Polk County voters have a short time to cast their ballots on a once-in-a-generation issue on whether the idea of preserving Polk’s green spaces is an inspired idea or a boondoggle.
The issue is on the Nov. 8 ballot, so the discussion is timely.
Polk Forever, the political action committee that is supporting passage, has some important points to make.
The main one is that if this measure does not pass, you can kiss any opportunity to preserve what’s left of Polk’s natural environment goodbye.
Although Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to use documentary stamp revenue on new development to fund substantial conservation land purchases, the Florida Legislature has refused to fund the program to the extent the voters mandated.
That has left the task to local voters, who have so far approved several local referendums and are being asked to approve additional referendums in a number of Florida counties to do the job themselves.
Polk County is one of those counties.
The main arguments against the referendum consist of two claims.
One, advanced by County Commissioner Neil Combee, is that the economic situation—inflation, low unemployment etc. etc.—makes this a bad time to ask for a modest tax increase.
The counterargument is that this is a 20-year investment. The economy will turn around. It always has and it seems short-sighted to think otherwise.
Another, advanced by Commissioner George Lindsey, is that the amendment asks for too much.
Who knows what the price of real estate will be in Polk County in coming years? There has been a lot of discussion that in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, some coastal residents may be looking to move inland. This has been a recurring concern in recent years and could affect the cost of purchasing conservation lands here.
The purpose of the proposed property tax rate is to be able to pay landowners a fair price for the value of their land or its potential development rights.
Additionally, it is notable to advise Polk County voters that Commissioner Lindsey is also championing a 2024 referendum, which so far has not received support from his colleagues, to place yet another sales tax referendum on the 2024 ballot to raise funds for as yet undefined road projects to support increased development in Polk County.
The defeat of the Polk Forever referendum, it seems, would be an argument for the tax burden for the road tax referendum.
However, there are concerns about what the 2024 referendum funding could finance.
Some, such as the funding of a countywide network between U.S.27 and the Polk Parkway via Thompson Nursery Road, would garner public support.
Others such as a truck route through a section the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern including existing conservation lands such as section of Colt Creek State Park to connect to U.S. 98 or a new road through agricultural land in east Polk may not attract the same kind of support.
Another issue both commissioners raised is whether environmentally sensitive land is in the path of development.
They argued development proposals are confined to so-called urban areas, though some recent land sales in the Lake Hatchineha area challenge that assumption.
What’s missing from that narrative, apart from the development aspirations of future County Commissions, are the development aspirations of commissioners in Davenport, Haines City, Dundee, Lake Wales, Frostproof and even Polk City.
Polk Forever’s goal is clear.
It is to provide a conservation legacy for future generations.
The decision involves what kind of county future generations will be able to enjoy.
If this does not pass, we may not get another chance.
Consider that on Nov. 8