Creek Ranch May Not Be Developed After All

The controversy over the potential development of Creek Ranch near Lake Hatchineha has taken an unexpected turn.

Owner Harold Baxter has applied for consideration to seek the state’s purchase of a conservation easement over the property.

His application is scheduled to be discussed by the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council when it meets Dec. 8 in Tallahassee.

The property lies in a corridor that contains thousands of acres of public and private conservation lands north and south of the ranch.

Marian Ryan, conservation chair for Sierra’s Ancient Islands Group, plans to testify in favor of the proposal.

The property has been the subject of intensive public discussion after the longtime cattle ranch was purchased by Baxter, a local developer, and was announced as the site of a housing development and a new high school.

Area residents objected to putting a new high school in what they contend is an important wildlife corridor. There have been documented sightings of Florida panther and Florida black bear nearby.

Residents and at least one area property owner have proposed alternate school sites. School officials are evaluating the proposals.

Obviously, if the conservation easement purchase occurs, the ranch would no longer be available for a school site because the state would have purchased the development rights and school officials would be forced to look elsewhere.

Stay tuned.

More Thoughts On Nov. 8 Environmental Victories

The voters are ahead of the suits, it seems, based on the results of the Nov. 8 referendums in six counties in which the electorate was asked to tax themselves to preserve more green spaces.

Voters in Alachua, Brevard, Indian River, Nassau, Pasco and Polk approved a mix of property tax and sales tax increases to preserve what they can ahead of the bulldozers.

A couple of things were striking about the votes.

In two counties—Alachua and Polk–in which the local Republican Party recommended rejection, the measures passed anyway. There was a red ripple in Florida after all when it came to conservation.

And it was not as though voters were tax happy this year. Voters rejected proposed sales tax increases in Hernando, Hillsborough, Orange, St. Johns and Walton counties that were primarily proposed to catch up with transportation backlogs. Those backlogs are the inevitable result of approving development hand over fist without levying adequate impact fees to put development costs on a more pay-as-you-go basis.   

Looking ahead, the next challenge will be implementing the results of the elections. That will involve appointing committees to review acquisition proposals and finding landowners willing to participate with the expectation that they will receive fair compensation for their property. Once lands are purchased, management plans will follow and the public should be involved in this process.

Also, there is the prospect that the development community will propose a sales tax referendum in 2024 to finance so-called priority road projects. This would be the latest attempt in a history of local transportation sales tax referendums stretching back to 1992. Voters rejected all of them.

For Sierra, the issue has been some of the projects that have been listed as priorities that could be funded by any approved tax.

One involves realigning Deen Still Road to build a truck route through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern and then continuing straight through thousands of acres of conservation lands—including a portion of Colt Creek State Park—to make a more direct connection between U.S. 27 and U.S. 98.

Others involve building brand-new roads through a corner of the Green Swamp and through rural lands in northeast Polk in what seems to be a way to build a controversial section of the Central Polk Parkway by other means.

Remain vigilant. Remain involved.




Polk School Board Needs Fresh Look At Haines City School Sites To Avoid Blocking Key Everglades Wildlife Corridor

Polk County School Board members need to take a really fresh look at suitable locations for a new high school that is intended to relieve overcrowding at Haines City High School.

The issue came up earlier this year when word reached area residents that the board was seriously considering a developer-initiated proposal to locate a new school at Asana Ranch on Hatchineha Road near Poinciana. The ranch lies in a corridor between Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Everglades Headwater National Wildlife Refuge and The Nature Conservancy’s Hatchineha Ranch property to the south and the South Florida Water Management District’s Lake Marion Creek Wildlife Management Area and TNC’s Disney Wilderness Preserve property to the north.

There are documented occurrences of Florida panther and Florida black bear movements in this corridor.

The proposed school site would be nestled somewhere into a proposed residential subdivision, which still requires a growth map change and development approval from the County Commission. Whether those approvals are forthcoming is unknown at this point.

Since then another area landowner reached out to school officials and a group of residents opposed to the original site provided school officials with other potential school sites.

However, at last week’s board meeting, the staff was quick to try to cast doubt on the other sites in favor of the site that was originally offered, but the staff analyses of the other sites seem misleading at first glance.

For instance, the Bowen Brothers property at the corner of Hatchineha Road and Firetower Road was flagged as having potential wetlands and endangered plant species “in the area.”

A look at the property on the Polk County Property Appraiser’s website doesn’t seem to support that claim. The 332.65-acre site contains only 0.95 acres described as a swamp. The bulk of the property is improved pasture, which is an unlikely location for listed plant species.

There are listed plant species (which, by the way, for good or ill cannot be used to stop a project) “in the area,” but they are likely located on nearby conservation lands.

Then there was the analysis of another site that the staff ominously reported was located in a utility enclave area and may not have adequate water or sewer capacity, though no numbers were mentioned in a press account of the meeting. The “utility enclave” is Grenelefe Resort, which was in a relatively isolated rural area when it was first developed in the 1970s, but is now at the edge of city limits of Haines City.

There’s a good argument that it is no longer the enclave it once was and securing adequate utility capacity may not be an issue.

These two examples, instead, are an argument for Polk School Board members to seek a more objective, independent analysis of potential sites than they were getting from their staff planner.

There’s no question the current overcrowding in Haines City justifies the construction of a new high school, but school officials should not pick a site that crowds out wildlife in the process.





The Sierra Club backed local referendum in Polk County to restart funding for the environmental lands funding was decisively approved Tuesday by voters.

The victory, by a 58 percent to 41 percent majority, occurred despite opposition by the Polk County Republican Party, which prevailed in statewide races.

The referendum, which went to the ballot on a 3-2 County Commission vote, will allow the purchase of additional lands to fill gaps that were not addressed from funding voters approved in 1994 to establish the Polk County Environmental Lands program.

The margin was decisive, unlike the 51-49 percent margin in 1994.

The win occurred despite a recommendation by the Polk County Republican Party to ask party members, whose numbers have surged in recent years, to vote against the referendum.

However, the grassroots effort launched by a group called Polk Forever, whose members included Ancient Islands Sierra Group activists, heard from residents concerned about the destruction of native habitat to make way for the development of sprawling subdivisions in a county whose population is projected to increase to 1 million residents in the next 20 years.

Now that the referendum has passed, the hard work will begin to attract willing landowners to sign up to participate in the program when funding becomes available beginning in the 2023-24 fiscal year.

The effort focused on four key areas: the Green Swamp in northern Polk, which is the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers, the high point of the Floridan Aquifer and a hub for a statewide network of wildlife corridors; the Peace River, which connects to the Charlotte Harbor Estuary and is a major wildlife and recreational corridor; the Lake Wales Ridge, which is a network of prehistoric desert islands that is the home of plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet and the Upper Kissimmee River Basin, which is the headwaters of the Everglades and a mosaic of habitats vital for the protection of a number of rare an endangered species.

The program would be open to willing sellers who would either seek to sell their property outright or to sell development rights under a conservation easement that would allow the property to remain in private ownership but restrict future development.

All proposed purchases would be a reviewed by a committee appointed by the County Commission that would submit its recommendation to the commission.

All purchases will require County Commission approval.

Polk was one of five Florida counties with environmental land referendums on the ballot Tuesday .

Voters in Alachua, Brevard, Indian River and Nassau counties were also deciding on this issue.

Preliminary results in those counties Tuesday evening showed those measures passing by comfortable margins

Green Swamp’s Hampton Tract To Close Temporarily For Hog Hunts

The 11,052-acre Hampton Tract managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District will close to the general public Nov. 15-17 to accommodate planned hog hunts.

Feral hogs are not native to North America and cause extensive damage to native habitats, which justifies periodic hunts to control their populations.

During the hunt, access will be limited to the 30 hunters who obtained permits under the program.

The tract will reopen to the public Nov. 18.

The Hampton Tract is one of several parcels in Polk and adjacent counties that make up the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve.

They lie in and adjacent to the Green Swamp Area Critical State Concern, which contains the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers and serves as a hub for a statewide system of wildlife corridors as well as providing habitat for a wide variety of native plants and animals.



Polk County To End Curbside Recycling By 2024

Polk County’s long, complicated relationship with recycling is scheduled to end when the new garbage contracts take effect on Oct. 1., 2024.

That was the consensus at the end of a lengthy Nov. 1 work session during which Solid Waste Director Ana Wood Rogers outlined four possible future scenarios for the future of residential recycling.

Polk County did not begin offering curbside recycling until 1999. Before then the county grudgingly opened a network of dropoff locations for glass, aluminum and steel cans and paper, though the sites often attracted illegal dumping.

The initial curbside allowed separation of materials to reduce contamination, but that ended in 2017 with the coming of recycling carts and the end of glass recycling.

Only about half of the county’s 155,000 customers participate, according to county officials.

Commissioners were quick to reject the current program’s continuation because it requires a multi-million-dollar annual subsidy to cover processing costs for the estimated 24,000 tons of recyclables collected annual in incorporated Polk County.

This decision does not affect city recycling programs, which city officials who still maintain the programs have agreed to subsidize.

Rogers said two main factors contribute to the problems with the current program.

One is market uncertainty that affects the prices Polk receives for what few materials it still accepts.

The other is the recurring problem with cart contamination, which involves residents placing items that are no longer accepted or were never accepted in their carts. This often causes entire loads end up in the landfill instead of the recycling processing center.

Although Polk officials have been aware of the contamination problem for years, they’ve never launched a serious public education program to address it.

Disposal of various grades of plastic containers are one of the main contamination problems. This is an outgrowth of decades of propaganda and greenwashing by the petroleum and chemical industries to persuade the public these items were recyclable when they never were.

The result of these fraudulent recycling campaigns was the topic of a recent report released by Greenpeace, which concluded that not only is plastic recycling a myth, it is an environmental hazard because it generates microplastics, which can get into the food chain, and releases toxic materials into the environment.

The solution, according to the Greenpeace report, is to switch to systems that allow reuse and refilling of containers.

However, that approach, which harks back to the days of universal soft drink and milk bottle deposits, typically runs into opposition from retailers in this country.

Another option was for Polk County to suspend residential recycling for a couple of years while the county spends an estimated $12 million to upgrade the current processing center to end the county’s reliance on private vendors.

What commissioners settled on what a proposal end recycling and let any residents who want to recycle to contract with an as-yet-non-existent private recycling company. This was how regular residential garbage collection was handled before 1989 in unincorporated areas of the county.

Commissioners agreed that some sort of public-education campaign will be necessary to inform the public about the changes, but rejected the idea of holding a public forum to get input on the changes.