Polk County School Board members need to take a really fresh look at suitable locations for a new high school that is intended to relieve overcrowding at Haines City High School.
The issue came up earlier this year when word reached area residents that the board was seriously considering a developer-initiated proposal to locate a new school at Asana Ranch on Hatchineha Road near Poinciana. The ranch lies in a corridor between Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Everglades Headwater National Wildlife Refuge and The Nature Conservancy’s Hatchineha Ranch property to the south and the South Florida Water Management District’s Lake Marion Creek Wildlife Management Area and TNC’s Disney Wilderness Preserve property to the north.
There are documented occurrences of Florida panther and Florida black bear movements in this corridor.
The proposed school site would be nestled somewhere into a proposed residential subdivision, which still requires a growth map change and development approval from the County Commission. Whether those approvals are forthcoming is unknown at this point.
Since then another area landowner reached out to school officials and a group of residents opposed to the original site provided school officials with other potential school sites.
However, at last week’s board meeting, the staff was quick to try to cast doubt on the other sites in favor of the site that was originally offered, but the staff analyses of the other sites seem misleading at first glance.
For instance, the Bowen Brothers property at the corner of Hatchineha Road and Firetower Road was flagged as having potential wetlands and endangered plant species “in the area.”
A look at the property on the Polk County Property Appraiser’s website doesn’t seem to support that claim. The 332.65-acre site contains only 0.95 acres described as a swamp. The bulk of the property is improved pasture, which is an unlikely location for listed plant species.
There are listed plant species (which, by the way, for good or ill cannot be used to stop a project) “in the area,” but they are likely located on nearby conservation lands.
Then there was the analysis of another site that the staff ominously reported was located in a utility enclave area and may not have adequate water or sewer capacity, though no numbers were mentioned in a press account of the meeting. The “utility enclave” is Grenelefe Resort, which was in a relatively isolated rural area when it was first developed in the 1970s, but is now at the edge of city limits of Haines City.
There’s a good argument that it is no longer the enclave it once was and securing adequate utility capacity may not be an issue.
These two examples, instead, are an argument for Polk School Board members to seek a more objective, independent analysis of potential sites than they were getting from their staff planner.
There’s no question the current overcrowding in Haines City justifies the construction of a new high school, but school officials should not pick a site that crowds out wildlife in the process.