Polk Turns Down Plan For More Green Swamp Development


Polk’s County Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday shut down plans to potentially allow more development on low-lying pasture bisected by Gator Creek at the edge of the Green Swamp.

They were unpersuaded by the assurances by the engineer representing the property owners–whose official identity has changed from one anonymous company to another in the course of the plan review, according to public records– that nothing will happen until he figures out what the flood elevations are to determine how many homes can be built where on the 39-acre site on Old Polk City Road.

Neither were they persuaded by the upbeat staff report from the county planning staff that blithely referred to the site as “a challenging and an opportunity.”

Instead, they were persuaded by a procession of longtime local residents who argued cramming urban-density development in what is really at the edge of rural Polk County was bad enough, but doing it in a flood plain makes it worse.

The recent memories of the floods following Hurricane Irma last fall reinforced the point for Commissioner John Hall, who represents that area of the county and spends enough time there to see the problems first hand.

No one really trusts the alleged standard that no more water will leave the site after it’s developed than was pouring off of it before it was developed.

County regulations, according to the testimony, require an engineering design to deal with a routine 25-year storm, not heavier storms that can and do overwhelm engineered drainage systems.

Commissioner George Lindsey argued Tuesday’s vote should only have been about whether the applicant had the right to seek more dense development, not whether any plan based on that request would actually work.

Hall responded that the problem is that if it is built and it doesn’t work, the taxpayers will be on the hook to try to alleviate any of the misery it causes.

That isn’t worth the risk, Hall argued.

Statewide Recycling Crackdown May Occur

The cutbacks in the amount of materials Polk County officials allow in recycling carts in unincorporated parts of the county could soon spread throughout the state if waste haulers succeed in changing the law.

Major private garbage haulers began lobbying the Florida Legislature and representatives of the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities last year to change state law.

The proposed changes being considered in the current legislative session would allow companies to reject loads that contained too much contamination and divert the recycling trucks to the landfill.

They argue that the changing nature of the market for recycling is setting higher standards and that many materials that traditionally were allowed in recycling bins, such as glass, have no market value and simply contaminate the load.

In addition, the effort highlighted the contamination problems caused by customers who put materials that have never been considered recyclable in municipal curbside programs, such as food-contaminated containers (pizza boxes are a big one) , plastic bags and polystyrene (often incorrectly termed stryofoam) containers.

In some areas, people have also been using recycling carts as extra containers for household garbage.

Another aspect of the effort is to attempt to educate garbage customers on what to put where.

A fallback position has been to propose fining chronic violators of the recycling rules.

Meanwhile, another bill has been filed to require beverage deposits.

It was filed, assigned to three committees and has not been heard in any of them.


Polk’s Growth Issues Are A Series of Missed Opportunities

The Ledger published the first in a series of articles on the challenge of becoming a community of 1 million people in a few years.

Interestingly, it was accompanied by an article on the expected revenue loss to government coffers from a referendum that will allow more homestead exemption property tax breaks to owners of more expensive homes. Many of us of more modest means will not see a change in our tax bills.

The pairing of the articles is apt because managing growth is largely about the financial decisions local government officials make.

Property taxes make up about a quarter to a third of the revenue needed to balance many local government budgets.

Even without the increased homestead tax break, residential growth has never paid enough in taxes to cover the cost of the services new residents demand.

That’s where impact fees come in.

Impact fees can be used to improve roads, build roads and parks and other public facilities, finance the expansion and upgrading of utility systems and, in the rare cases where they are imposed this way, pay to expand courthouses and other public buildings when the demands of growth overtake their capacity.

Polk’s historic approach –in contrast with more progressive counties—was to pursue development on the cheap.

Impact fees were minimal, if they were collected at all.

That resulted in an infrastructure deficit, which the business community engineered via Polk Vision to make an issue and to make the general public pay for through a major property tax increase.

It’s not hard to imagine this happening again after a five-year moratorium on impact fees and a low-ball set of figures commissioners decided to charge when it was revived.

The growth advocates on the County Commission tried to solve that problem by floating a sales tax increase, which the voters soundly rejected because they didn’t want to get taxed again to bail out developers .

Their next gambit was to increase property taxes by sleight-of-hand, diverting money approved for environmental lands acquisition to some of the same purposes—road improvements—that the failed sales tax proposal had advocated.

Meanwhile, Polk officials’ claimed concern about the revenue hit from the homestead exemption increase belies their decision to approve millions of dollars in property tax breaks to struggling corporations such as Amazon and Wal-Mart as part of the economic development extortion game.

Finally, Polk County’s approach to dealing with crowded roads has sometimes been to propose building new roads farther away from urban centers. All these roads will do is to subsidize more urban sprawl and to ultimately increase the backlog of projects needed to keep up with new residents’ demands.

The problem with this approach, apart from the expense, is that it delays the day when Polk will seriously talk about transit.

As long as it is easy to drive and the transit system is limited, no one except the poorest residents will take transit regularly.

Before Polk’s population reaches 1 million, it may be time to rethink our expectations. Is it really realistic, even today, to expect a smooth commute on major highways?

Maybe the big change should be to deal with reality, not fantasy.