The Politics Of Septic Tank Permitting

Polk County commissioners are launching an effort to get out of septic tank fee subsidy business.

It’s not that Polk commissioners don’t mind subsidizing new development. They’ve done that for years through cut-rate impact fees and a developer-friendly development regulations and tax breaks for new businesses.

What they don’t like is taking the heat for county fees that properly should be state fees, even though the state authorizes counties to impose the fees.

There are many such fees, but the ones that got the County Commission’s attention were the ones for inspecting the installation of septic tanks for new homes. The inspections are done by the Florida Department Health’s staff in Polk County, commonly referred to as the Polk County Health Department.

This is an issue because the number of new permits has been increasing steadily in recent years with the rebound of new construction following the burst of the housing bubble in 2008.

Polk has an estimated 100,000 septic tanks, health officials said, but admitted they don’t know where 86,000 of the tanks are because they were installed before the Florida Legislature authorized health officials to regulate them. The current statute dates to 1975. There reportedly were other earlier regulations, but they were intended to deal with disease prevention rather than pollution control.

Septic tanks had become more widespread in Florida during the post-World War II housing boom that outstripped the ability of cities to provide sewer service.

The problem the County Commission and state health officials are dealing with today is that the fees the state has set for septic tank inspections leaves the Polk County Health Department with a $126,492 deficit in the current year alone, according to a presentation during a work session Wednesday.

State law allows health officials to seek approval for local surcharges to help the operations to break even.

Polk commissioners passed a resolution containing a revised list of fees to accomplish that in 2016, but they didn’t know and were not told by staff that there were fee increases included for their friends in the development industry.

When health officials began charging the fees earlier this year, the stuff that goes into the septic tanks hit the fan.

The Polk County Builders Association contacted Commissioner George Lindsey, a longtime member of the organization, and he pressed their case with health officials.

The result tentatively worked out during this week’s work session is for the local surcharge for new septic tank inspections to be $50 instead of the $125 originally proposed, which will leave health officials with smaller deficit of $72,792, which they say they can cover by cutting back on other things.

But Dr. Joy Jackson, the director of the Polk Health Department, emphasized the importance of making sure the department’s programs are properly funded because any lapse could potentially increase the risk to public health.

For instance, there was discussion of cutting back on the frequency of inspecting drinking water systems in order to make up for the funds lost by lowering local septic tank surcharges.

Commissioners tentatively agreed to temporarily reinstate some local fees for septic tank inspections—they had already approved the fee schedules for non-developer-related businesses such as tattoo parlors and tanning salons—but want the fees to expire next June in hopes of pressuring the Florida Legislature to approve a new state fee schedule that will get counties out of the supplemental fee business.

Good luck with that.

If experience is any guide, any changes the Legislature makes—absence some well-publicized crisis—will take more than a year.

The other part that’s certainly no slam dunk is what level of fees the state will charge in its revised list.

You can bet lobbyists for the development industry and any other industry or trade group affected by these fees will be seeking to keep the fees as low as possible.

That means the deficits and compromises on providing adequate public health inspections and prevention programs will continue to be a struggle in Polk County and elsewhere.



Mosaic, DeSoto Commission To Hold Talks On Mine Denial

The DeSoto County Commission agreed this week to enter into mediation with Mosaic over the phosphate company’s attempt to get approval to rezone 14,000 acres to allow phosphate mining.

Commissioners voted 4-1 on July 25 to deny the request.

Mosaic officials formally requested mediation in an Aug. 14 letter to the commission, according to news reports.

The prospect that the mediation may result in a reversal of the July 25 vote has angered mining opponents.

The principal issues in this debate over mining include water use, protection of the Peace River and its tributaries and loss of native habitat and productive farmland.

Two major landowners are seeking protection via conservation easements for ranches in this area of the Peace River Basin.



Cabinet Hearing On BS Ranch Case Reveals Troubling Problems For Polk

This week Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously to uphold Polk County’s decision to reverse itself and amend its growth plan to correct a bad decision to change its development rules simply to accommodate the developers of a soil manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Lakeland that was built in the wrong place without the proper permits.

But it’s not really clear whether the ruling means much in the long run.

The dispute between Polk County and the owners of BS Ranch is still unresolved in the court system and that venue, not Tallahassee, is where this will all be sorted out.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s hearing exposed the malleability of Polk County planning decisions.

The staff report at the 2016 hearing that carved out an exemption for BS Ranch to accede to the company’s request to remain in its industrial location used the same data from a survey of a handful of Florida counties as was used in the 2017 hearing that pulled soil manufacturing back into the same land-use category has landfills.

The only thing different in the 2017 staff report was the absence of gushing praise for the facility, which the staff report described as “like no other in Polk” in the best sense of the term rather than in the reality that ensued and brought the turnabout.

The change the commission approved in 2017 still allows BS Ranch to continue operating, but it may have problems expanding substantially or marketing its operation to another corporation as long as it is a legal non-conforming use.

One of the key findings in this week’s Tallahassee hearing was that it within county commissioners’ discretion to change their minds about issues.

The dispute as the legal fight continues is not over whether Polk County can use its discretion in making planning decisions, but how well based those decisions are.

This case, in some ways, is reminiscent of the fight over another business, which like BS Ranch, opened without getting the proper permits and sought an after-the-fact approval.

I’m talking about Thomas Landing on Lake Kissimmee.

This fish camp, which started out as simply a request to build a lakefront home on a lot that didn’t have frontage on a county road, opened in 1989 and finally came in for proper permits in 1991.

Polk commissioners denied the initial permit request and the owner successfully sued. A judge ruled in 1992 the denial was unjustified because it wasn’t based on sound data and analysis and ordered Polk County to give the man his permit.

The County Commission approved a permit with conditions in 1994.

Thomas violated those conditions by opening an RV park on the property in 2001, again without proper permits.

The case dragged on for years and Thomas Landing is still operating.

The BS Ranch case could drag on for years, too.

Trying to accommodate scofflaws will get you every time.




The Road That Will Not Die

If you thought the eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway was dead, think again.

State transportation officials in late 2015 had shelved the project because they concluded it was not economically viable as a toll road and could not be justified as anything other than a toll road.

Thursday the Polk Transportation Planning Organization approved the draft amendments for the Florida Department of Transportation’s Transportation Improvement Plan.

Included in the list of projects was $13.2 million for preliminary engineering for four sections of this proposed 25-mile toll highway, which would stretch from somewhere near the CSX freight terminal in Winter Haven across U.S. .27 and into rural areas east of Haines City before looping back to connect to somewhere on Interstate 4.

Sierra has opposed this road because it promotes urban sprawl, threatens wildlife habitat and makes management, particularly fire management, more difficult.

The road is being backed by the business community, which sees it as a tool for opening additional areas for development and providing a more direct route for freight transportation.

The purported reason local planners have advanced for the road, which was first proposed in 2008, was to offer an alternative to the increasingly congested section of U.S. 27.

However, it is worth pointing out that the congestion on U.S. 27 reflects general growth in the state as well as the growth decisions that local officials have made in the past two decades that has increased local traffic as well.

All new roads are development magnets and in the result is that we’ll end up with two congested corridors instead of one.





Remember the Bluebelt Amendment? It may be coming back

In 1988 Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that would allow local officials to allow property tax breaks for land that offers high recharge value to the aquifer.

The idea was championed by the late Henry Swanson, a longtime head of the Orange County Extension Office.

The Legislature left it up to counties to decide whether to authorize the tax break. There were few if any takers.

Now comes Denise Grimsley, a Republican candidate for Florida agriculture commissioner, who has issued an extensive position paper on water, which includes encouraging more counties to enact the tax break.

The tricky part of this tax break is what the incentive means for landowners.

For instance, if the property already has a greenbelt classification, the taxes are already pretty low.

To qualify for another exemption, the landowners would have to establish whether their property qualifies for the additional tax break.

This requires some kind of technical evaluation, according to a 1990 U.S. Geological Survey pilot study to determine how this all might work.

Most of the rest of Grimsley’s views on water resources and water pollution pretty much mirror the existing philosophy in Tallahassee and those of the current ag commissioner.


Florida Officials Want Feedback On Greenways And Trails Plan

Florida’s Office of Greenways and Trails is seeking comments on its latest draft plan to fund, expand and promote the state’s trail system.

The deadline to comment is Aug. 31. Comments should be directed to .

–Some of the highlights of the proposal include:

–Proposing land or water trails that provide important links to conservation lands, historic sites or other destinations.

–Connecting existing trails to provide some longer, multi-day trail experiences.

–Securing funding –the Office of Greenways and Trails has received no state funding from the Florida Forever program since 2010—to develop new trails.

–Develop a marketing program to make the public and tourists more aware of the trail system’s recreational opportunities.

–Providing technical help to small and rural communities to develop local trail systems.

In the meantime, visit a new trail or a new trail section and get to know what the system has to offer.

To learn more about the Florida hiking, bicycling and paddling trails, go to this site.




Stormwater Tax Funding Lots of Projects

The stormwater tax the County Commission finally approved in 2012—after 25 years of discussion-is helping to pay for a lot of water-quality improvement projects, according to the annual report presented to the County Commission Tuesday by Dave Carter, chairman of the Stormwater Technical Advisory Committee.

Overall there are $15.6 million in planned projects.

They include restoring the natural rehydration of drained marshes wests of Crooked Lake, restoring drained and damaged habitats along tributaries of the Peace River, restoring depressed lake levels on Lake Eva in Haines City, Lake Annie in Dundee and Lake McLeod in Eagle Lake. Another project would explore the feasibility of reducing pollution to Crystal Lake.

Carter said the current tax rate of 10 cents per $1,000 of taxable value is adequate to fund approved projects for the foreseeable future.