The selection of 10 people—many of them with ties to the local development industry—to a committee that will make recommendations on the next wave of Polk environmental preserves that need to be purchased drew renewed public criticism at Tuesday’s Polk County Commission meeting.
The committee called the Conservation Land Acquisition Selection Advisory Committee will review applications for purchases under the Polk County Environmental Lands Program. The purchases will be funded with a tax voters approved in a referendum last November. The tax , which was authorized for 20 years, will be collected beginning in the 2023-24 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The committee members ‘terms begin May 1. After an initial organizational meeting, the committee will meet as proposals arise to be considered. All meetings will be open to the public.
Travis Thompson, a local hunting and fishing guide who was one of the people who worked on the referendum, renewed his criticism of the people selected to serve on the committee, arguing no one was chosen with backgrounds in water management, land management or outdoor recreation.
He acknowledged he did not know most of the people appointed to the committee, but maintained some well-qualified people did not make the cut.
Several other residents voiced similar complaints, arguing the makeup of the current committee was much different from the makeup of the committee appointed to advise commissioners in spending funds from a previous referendum that was approved in 1994 and funded the purchase of about 25,000 acres.
After listening to the comments, commissioners either challenged the criticisms or sought to assure people that there is nothing to worry about.
Commission Chairman George Lindsey said they could have put the names of the applicants into a hat and pulled out 10 names and still had a good committee.
He said he sent letters to all of the unsuccessful applicants thanking them for offering to serve and urging them to remain involved in the process.
He said the committee will review applications from willing sellers rather than going out and looking for property to buy. That review will be aided by a technical advisory committee that will visit sites and report whether they meet the program’s criteria.
He said the fact that people from the development committee sit on the committee is not important since the lands being considered cannot be developed anyway.
However, that’s not entirely accurate.
Although there likely will be wetlands on some of the properties that will be reviewed, the program also envisions nominations from high and dry land in places like the Lake Wales Ridge, which contains one of the largest concentrations of rare and endangered species in the United States. It also seeks land with potential for public recreation that could involve other upland sites.
In fact, the original program made sure to limit purchases to lands that not only had environmental value, but also could provide public access and could be easily managed. This prevented the program from becoming a dumping ground for property that simply could not be developed.
Commissioner Bill Braswell challenged the idea that people some of the speakers didn’t even know should be ruled unqualified out of hand.
“What do you think they’re going to do?” he asked.
Commissioner Rick Wilson, who will chair the committee, said he has lived in Polk County his entire life and has experience in hunting, fish and land management.
“I will make sure everything is done by the book,” he said.