Suit Will Test Polk’s Developer-Friendly Policy Rationale

A recently filed lawsuit may resolve a long-simmering dispute that has pitted rural homeowners against developers and Polk’s developer-friendly planning practices.

The specific case involves repeated attempts to win approval for various versions of a subdivision in a still-rural section near Kathleen, an unincorporated area north of Lakeland.

It involved creating a subdivision with as much as 10 times the density of the adjacent rural homesteads.

The rationale for approval by county planners has included one of the made-up sops to developers that give them extra density credits for not developing wetlands on their property even though a lot of wetlands are undevelopable anyway and a policy that says that if there is denser development on a majority of the land within two miles of the project site, it’s okay to approve denser development here. Sometimes they also throw in the transit-supported development district overly even in areas where transit use isn’t likely to justify higher density.

The rationale for that two-mile policy and its application appears to be at the heart of the court challenge, according to a report in The Ledger.

The controversy over this development, which was first proposed in some form or another a couple of years ago, spawned a short-lived effort to draft regulations to better define compatibility to give developers some way to predict when their proposal would be approved. The effort ended when it became clear that compatibility is always a subjective judgment.

Subsequent controversial public hearings, such as the decision on whether to allow a solar farm in the middle of the Chicora community in southwest Polk, have reinforced this conclusion.

The rural solar farm disputes are now moot. The Florida Legislature has stepped in to tell local officials that solar farms can go into any rural agricultural area with a willing seller and they don’t have much say in the matter.

Legislators also passed a measure to include a property rights element in local growth plans. In land-use cases, property rights claims cut both ways, so it will be interesting to see what the effect will be and whether the rules will be written to accommodate development interests at the expense of surrounding homeowners since property rights claims have been raised in some recent development cases.







Former Polk Commissioner Hall Named To Swiftmud Board

Former Polk County Commissioner John Hall has been appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the Southwest Florida Water Management District Governing Board, subject to Florida Senate confirmation.

Hall’s name was submitted last year by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative at a time when there were numerous long-standing vacancies on this and other water boards around the state.

This is one of two seats on the board allocated for Polk County.

The other seat is held by Ashley Bell Barnett of Winter Haven, who was appointed in December.



Winter Haven To Study Toilet-To-Tap Feasibility

The quest for alternative water sources includes looking at more efficient ways of using—or reusing—Polk County’s available water supply is taking a new turn.

Winter Haven officials recently received funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for a $200,000 feasibility study to explore turning the 4 million gallons a day of treated sewage the city discharges into a tributary of the Peace River into drinking water.

Most of the other major sewer plants in Polk County eliminated surface discharges long ago. That water, referred to by the sanitized term “reclaimed” water, has been committed to lawn irrigation or power plant cooling.

An important aspect of these studies will involve examining water quality issues. In addition to existing standards for contaminants such as bacteria and metals, the study is supposed to look at what are known as contaminants of emerging concern. This refers to chemicals found in pharmaceuticals, personal care products, household products, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals. Some are suspected of being endocrine disrupters, which can cause cancer and birth defects.

Detection of these chemicals is not part of typical drinking water analyses. They are an issue in treated sewage because people flush unused pills and other items down toilets to dispose of them. Sewer lines are also subject to infiltration of groundwater contaminants because, unlike water lines, they are not pressurized.

The study could point to the need to conduct additional treatment of this wastewater to make it suitable for human consumption.

The study is part of a larger effort to meet future water demand in response to projected population growth in Florida.

Other local projects being considered by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative include two Lower Florida Aquifer well complexes at the edge of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern in northwest Polk and the Lake Walkinwater area in southeastern Polk, development of a reservoir somewhere along the Peace River and water storage in wetlands along the Peace Creek Drainage Canal.







American Wetlands Month Is A Time To Reflect On A Sometimes Neglected Habitat That’s Worth Protecting

Wetlands are one of the major features of Florida’s landscape.

Before the draglines and the steam shovels that preceded them turned lush landscapes into drained wastelands, wetlands were an even more prominent landscape feature in this state.

Some restoration has occurred since then.

The Kissimmee River marshes are returning. So are parts of the historic Everglades marshes farther south.

The Banana Creek Marsh at Circle B Bar Reserve near Lakeland was once pumped dry for cattle grazing. It’s now wet again.

Lake Gwyn Park in Wahneta was created after a drainage ditch was filled in and natural water regimes were allowed to return. Lush wetlands followed.

There are smaller examples of less extensive wetlands within subdivisions or at the edges of local parks.

Some are managed for the vegetation and wildlife populations they harbor, providing important microhabitats.

Others are overmanaged, perpetuating the unnatural idea that landscapes should be neat and tidy with no room for wildness. Habitat is not the vocabulary of those sites’ managers.

That approach summons the memory of the Scythians, an ancient tribe that laid waste to everything in its path to deprive pursuing armies of any resources to sustain them.

Habitat needs to be sustainable if it is to have any real value.

This was brought to mind when word reached me that May is American Wetlands Month, an observance created in 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to celebrate the importance of wetlands by educating the public about their features and how to enjoy them.

I’ve been enjoying some local wetlands lately.

Most recently I visited some neighborhood wetlands.

I saw wading birds, marsh birds, marsh rabbits, dragonflies and wildflowers. I saw several species of sedges, the cousins of our grasses. A Brown Pelican, some Wood Ducks and a pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks passed overhead.

Before that I hiked on a berm through a larger regional wetlands.

The wildlife species was even more diverse. I saw more than 25 species of birds during just a short visit.

Black fuzzy Common Gallinule chicks trailed their parents at the water’s edge.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes foraged with their nearly full-grown offspring.

Migratory species are still around.

A startled Sora, a species of rail, suddenly leaped out of the tall grass and settled in just as quickly.

A flock of Bobolinks was still fueling up amid a stand of Barnyard Grass.

An Osprey circled overhead before diving for a fish.

The more time you spend watching wetlands, the more its floral and faunal diversity will become evident.

It should make anyone an advocate for protecting them.






Polk’s Hypergrowth Ranking Isn’t All Good News

The Lakeland-Winter Haven area’s population has increased more than just about everyplace else in the United States last year, The Ledger reports, citing census data.

Some perspective is probably called for.

The article cited no population figures, but the mathematical reality sides with smaller metropolitan areas in this kind of comparison. Adding 20,000 residents to a metro area with a population of a million will produce a higher growth rate than if it were added to a metro area with 3 million residents.

Nevertheless, significant population growth means that more people will be living and driving closer together. Get used to more traffic congestion in a county that admittedly has a large backlog on supposedly needed road improvement projects and no real plan to pay for them. Impact fees are only doing part of the job. This y ear the Legislature made it harder to guarantee there’s no free lunch when it comes to requiring new residents to pay for the costs of providing the services and infrastructure they demand by limiting impact fees.

Meanwhile, the recurring theme of developer requests recently has been to decrease single-family setbacks just short of duplex density.

That has a cascade effect on things like school capacity, a factor complicated by the fact that school officials are limited to how proactive they can be in buying land for expected needs for new schools. At the same time, they’re competing in the same increasingly overheated real estate market as developers. The school sales tax and impact fees help, but they’re not enough. School. Board members are willing to raise property taxes to pay for this, but legislators have prohibited them from doing something that fiscally responsible.

Well, at least new residents won’t have much of a yard to take care of, which is a good thing related to another growth-related stress point.

That involves something the article didn’t mention, which is the emerging stress on water supplies. Residential lawn irrigation generates a lot of the increased demand. Finding water to quench the demand of the growth machine is now the focus of multi-billion-dollar efforts involving deeper wells, desalination plants and a pipeline network.

Hold onto your wallet for that one.