Within recent months developers have submitted proposals to expand industrial development along Deen Still Road deeper into an area designated as the CORE area of the Green Swamp Area of Critical Concern where development intensity is limited by Polk growth regulations based on a decades-old agreement with state planning officials.
This merits scrutiny because if any of these proposals advance, it could set a troubling precedent.
The threat is especially true given the reduction of state-level growth oversight since the Florida Legislature stripped the state’s former agency that oversaw both compliance with state growth regulations and oversight of protection of the Area of Critical State Concern of much of its powers.
What was formerly called the Florida Department of Community Affairs was renamed the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity under Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. It has been downhill ever since.
To understand why this matters, a short recitation of recent history is appropriate.
In 1996, the Polk County Commission agreed to state-mandated restrictions on how deeply into the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern intense development could occur.
The agreement ended a six-year battle between the County Commission and what was then called the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the state’s Area of Critical State Concern Program.
In 1974 Florida officials designated 295,00 acres—189,000 acres in Polk County and 106,000 acres in Lake County—as an Area of Critical State Concern to protect the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers and a critical section of the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of Central Florida’s drinking water. Since then the area’s importance as a regional hub for a statewide network of wildlife corridors has added to the need to protect it.
The 1974 designation capped efforts to protect the area that dated from the 1950s.
The settlement agreement dealt with development along the U.S. 27 corridor—the ACSC’s eastern boundary—and the decision to create a boundary that separated intense development from conservation areas.
At the time of the designation, the U.S. 27 corridor was primarily farm land.
The settlement occurred in a period when two major events had occurred that changed all of that.
The Florida Legislature approved the state’s first strong growth-management legislation in 1985 that required local governments to approve tougher rules.
Meanwhile, a series of serious freezes in the 1980s wiped out citrus groves in the corridor, which created pressure on many small grove owners to sell their land to developers.
The settlement accommodated those land-use changes on the higher and drier land along the highway.
The reason the issue was not settled until more than a decade after state law changed was that Polk County officials actively resisted state officials’ attempts to rein in growth in the Green Swamp.
That resulted in the nearly continuous strip of residential, commercial and industrial development that exists there today.
The CORE area, which covered 126,800 acres in the more sensitive areas of Green Swamp, allowed only minimal development. It is this area where the industrial land uses have been proposed.
This is a fight we don’t need to fight again.