Toll Road “Avoidance” Map Needs Work

Florida Department of Transportation officials released a more usable map of the areas the proposed toll road through the southwest Florida heartland will supposedly avoid.

To save face, they stamped it as a draft document.

Well, first the good news.

The road won’t cross any lakes, though rivers and creeks may be another since it is hard to cross that big an area without building a bridge somewhere.

State parks, state forests and national parks and national wildlife refuges are off limits. The map doesn’t depict all of the public conservation lands, so we’ll have to take their word for it.

Next, the fake news.

Local public conservation lands are supposedly protected, though the map depicts the Marshall Hampton Reserve on Lake Hancock as a protected area even though a northern leg of this project will push right through and raze the scenic oak hammock on its northern end.

Some privately owned conservation lands and private lands protected by conservation easements are depicted on the map. Many are not.

It will be interesting to see if anyone raises questions about whether building a new highway through land protected by a conservation easement violates the easement provisions.

Additionally, some of the so-called avoidance areas lie in areas where it never seemed likely the road’s route would be located in the first place even though they lie in the study area, creating an impression of environmental generosity that didn’t really exist.

Finally, the map appears to ignore any lands listed as high-priority conservation purchases that remain unfunded because the Florida Legislature refuses to appropriate the money authorized by a constitutional amendment.

The next southwest toll road task force meeting will occur next Wednesday at the Bert Harris Agriculture Center in Sebring.



Still No Clear Answer From Turnpike Folks On Hampton Reserve Access

People who enjoy the trail system on the east side of Lake Hancock still have no clear answer from the Florida Turnpike Enterprise on future access to the trailhead at the Marshall Hampton Reserve.

The site is in the path of the western leg of the Central Polk Parkway , which will run between State Road 60 and the Polk Parkway. The road is scheduled to be under construction by 2023. It is intended to divert truck traffic from the CSX freight terminal and other locations from the local highway network through Bartow and Lakeland.

The new road will mean the destruction of the oak hammock on the reserve and blocking the current public access to the site.

Ancient Islands Sierra has been pressing transportation officials and officials at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the property, to resolve the issue but project consultants so far have not been forthcoming to Sierra or to Swifmtud.

The only response is that more details may be available at a public meeting scheduled sometime next summer.

Getting answers soon is important because once project reaches its final planning stage, it will likely be impossible to alter the project’s design.


Here We Go Again; “Environmental Governor” DeSantis Pushing Regulatory Backsliding

It is often observed that you shouldn’t judge public officials by what they say, but by what they do.

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s alleged “environmental governor,” is pushing a proposal to allow the already decimated staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to take over federal oversight of wetlands permitting.

We’ve been down this road before. The short version is that Florida doesn’t have the staff to accomplish the job. This issue becomes complicated in the Trump era because the president and his cronies in the regulated industries have worked hard to undermine federal environmental regulations. DeSantis’ proposal threatens to advance that strategy.

This should be viewed in the context of the half measures the Florida Legislature is proposing under the so-called Waterways Protection Act, which in the final analysis may fall short of providing any significant improvement in protecting Florida’s lake, rivers and estuaries from turning into algae pastures. .

How to address the shortcomings in this bill has been a matter of debate within Florida’s environmental community.

Sierra Club has been pretty strong in supporting tougher, more comprehensive measures.

Other groups have argued this is better than nothing and are supporting it.

Perhaps the most telling statement came from DeSantis’ staffer, who touted the legislation as the best to occur in a decade.

Frankly, that’s a pretty low bar to surpass. Most of that decade was occupied by the environmentally tone deaf Rick Scott administration.

You need to recall this was the time when Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam fought proposed tougher federal water pollution standards and Bondi even weighed in to oppose tougher standards to protect Chesapeake Bay, which is far from Florida but may support the Polluters United ruling somewhere.

The DeSantis administration seems to be talking a good game, but when it counts, there are questions about whether we can count on his administration to do the right thing.


Still More Questions Than Answers On Southwest Toll Road Proposal

The legislative-mandated effort create a new highway through southwest Florida from Lakeland to Naples through possibly some of the last wild areas of this state remains long on rhetoric and short on details.

That’s how things looked during the latest meeting Thursday in Moore Haven.

There are still no maps of proposed routes or paths within which the routes might lie even though they were promised to be rolled out by last month.

It is still unclear whether county growth plans will influence the path of the proposed toll road or the proposed toll roads will force county officials to rewrite their plans.

That is, once again home rule may be thrown out the window to satisfy another top-down state dictate, but six months into the discussion local officials are still left in the dark. Add to that the admission that city growth plans have not been used much in the analysis

The discussion on using county land-use maps to figure this revealed that there is so much wiggle room in the provisions governing land-use classifications, that the distinction between rural and urban development areas can be a bit blurred at times. That is, yeah, the map says low-density rural agricultural, but if you bring in a water lines or sewer lines or do a planned development and put in sidewalks and plant trees, welcome to the suburbs.

It seems using rail more for freight movement rather than building new roads is an option that doesn’t seem to have been explored enough.

The plans presented on existing state roads didn’t detail which sections are failing to move traffic very well during peak times of the day. What the ultimate buildout of highways such as Interstate 75 seemed suddenly mysterious to transportation officials ordered to push the new roads because this could also affect whether expanding existing roads will solve the problems building new roads are supposed to solve.

How to pay for all of this was another work in progress since the turnpike folks don’t have unlimited bonding capacity. That is because of their existing obligation to deal with the debt they’ve already piled up in building previous projects. The alternative appears to either raid another state fund or to find private sector funding, but that’s still up in the air.

The standard answer to most of these questions from the Florida Department of Transportation staff running the meeting was that they’d try to assemble the data for the next meeting, which will be March 4 in Sebring.

Meanwhile, if anyone had any doubt about the cozy relationship between the roadbuilding lobby and state government, they got another piece of information to remove that doubt.

It seems that the Florida Legislature approved a three-year program to turn state agencies into the employee recruitment arm of the roadbuilding industry rather than letting the private sector take on this responsibility itself. Where are those people calling for market solutions instead of government subsidies when you need them?

Additionally, this program sponsors its job fairs in urban areas, where people have jobs for the most part, rather than in rural areas where many people are looking for good jobs based on the higher unemployment rates there.




Green Swamp Prescribed Fire To Close SR 471 This Week

Plans by the Florida Forest Service and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to conduct an aerial prescribed burn on 4,000 to 8,000 acres Thursday and Friday will close State Road 471 between U.S. 98 and State Road 50 to all but local traffic. The fire will occur in Sumter County north of Colt Creek State Park.

Trafffic will be detoured to U.S. 301. The burn will occur in the Richloam unit of Withlacoochee State Forest and the Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area.

Residents in northern Polk County may notice smokier-than-normal conditions.


Lakeland Officials Not Excited About Replacing Coal With Solar

When Lakeland officials announced last year that Lakeland Electric planned to phase out its coal-burning plant, there was a push by Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to persuade them to turn to renewables rather than other fossil fuel alternatives, primarily natural gas.

Based on comments at a committee meeting this week, it appears not much solar will be happening.

Three reasons were advanced at the meeting.

While the expense of solar is coming down, it is still not a good deal compared to other fuel sources. No discussion of the externalities of burning fossil fuels occurred.

Solar farms require a lot of land and there isn’t much available land within the highly urbanized Lakeland Electric service area to accommodate many solar farms.

Solar farms are not esthetically pleasing and there are questions about the disposition of the solar farm components once they need to be replaced.

Some commissioners have discussed considering modular nuclear reactors, but those have been controversial because of the cost and the still unresolved issue of how to handle the radioactive waste.

The discussion is expected to continue.


Polk Officials OK RV Park Near Bombing Range Despite Concerns

The Polk County Commission voted unanimously today to approve a rezoning request that will allow the development of a 1,000-space RV park on County Road 630 not far from the edge of the 106,000-acre Avon Park Air Force Range east of Lake Wales.

The approval was unsurprising because the zoning in that area already allows a fair amount of development in rural areas with a planned development, which is pretty much rubber stamped if it meets the minimal criteria in the county’s development regulations.

Representatives of the military base, which is part of one of the largest training facilities in the country, said they were concerned the development of the RV park could lead to complaints that may curtail some military training flights that include low-altitude aerial maneuvers and that lights from the development could disorient pilots who often conduct training flights at night.

But representatives of the approved development said they were willing to work with military officials to resolve any conflicts, adding the proposed development probably poses the least conflict because it will not contain permanent residences.

The proposed development drew criticism from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which reviews proposed growth changes, because state officials said the proposal conflicts with recommendations in a joint land-use study completed several years ago to reduce conflicts between the military base and surrounding development.

However, the study’s recommendations were voluntary and Polk officials did not adopt some of them in deference to developers, according to testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.

In addition, the testimony revealed that state and federal officials did not take advantage of earlier opportunities to acquire the property where the RV park is planned or at least to purchase development rights to limit the intensity of future land uses as it has done on a number of other properties—mostly ranches—surrounding the base.