ICYMI Environmental Hits and Misses For 2023

Land protection, waterway restoration and zoning disputes were among the highlights of environmental news during the past year in the area.

As the year began, Polk County officials began discussing plans to study replacing septic tanks with centralized sewer treatment in the headwaters of the Everglades in eastern Polk. The study results are due anytime now, or at least that was the plan.

In another Everglades headwaters issue, work continued in Congress to give sections of the restored Kissimmee River the Wild and Scenic River designation.

In March, a National Rifle Association-sponsored measure to put hunters’ rights into the Florida Constitution emerged, generating a lot of discussion about its need—hunting rights are already covered in state law—and its potential to cause some mischief and legal entanglements on issues ranging from private property rights to commercial net bans.

In May, regional water managers concluded the Peace Creek may not be the bountiful future alternative water supply that was once envisioned by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative. Meanwhile, Polk officials are poised to spend millions of dollars to restore some of the wetlands that were drained when the Peace Creek Drainage Canal was dug a century ago.

June saw a victory for local land-protection advocates when the County Commission voted to levy the entire amount of property tax approved by voters in 2022 to fund environmental land purchases. Polk officials soon thereafter sought nominations from property owners interested in participating in the program.

In July Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that authorized the study of the feasibility of using a slightly radioactive fertilizer production byproduct called phosphosgypsum to build roads. The study is supposed to be concluded by April 1 (no fooling).

In September the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft report for land preservation goals for a vast section of southwest Florida and Polk County approved the purchase of a large tract on the east side of Lake Marion at the Everglades headwaters to provide better access to the lake and to protect scrub habitat.

Also in September the Polk County Commission approved a plan to develop a ranch in eastern Polk County that could potentially affect an existing wildlife corridor between a string of public and private conservation lands in the Everglades headwaters. However the property owner is also pursuing the sale of the property’s development rights to either the state or Polk County and establishing a permanent conservation easement. However, the Polk County School District is considering a site for a new high school at another nearby ranch that would include athletic fields and their nights lights that could diminish dark sky conditions om the area.

In October, Polk utility officials announced plans to study the feasibility of treating sewage from a plant in the northwest section of the county to drinking water standards. There are also plans to create a pipeline to pump treated sewage from less populated to more populated areas of the county to provide more water for lawn irrigation.

Also, a long-running controversy over a soil treatment plant call BS Ranch and Farms on the outskirts of Lakeland near Saddle Creek came to a head when state environmental officials announced they were no longer inclined to grant the facility an operating permit, forcing it to quit accepting waste from septic tank companies. This led to a renewed discussion of establishing an environmentally sustainable facility to handle these wastes.

At years end, Polk officials agreed to support the continuing study of the feasibility of extending the SunRail commuter rail line into Polk County, though it was clear this will be a challenge and any extension, if it occurs, is likely years away.

Meanwhile, the Polk County Commission voted down a request to put a sales tax increase on the 2024 ballot to pay for road improvements. The environmental upside of that vote is that it could prevent the construction of road projects that would encourage more urban sprawl in eastern Polk and send more truck traffic into the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern on a road that already bisects key wildlife corridors.

There was good news on the wildlife corridor front in 2023. State officials completed the construction of a wildlife underpass beneath Interstate 4 north of Lake Alfred in Hilochee Wildlife Management Area and are planning a wildlife overpass in the area north of Tenoroc Public Use Area near Lakeland. The construction of these wildlife crossings, which will reconnect links to the Green Swamp that were severed by the construction of I-4 in the 1960s came about in part as the result of lobbying by Ancient Islands Sierra Club for the past few decades.

Happy New Year.





The Polk Road Sales Tax Discussion Gets Weirder

The ongoing feud between Polk County Commissioners George Lindsey and Neil Combee over a proposal to increase the sales tax to pay for road projects has taken an odd turn.

The Ledger reports Combee has filed an ethics complaint against Lindsey, alleging he met with Commissioners Martha Santiago and Rick Wilson to try to persuade them to vote for the half-cent sales tax he was proposing in exchange for being appointed as commission liaisons to two committees in which they were interested.

However, when the vote occurred, only Lindsey voted to put the measure on the ballot.

Nevertheless, this is a serious charge and it seems prudent to await the outcome of the investigation before anyone draws any conclusions.

In addition to the ethics complaint, which is a non-criminal violation, holding a private meeting involving two or more elected officials concerning an item on which they are likely asked to take action is a second-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

According to The Ledger, Commissioner Wilson has denied any such meeting occurred.

Meanwhile, the article alluded to the politics surrounding the whole discussion.

There could be something to that.

Lindsey is term-limited as a commissioner, but may become involved in a citizen initiative to put the tax measure on the ballot.

If he were to be discredited by a successful ethics investigation, that could certainly affect the initiative effort.

Combee, who is a real estate agent, is running for property appraiser, which would likely increase his state pension. The salary for the property appraiser is higher than for county commission or state legislator, the other offices in which Combee has served. An official’s top salary is one of the factors determining pension payments.

That means Combee certainly has a financial stake in winning a higher-paying position.

And in any election campaign, the more publicity you can obtain for any measures you think the public would support, the better.

That includes voting against controversial items, such as the development of Creek Ranch, when you are sure they are going to pass anyway to make yourself look good in the public’s eyes.

This will certainly be something to watch as it develops.







Florida Cabinet Oks Deals To Protect More Heartland Ranchland

Conservation easements, which allow working lands to be protected from future development through the purchase of the development rights, have been approved by the Florida Cabinet and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The specific projects in this part of Florida were:

Syfert Ranch in parts of Highlands and Glades counties. The easement covers 2,101 acres and may provide habitat for burrowing owls, caracaras, sandhill cranes and other native wildlife. Florida panther sightings have been reported on the property. The easement purchase price was $8.2 million.

4L’s Ranch in DeSoto County. The easement covers 1,531 acres in the Myakka River Ranchlands Florida Forever Project. The property’s wildlife includes burrowing owls, gopher tortoise and crested caracara. It is part of a larger mosaic of rural lands that provides room for wide-ranging species such as Florida panther and Florida black bear. The purchase price is $5.7 million.



Road Tax Discussion Continues; Polk Vision May Become Involved

After the County Commission voted 4-1 last month to reject the idea of putting a half-cent sales tax referendum on next year’s ballot to fund road improvements, Commissioner Bill Braswell suggested that supporters try to gather petition signatures and put it on the ballot themselves.

It seems road tax supporters have accepted the challenge.

Next Tuesday’s County Commission agenda includes a provision that authorizes the county attorney’s office to work with as-yet unnamed initiative supporters to use the procedure laid out in the county charter to try to put the tax on a future ballot.

Meanwhile, during Thursday’s Transportation Planning Organization meeting. Lakeland Mayor Pro Tem Sara Roberts McCarley suggested that the TPO staff work with Polk Vision to set up a series of community forums to discuss transportation issues with an eye toward building support for the tax.

As some may recall, Polk Vision sponsored a series of carefully choreographed meetings a couple of decades ago that resulted in political pressure to impose a major property tax increase to fix problems caused by the County Commission’s refusal to impose transportation impact fees on new development for decades at the behest of the local development community. Instead, taxpayers were told to foot the bill.

Later in Thursday’s TPO meeting, Bartow Commissioner Trish Pfeiffer, the TPO Chair, discussed the need for safety improvements on the county’s road network, arguing the proposed sales tax increase would advance that by providing funds for more sidewalks and additional streetlights.

County Commissioner George Lindsey, who was the lone supporter of putting the tax to a vote., said revenue is needed to keep the county from falling further behind.

Now for some perspective.

Getting an initiative on the ballot is a lot harder than it used to be.

That’s because the County Commission successfully pushed a charter change to raise the threshold for signatures after a group of activists put measures on the ballot to impose term limits on commissioners and to cut their salaries in half. Voters approved both of them.

If this referendum were to get on the ballot and win approval, it would reflect a major change in public sentiment. County officials and their allies in the development community have put similar measures on the ballot beginning in 1992. Voters have rejected all of them.

There is a reason for that.

The road projects that commissioners appear to prioritize often do not reflect solutions to current transportation problems, but instead reflect plans by developers to build new roads deeper into rural areas to open more land to more development to create more urban sprawl or to “improve” existing roads, such as the plan to realign Deen Still Road to construct a new truck route through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern that would cut through state conservation lands, including a portion of Colt Creek State Park, and increase hazards to wildlife moving through a statewide corridor for which the Green Swamp is a major hub.

At the same time that the claimed road deficit is increasing, county commissioners have been unwilling to impose full transportation impact fees and, in some cases, not to charge fees at all.

Additionally, the idea that you can solve road congestion problems in one of the fastest growing counties in the third most populous state in the nation is simply delusional.

Finally, the roads about which people complain the most are state and federal highways such as U.S, 27 and Interstate 4, whose improvements the sales tax would not fund because they are not county or city roads.

It should be an interesting campaign.

Despite What You May Heard, No Record Heat Around Here

You maty have read about record heat records somewhere in the world, but in this part of the world, it just was not happening, according to figures compiled by the National Weather Service for November in particular and autumn in general.

Lakeland tied for the 14th warmest fall and the recorded the 22nd warmest November. The warmest was in 1986 and most of the top records occurred mostly within the past 40 years except for a heat spell in 1941.

Winter Haven tied for the 41st coolest fall and recorded the 40th coolest November. The picture in Winter Haven was similar except for hear records in 1946 and 1958..

Bartow recorded the 31st warmest fall and the 32nd warmest November. Bartow had historic records similar to Winter Haven.

This would all probably make an interesting chart.



Polk Delays Action On Plan To End Some Development Hearings

Polk officials announced today that they would withdraw for now a plan for a new change in the county’s development regulations that would radically change when public hearings would occur on new subdivision plans whose developers sought increased density.

These are called planned developments, formerly known as planned-unit developments.

If you want to know what was proposed, you’ll have to go to the archives.

What was proposed on next Tuesday’s agenda was suddenly scrubbed from the agenda backup after the withdrawal announcement was published.

The reason for the delay is that the Florida Legislature has proposed to exempt Polk from legislation that last year barred local governments from changing their development regulations to prevent local governments from proposing development regulations that would prevent developers from proposing projects that would not continue business as usual before Hurricane Ida caused widespread damage in southwest Florida.

Polk officials are apparently betting that the fix is in and they can proceed with changes that alter development standards and diminish public review.

The question, which will come back whenever this proposal resurfaces. Is what public policy purpose—developer requests for drive-through permitting doesn’t seem to fit here— the change will serve.

The proposal does set some higher standards on the internal details of developments if customers are willing to pay extra for them and if developers are willing to put some kind of minimal buffers if their projects are twice as dense as neighboring subdivisions However, the neighbors will have no say. There will be no public notices, no public hearings, no public anything.

Instead the projects will all be reviewed by the county staff, which typically has found few development proposals they do not enthusiastically support even if a more skeptical view might be more appropriate.

BS Ranch & Farm comes to mind.

The new proposal, which could cement this idea into local development regulations, is likely scheduled for hearings sometime early next year.

Stay tuned and stay alert.