How Much Urban Development Does Rural Polk County Need?

Tuesday’s public hearing on whether a city-sized subdivision proposed in a flood-prone rural area between Bartow and Winter Haven should be approved raised an interesting public policy question.

Some members of the development community are sometimes critical of efforts to secure approval of more conservation lands by asking us how much is enough.

That question got turned around Tuesday when rural residents along the southern end of Gerber Dairy Road asked how much urban intrusion into still-rural areas of Polk County is enough.

By the way, the County Commission sided with the residents and rejected the development 4-1.

This is a complicated issue, though, and no one should be surprised if the case ends up in court.

Here’s why.

For years the county’s development regulations have been modified in subtle ways that the general public never noticed to accommodate more intense development almost everywhere.

There are so-called transit-supported development districts that allow denser development along busy highway corridors regardless of whether anyone who moves there in their wildest imaginations would take the bus to work.

There are Special Area Plans that lay out all kinds of scenarios to accommodate development in places like the State Road 60 corridor where this development was proposed.

There are subtle growth map changes to designate large areas of vacant land as “Urban Growth Areas” that flies below the radar for average residents living nearby because they are occupied trying to get on with their lives and don’t spend much time studying the intricacies of county zoning regulations until the results smack them in the face.

Then there’s the provisions that allow developers to use the retention ponds they’re supposed to install anyway to deal with flooding and stormwater pollution problems as open spaces or recreational areas. This is kind of like the designation of ketchup as school lunch vegetable in another era.

However, despite commissioners’ seeming outrage about how these regulations are applied or interpreted, the fact is they or their predecessors approved every one of them and never asked for any changes.

During the discussion preceding the vote Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer and the only no vote, stated that if commissioners want to change the rules, that’s their choice. However, he argued it’s hard to justify the denial of a proposed development that’s complying with the rules they had previously approved.

This goes back to a previous discussion he led what amounted to an argument that development applicants should be guaranteed approval is they met all of the broad criteria laid out in the county’s development regulations.

The counterargument is that sometimes projects are proposed for which those regulations don’t always make sense and are in the wrong place at the wrong time. This appeared to be one of them.








Posted in Group Conservation Issues.