Polk’s Gateway Plan Was Supposed To Protect Environment and Rural Lands; It Took The Planning Commission To Make It Happen

Last year Ancient Islands Sierra joined the fight to derail a proposal to wrest more development reviews from the Polk County Planning Commission and turn the process over to a hearing officer and to make it more onerous for the public to appeal hearing officer decisions.

The majority of the County Commission agreed with our criticisms and killed the idea.

That decision’s value certainly came into play Wednesday when the Planning Commission was reviewing a proposal to develop a city-sized subdivision proposed to contain more than 1,000 new in a rural area along the Peace Creek Canal east of Bartow under the procedure that planners and some development interests sought to take away from them.

County planners as they almost always do, recommended approval with conditions, but it was clear based on some of the conditions that this proposal was incompatible with surrounding rural homesteads.

The fact that the recommended buffering involved earthworks and a block wall that rose to probably half the height of the wall the islanders used to keep out King Kong was telling.

Then there are the provisions of something called the Gateway Selected Area Plan that dates to 2016.

The plan was supposedly a guide to future development along the State Road 60 corridor between U.S. 27 and the outskirts of Bartow about where this proposed development is located.

However, it was clear Wednesday that the stated policies in the original plan and actual implementation have diverged, seemingly to the detriment of rural residents and environmental features.

It initially did not propose to change land uses in the area, but testimony Wednesday showed that had occurred anyway.

It was also supposed to protect agricultural lands and environmental features such as the Peace Creek Drainage Canal. Although the plan didn’t say this, the protection of the Peace Creek was more important than many people realize. That’s because this section of the waterway was actually a natural stream in the middle of the 19th century, according to historical maps. Other parts of the current system farther from the Peace River were a series of sloughs and other wetlands that were dredged to drain land for agriculture.

But reading the staff report and listening to the applicant’s consultant, you wouldn’t have gotten much of a sense of this.

The development around the creek was discussed in terms of preventing downstream flooding more than preserving natural habitat.

The planned houses were more of the same standard argument about housing shortages and growth pressures rather than whether this was a smart place to build in the first place.

There is a reason the pioneers established Bartow where it is rather than out there.

This brings us back to the value of the Planning Commission.

Sure, the staff report seemed to check all of the right boxes. which may have satisfied the legalistic requirements a hearing officer might be interested in examining.

But the big picture gets lost in that kind of evaluation and the collective thinking of a diverse group can cut through the claims and get to the heart of the matter.

That led the panel to vote unanimously to deny the application.




Posted in Group Conservation Issues.