Planned Toll Road Through Environmental Preserve Suffers Setback

There is sometimes not a lot of good news on the environmental front these days in Florida.

This week was different.

The Orange County Commission voted 6-1 to withdraw its support for a proposed extension of a developer-fueled extension of the Osceola Expressway through a portion of Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area.

The county officials’ earlier support played a role in a decision by a state agency last year to approve granting an easement to allow the road’s route to cut through the 1,700=acre preserve .

Orange County voters had already voted overwhelmingly against allowing the road to run through this popular outdoor recreation venue and it was that public sentiment that played a role in Orange County’s reversal, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

The fact is that building roads through environmental preserves always diminishes them.

The incessant thrum of traffic drowns out natural sounds—the songs of birds, the ruffle of tree foliage in a brisk wind, the sound of our own footsteps.

It is too early to say whether Orange County’s decision will derail the toll road, given its developer support and the fact that officials in Tallahassee these days are more apt to side with developer wishes than not.

An update on the project is scheduled to occur when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is the state agency that manages the property., meets next month in Orlando.

This is worth watching because of its implications here in Polk County.

As many of you know, construction is already underway on a new toll road that will level the scenic oak hammock at the northeast corner of the Marshall Hampton Reserve across Lake Hancock from Circle B Bar Reserve.

More troubling is a plan unveiled at a County Commission retreat as an unfunded “need” a few years ago to realign Deen Still Road in the Green Swamp to create a new route that would cut through the Hampton Tract and Colt Creek State Park to create a more direct route for truck traffic between U.S. 27 and U.S. 98.

That revived a proposal briefly advanced by Florida Department of Transportation officials in the 1970s that likely stalled when the state declared a good portion of the Green Swamp as an Area of Critical State Concern because of its importance to the region’s water supplies. The Green Swamp is also the hub of a system of regional wildlife corridors and more and faster traffic is not good news for migrating wildlife.

Fortunately, there is no money at this point to build that road and there is unlikely to be enough money from local sources now that the current County Commission decided recently to reject the idea of having a sales tax referendum to fund projects like this.

What some future County Commission might decide, as the Orange County example shows, could change all of this.

The public needs to be vigilant.



Polk Road Tax Referendum Will Not Happen

The Polk County Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday to reject a proposal to put a half-cent sales tax on the November 2024 ballot.

The vote came after hearing testimony in support of the referendum from a procession of city officials from most of Polk’s 17 municipalities and a member of the local business community.

While commissioners acknowledged people they talk to agree that the county road system should be improved, they disagreed that raising taxes is a desirable solution.

Commissioner Neil Combee was the most vocal opponent. He argued that there will never be enough money to pay for all of the road projects that have been proposed.

Commissioner George Lindsey, who has been speaking to city commissions and civic clubs for several months to gain support for the tax, argued unsuccessfully that Polk is no longer a rural county, but instead is a place where population has increased at one of the highest rates in the nation and will continue to grow. Meanwhile, its transportation funding has not kept up, which is why the tax is needed, he said.

Combee said a lot of people do not celebrate Polk’s growth rate.

Commission Chairman Bill Braswell said there was truly a public demand for more road funding, the public is free to gather petition signatures and put it on the ballot.

What he did not mention that after a pair of citizen initiatives successfully cut commissioners’ salaries in half and imposed term limits, commissioners raised the signature threshold to discourage future efforts.



Polk Commissioners To Decide Tuesday On Road Tax Referendum

Whether Polk County voters will once again be asked to raise the local sales tax to finance future road projects will be on the Polk County Commission agenda Tuesday.

If commissioners agree, which is not a foregone conclusion, the measure will be on the November 2024 ballot.

Sierra, which lobbied for a referendum last year to ask voters to increase taxes to buy environmental lands, has no position on whether this measure should be placed on the ballot.

There is quite a bit of background to this request.

The development community-influenced County Commission has placed a series of road tax measures on the ballot dating to 1992. Voters have rejected all of them.

The only advance in road funding came with the approval two decades ago of a significant property tax increase, which did not require voter approval, on homeowners and businesses as the result of a heavily choreographed business community backed Polk Vision campaign that focused on a multimillion-dollar infrastructure deficit. That deficit was primarily the result of the County Commission’s refusal –at the bidding of the development community–to levy impact fees on new development.

And even when commissioners finally agreed to levy impact fees, they never agreed to levy the full amount recommended by consultants.

That tax bite for developer priorities increased slightly in 2015 when instead of cutting taxes after the 1994 environmental lands tax expired, commissioners simply repurposed part of the tax to pay for road projects and other budget priorities.

County Commissioner George Lindsey, the main proponent for the measure, appears to be enlisting support from city officials to promote the idea, according to the County Commission agenda.

If commissioners agree to place the measure on the ballot, our main issue will involve just what projects would be funded if voters approve the measure.

Sometimes in Bartow it is hard to know what is a real need and what is simply something on some developer’s or transportation planner’s wish list.

The lack of transparency on road funding expenditure decisions complicates this discussion.

Earlier this year commissioners agreed to pay $10.8 million in cash and impact fee credits to a combination of dummy corporations related to a local developer to pay for the construction of a new road whose main purpose seemed to be to allow for the development of the developer’s landlocked parcel, with the promise of more funding for future road projects to extend the same road in another direction. If you listened to the narrative relating to the agenda item at the commission meeting, you would have learned nothing about this arrangement.

There are certainly traffic congestion problems in parts of Polk County– which has been proudly billed by local boosters as one of the fastest growing counties in the nation.

Whether increasing taxes to try to ameliorate the problems is simply delusional, good public policy or a scam to simply open up more undeveloped land to sprawl will be up to the voters to sort out if the measure reaches the ballot.

Stay tuned.


Consider A Healthy Alternative To Black Friday

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is a day when advertising campaigns lure lots of people to shopping centers to do some early holiday shopping.

But here at Sierra, we’d like to offer an alternative.

That would be to get outdoors to hike, paddle or just enjoy nature.

The campaign is called #OptOutside.

You can plan your own event with some friends, or you might want to sign up for some Sierra outings planned that weekend.

For some suggestions, go to Events | Help Wildlife, Protect the Environment, Support Nature Conservation, Save the Planet (



Extension Of Commuter Rail Into Polk Getting Pushback

The idea of encouraging the extension of the Orlando-area SunRail commuter rail service into Polk County that trumpeted in recent press reports is far from a done deal.

The 22-member Polk County Transportation Planning Organization has endorsed the idea of the Florida Department of Transportation and its consultants to continue studying the idea.

But a five-member bloc on the panel consisting of the Polk County Commission made it clear during Tuesday’s meeting that they are not on board with anything beyond the study phase.

The people conducting the study made some attractive claims about the benefits of the SunRail extension at October’s TPO meeting.

It would eliminate millions of commuter trips that now clogged highways, it would eliminate thousands of tons of greenhouse gases and it would potentially support economic development around future stations, consultants estimated, based on a limited polling sample and very preliminary data.

Right now the nearest SunRail stop is just off U.S, 17-92 in Poinciana.

Commissioners focused on the costs.

It would cost $23 million a mile to extend the line and the operating costs are estimated at $12 million a year.

That could divert money from other projects in the county’s transportation budget, commissioners complained.

They acknowledged there could initially be state or federal subsidies, but noted that pot of money eventually runs out and local government will be stuck with the tab.

Commissioners also wondered whether Polk had the urban density to make commuter rail attractive.

Although the consultant report mentioned seven potential stations in Polk, the fine print indicated the number would probably be fewer and there’s the issue of locating suitable sites for stations.

Lakeland is the only place along the Polk route that still has an active railroad station.

The preliminary study said station sites would have to meet all kinds of connectivity criteria for pedestrians and bicyclists and transit to qualify for funding.

However, as a practical matter the stations would also probably have to have adequate parking for commuters who choose to drive to the stations because that is the only practical way for them to get there.

This discussion will continue over the next several years and will include public meetings.

Stay tuned.


$7M State Grant To Advance Peace Creek Wetlands Restoration Plans


Land along the Peace Creek near the U.S. 27-Cypress Gardens Boulevard intersection following the 2004 hurricanes

Land along a World War I-vintage agricultural drainage project that eliminated thousands of acres of natural wetlands may be on its way to partial restoration.

On Tuesday the Polk County Commission agreed to accept a $7 million grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that will aid in the eventual restoration of land along the Peace Creek Drainage Canal.

The Peace Creek Drainage Canal is a 31-mile-long ditch that begins at the south end of Lake Hamilton along a course that takes it through the outer suburbs of Winter Haven and Lakes Wales before joining Saddle Creek in northern Bartow to form the Peace River.

According to maps from about the time of Florida statehood in 1845, there was a natural stream between the beginning of the Peace River and the drainage canal’s first crossing of what is today State Road 60. Beyond that lay a network of marshes and sloughs.

Canal dredging, which began around 1915, was intended to drain 224 square miles as much as possible to allow agricultural activities ranging from a banana plantation to cattle ranching to occur.

Restoration of some sort has been discussed since at least 1991.

The tentative plan outlined Tuesday appears to target some of the lowest-lying flood-prone areas along the canal such as the area around the intersection of Cypress Gardens Boulevard and U.S. 27 and areas along State Road 60 between Lake Wales and Bartow.

The work, which will be aided this year with an additional $7.9 million from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, is intended to begin work on project design and a plan to determine which property the county will attempt to purchase to carry out the project.

County Manager Bill Beasley said additional funds are expected to become available later in what he described as a “multi-year project.”

Although officially this is wetlands restoration and flood control project, in the background are the Polk Regional Water Cooperative’s efforts to use wetlands storage and consequent aquifer recharge along the Peace Creek Drainage Canal as part of a long-term strategy to secure additional water supplies for new development.




Summer’s Over; So Is Record Heat

The record-setting heat that was reported in the area this past summer is over.

Instead of being one of the 10 hottest months on record, the October temperatures were more likely within the top 100, according to the National Weather Service.

Rainfall was scarce, too, with Winter Haven recording its 15th driest October with less than an inch of rainfall recorded.

The Peace River is flowing about a third of its long-term average flow for this time of year at its beginning in Bartow.

The current flow is only marginally strong enough for paddling, though recent reports of numerous fallen trees along the river may require some scouting before planning a serious trip downstream.

The effects of El Nino are predicted to produce a wetter-than-normal winter, however, which may eventually restore normal flow.