Although there is still a lot of work to do, this past year generally provided good news for environmental issues within the area served by Sierra’s Ancient Islands Group that stretches from DeSoto to Sumter counties.
The two top stories were the approval by Polk County voters of a referendum to restart funding for the Polk County Environmental Lands’ land-acquisition program and Mosaic’s announcement that it was putting plans to expand phosphate mining in DeSoto County on hold.
The environmental lands referendum, which was approved by a larger margin than the original 1994 proposal, will for the first time allow the program to purchase conservation easements from willing sellers. Some landowners reportedly have already inquired about their eligibility.
In Arcadia, Mosaic announced in July that it will delay plans to ask the DeSoto County Commission to reconsider its decision to rezone thousands of acres to allow phosphate mining until at least 2025.
Meanwhile, county commissioners have staged a series of workshops to hear testimony on various aspects on the effects of phosphate mining on land use, water quality, hydrology, wildlife and air quality featuring Mosaic’s presentations that attempt to justify their operations and assure residents the effects will be minimal. Residents remain skeptical since the planned mining operations would involve nearly a fifth of the county’s area.
But there were other highs and lows throughout the year.
The year did not begin well after a Tallahassee judge ruled against Sierra and other plaintiffs attempting to force the Florida Legislature to properly spend money approved in a 2014 constitutional amendment intended to revive the Florida Forever program.
The curious ruling argued the plaintiff’s, who initially took the issue to court in 2015, had waited too long to press their case, ignoring the fact that it was the defendants who have strung out the process and that there was no attempt to make the compensation retroactive but just telling the Tallahassee establishment to go forth and sin no more.
Nevertheless, some state land purchases continue. Over the past year Florida has purchased conservation easements in Hardee and DeSoto counties on ranchlands along Horse and Charlie creeks.
One of the many threats to the environment and rural communities is the construction of new highways farther and farther into the countryside.
There were mixed results on that front in 2022.
In August state transportation officials announced they were shelving—at least for now—a plan to extend the Florida Turnpike through portions of Sumter County.
But in Polk County plans are still under way to advance plans for the eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway through rural lands on the outskirts of Lake Wales, Haines City and Davenport in an attempt to allegedly relieve congestion on U.S. 27 even though it is unclear whether this will be nothing more than a developer-influenced sprawlway. Worse yet, its northern terminus lies in an already congested section of Interstate 4.
Looking farther ahead, Polk road officials are pushing a plan to realign Deen Still Road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern to build a truck route that would also cut through state conservation lands on its way to U.S. 98. There’s no money for this project, though there is a proposal to put yet another sales tax referendum on the 2024 ballot.
There were controversial development projects that arose in 2022 in rural areas.
The most-discussed was the attempt to turn Creek Ranch near Lake Hatchineha into a new residential subdivision and the site for a new high school. As the year ends, the property owner has now pivoted to ask the state to purchase a conservation easement over the property now that the potential cost has been jacked up because of the development proposal.
Meanwhile, Sierra and area property owners have submitted information about other potential school sites and analyzed the school system’s staff flawed analysis that argued for the original site.
The County Commission also in November voted to deny a plan for a private race track on ranchland near the shore of Lake Walkinwater because it was clearly incompatible. Earlier in the year commissioners denied a request for a new subdivision along the Peace Creek Drainage Canal on the outskirts of Bartow because it was too low-lying. That evaluation was further confirmed after Hurricane Ian when a large section of the property was underwater.
Finally, if you live in unincorporated Polk County enjoy curbside recycling while it lasts.
The County Commission has endorsed a staff proposal to end the current system in 2024 with an option of turning the service, which was never well-promoted and whose contamination problems were never seriously addressed, to a private company to which residents could hire at additional costs.
Happy New Year.