If you enjoy braving the crowds at Circle B Bar Reserve or enjoy the solitude that allows you to hear an Eastern bluebird sing or enjoy pineland wildflowers at Sumica, you can thank a small group of local environmental activists who put together a visionary grassroots tax referendum in 1994 to save the best of what was left of Polk’s special places.
The referendum barely passed in the face of indifference to outright hostility by county leaders and an active campaign by some conservatives. Meanwhile, a county sponsored tax proposal on an earlier ballot that year to raise taxes to finance more development-related infrastructure went down in flames.
This history lesson, which came to mind during a conversation with a local newspaper executive, is relevant in connection with the ongoing fight to get state officials to honor voter intent to appropriate funds for conservation purchases as voters directed them in a constitutional amendment approved in 2014 and the fourth attempt in 30 years to persuade Polk County voters to increase local sales tax to pay for road projects.
That’s because the last transportation-related tax increase that occurred in Polk County came at the expense of the voter-approved tax increase to buy environmental lands.
The environmental lands tax was authorized for 20 years. When 20 years came and went, the Polk County Commission didn’t end the tax. Instead they reallocated the property tax levy to pay for roadwork and other day-to-day county growth-related operating expenses. Voters didn’t get a say in the matter.
The troubling part of this tale is that commissioners had no trouble deciding conservation funding to expire, but brushed aside the idea that the accompanying tax increase should expire.
This, of course, was all totally legal even though it raised public integrity issues because of the fiscal sleight-of-hand that was involved. The same goes for the Florida Legislature’s refusal to properly fund the Florida Forever program, though a legal ruling in that dispute is still pending.
Fast forward to today.
The $1.3 billion list of so-called road capacity projects includes $170 million to realign and extend Deen Still Road from one side of the Green Swamp Area of Critical Concern to the other to accommodate increased truck traffic. That traffic boom has occurred since Polk County decided to pave the formerly unpaved road network when the area was more rural and sparsely developed. There’s an open question about whether any of these road improvements comply with the settlement agreement with the state that was part of a drawn-out battle between Polk County and state planning officials over how intensely development would be allowed in the Green Swamp.
Ironically, the tentative proposed route of the new road may cut through the southern end of Colt Creek State Park, part of whose purchase was financed by money from the Polk County Environmental Lands Program.
Another interesting historical footnote is that Colt Creek State Park is certainly in the Green Swamp, but does not lie in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern because the former owner, Charlie Mack Overstreet, had enough political influence in Tallahassee when the boundaries were approved in 1974 to exclude his ranch.