompatible with residential development.

There was also a practical growth regulation issue, which is that it is prudent to think carefully about how to site any new land use.

Bartow officials are scheduled to resume discussions with TECO at another public meeting next month.

Northeast Polk Developers Unveil More Damaging Toll Road Route

The main concern about the eastern leg of the now-shelved Central Polk Parkway was that its route would run to near to conservation lands in the Marion Creek basin.

This week economic development boosters came up with an alternative route—through the middle of the conservation lands.

Two things are driving this idea.

One is Haines City’s interest in securing a better truck route from its industrial park off County Road 544.

The other is coming up with a route that would have cheaper right of way costs that might make the road more financially feasible.

State transportation officials shelved that section of the road a couple of years ago because they concluded it wouldn’t attract enough traffic to justify its construction as a toll road.

The project was proposed several years ago because of projections that U.S. 27 would become too congested in coming decades and another north-south highway was needed.

Critics of this plan have responded that it makes more sense to widen U.S. 17-92, an existing two-lane north-south highway that could take traffic to Interstate 4 with nothing more than a northward extension of the Poinciana Parkway.

The other response would be that new roads do nothing but promote sprawl and ignores that fact that a lot of the traffic congestion on U.S. 27 in northern Polk County is because people are heading for destinations along U.S. 27 and because county planning was so poor in that area that alternative routes for local traffic were never adequately developed.

I’d add that there are ample studies that demonstrate that you can’t build your way out of congestion. The idea that the third-most populous state in the country would not face traffic congestion in urban areas is irrational.

The route presented to the Polk County Transportation Planning Organization was a crudely drawn map that proposes to connect the Central Polk Parkway to the southern end of the Poinciana Parkway, along the route of Cypress Parkway, an already heavily traveled, high-speed two-lane road that some Poinciana residents want widened to ease traffic congestion in this sprawling city-sized subdivision.

However, any new route would need to incorporate wildlife underpasses to recognize wildlife movement in the area, including some species such as Florida black bears and Florida panthers whose presence in the area has been confirmed in recent years.

Although TPO officials didn’t embrace the idea this week, this is an issue that bears watching because some of the road-building ideas economic boosters have been around since the 1920s and never seem to die.

Still More Solar Coming To Region

Another solar farm will begin construction in this part of Florida early next year.

Tampa Electric will break ground in January on its new Payne Creek Solar facility off Fort Green Road in southwestern Polk County.

This is part of a continuing drive by the utility to expand its solar capacity.

Interestingly, this site is not far from a piece of land that was proposed for the state’s first hazardous waste incinerator in the early 1990s.

The incinerator encountered public opposition and was never built because of lack of need and permitting issues.


Geminid Meteor Shower Visible Wednesday Night If You Can Find Dark Sky

The last meteor shower of autumn, the Geminids, will be visible Wednesday night in the northeastern sky.

All you have to do is to find a place with a relatively dark sky unaffected by urban light pollution and you should have a good view.

Bok Tower Gardens will be hosting a viewing event Wednesday along with a carillon concert,

Local astronomers will be on hand for a program at 6 p.m. and be around with telescopes as the skies darken to offer views of the more distant objects.

The meteor shower will be visible to the naked eye in the northeast sky.

There also will be an astronomy program Saturday at 7 p.m. at Colt Creek State Park on SR 471 north of Lakeland.

The meteor shower will be over by then, but there should be plenty of other objects to see in the sky.

Admission is charged to Bok Tower and Colt Creek, but the programs will be offered at no additional cost.

Colt Creek State Park has relatively dark sky.

The one designated dark sky park in this part of Florida is Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve in Okeechobee County across the Kissimmee River from the Avon Park Air Force Range.