Last July the Lake Alfred City Commission agreed to annex a number of tracts containing more than 6000 acres—including Hilochee Wildlife Management Area—to reach land that could be the site of a future industrial park at the County Road 557/Old Grade Road interchange of Interstate 4 in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.
(The annexed land is the property shaded in orange in the accompanying map.)
The action danced on the edge of the minimum criteria in state law for municipal annexations since it involved a lot of land that was unpopulated and not likely to be part of any future urban development. The law said it’s okay if only some of the land fits that description, so there we are.
The move has since drawn backlash from property owners along Old Grade Road who fear more urban incursion into rural areas after receiving mailers from a developer masquerading as the city encouraging them to annex and offering to purchase their property. However, as a practical matter northward annexation seems unlikely because old land-sales subdivisions lie between the annexed property and the rural residences farther north.
Also, an official at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Public Land Administration, who signed off on the voluntary annexation of Hilochee, appeared unaware of the city’s end game and told an inquiring resident that FDEP officials may have something to say if industrial zoning is proposed across the street from one Hilochee’s entrances.
If there is an industrial zoning proposal, it would also require review by what’s left of state growth management oversight in the Florida Department of Commerce.
The fact that an action of this magnitude flew under the public’s radar for so long is another example of decline in local media coverage as Polk County is increasingly becoming a news desert when it comes to covering events in many of the county’s 17 municipalities.
As anyone who has driven north of downtown Lake Alfred on CR 557 knows, the area is turning into a sea of rooftops. The sign once erected along the highway designating the boundary of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern has long ago disappeared to make way for a subdivision entrance.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Green Swamp, it was declared an Area of Critical State Concern half a century ago because of its importance as a recharge area for the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of drinking water in central Florida. It also contains the headwaters of the Peace, Hillsborough, Withlacoochee and Ocklawaha rivers and is a hub in a statewide network of wildlife corridors.
One of the important battles Sierra and other conservation groups have waged is to prevent encroachment into the core of this critical area that is important to the region’s hydrology and wildlife.
The development of an industrial park, which would lie far outside any plans by the city to extend water and sewer service, would mean industrial onsite waste disposal, which is not something the aquifer in that part of state needs.
In approving the annexation, city officials said they will discuss what kind of land-use classifications should apply to the annexed properties sometime in the future.
Since there is nothing anyone can do about the annexation, the land-use hearings may be the best place to speak up.
This is an issue in which everyone needs to stay tuned.