School Impact Fee Caution May End

The explosive growth of residential development in northeast Polk County seems to have finally captured the attention of the Polk County School Board.

This week outgoing School Board Chair Lori Cunningham suggested it may be time to increase the school impact fee to provide funding for the increased demand for school capacity in this fast-growing area of the county.

That will be up to the Polk County Commission, which has the authority to make such changes.

In the past, county commissioners have been reluctant to levy impact fees at the full level that consultant studies have recommended are justified to deal with population growth.

Also in the past School Board members have been reluctant to press for higher impact fees. Some of the more conservative board members have argued the funding for need new schools would increase their maintenance costs.

The question is what kind of school system Polk County envisions. Rezoning has its limits, so do portables.

What’s next? Double sessions or courage of their convictions?


Have Fun Outdoors Day and Night on Veterans Day

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection offers free admission to all state parks on Thursday, Nov. 11, in honor of Veterans Day.

There are a number of state parks in the area that offer a variety of day-use experiences from hiking steep sandhills on the Lake Wales Ridge to walking along a boardwalk in a cypress swamp. Some also include campgrounds.

If you happen to be in an area without a lot of urban light pollution and a clear night sky, Veterans Day also coincides with the peak time for the Taurid meteor shower.

Area state parks include:

Highlands Hammock State Park 5931 Hammock Road, Sebring, was constructed by the workers employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. Facilities include a museum honoring the CCC, boardwalk, hiking trails and a campground.

Lake Kissimmee State Park, 14248 Camp Mack Road, Lake Wales, features a 19th century cow camp commemorating the days of Florida’s open range, hiking trails, a marina that provides access to Lake Kissimmee and Lake Rosalie and a campground.

Colt Creek State Park, 16000 State Road 471, Lakeland, contains hiking and horseback trails, an artificial lake for fishing and kayaking and a campground.

Payne Creek Historic State Park, 888 Lake Branch Road, Bowling Green, contains hiking trail, a boat ramp and a museum.

Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park, 4335 Firetower Road, Haines City contains a network of trails for hiking and horseback riding.

Lake June in Winter Scrub State Park, 630 Daffodil St., Lake Placid, contains hiking trails.

Lake Louisa State Park, 7305 U.S. 27 Clermont, contains hiking, mountain bike and equestrian trails, campgrounds, bicycle and kayak rentals and cabins.

If you visit state parks often, consider getting an annual pass. Veterans receive a 25 percent discount.


DeSoto Mining Proposal Draws Questions, Major Pushback On Pollution Concerns From Slime Ponds



DeSoto County’s work session Tuesday highlighted the questions about a plan to reconsider the County Commission’s 2018 vote to deny Mosaic’s request to mine the northwest corner of the county for starters and to expand further into other areas of the county.

One of the prime issues was the plan to mine the land, which would change the geography and topography forever, and to develop a network of what the industry calls clay settling areas and others refer to as slime ponds, areas where the clay wastes from the initial separation of the soil Mosaic wrests from the earth along with trees, undergrowth and the wildlife habitat it contains.

Mosaic representatives focused on the improved safety of the dikes around these impoundments after disastrous spills in earlier times. This refers to a 2 million gallon spill in 1971 into the Peace River following a 488 million spill in 1967 from which some people testified that the river and the Charlotte Harbor Estuary downstream has yet to recover.

Despite the claim there have been no spills since 1994, there have been spills from other phosphate operations more recently.

But it was not simply disastrous spills that were the issue.

The initial process of the mined material, which involves a chemical process to separate clay, sand and phosphate rock, generated a lot of comments because the chemicals used in this process—particularly fuel oil—raised concerns that these chemicals have been documented to flow through the ponds’ dirt walls into the aquifer, causing potential pollution of drinking water supplies.

This testimony belied attempts by Mosaic officials to downplay the potential threat.

One resident described the threat as a “time bomb.”

DeSoto County officials questioned Mosaic representatives about how long it would take for these chemicals to break down. Mosaic officials admitted they could not answer.

Critics also questioned why this issue was even being reconsidered.

Although there was testimony that the issues residents raised would be considered in state permitting reviews, residents were skeptical this would happen.

Another issue was the potential for flooding, which would isolate local homeowners, and the lack of any provisions at this point to establish warning network to alert residents of the threat.

Some residents describe the potential for off-site pollution as “trespass” and maintained that the so-called scientific studies used to buttress Mosaic’s position were not peer-reviewed by scientists unconnected to the phosphate industry and were instead industry-supported papers.

DeSoto commissioners raised questions as well about how the clay ponds would affect aquifer recharge and local hydrology.

Mosaic’s application is not scheduled to be considered until early 2023. In the meantime, DeSoto County officials have hired outside experts to help to evaluate the proposals’ effects on the county’s residents and environment.


Below Normal River Flow Shows Water Planning’s Limits

The rainy season is over and the flow of the Peace River in Polk County is somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of the long-term average, according the latest data.

This is supposed to be a La Nina winter, which means higher-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall in coming months during what is usually the dry season in this part of Florida anyway.

Meanwhile, there is some tentative planning to build a reservoir somewhere around Fort Meade as part of the Polk County Water Cooperative’s plans for developing so-called alternative water supplies. That reservoir would involve seeking a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to divert some of the river’s high flow and store it for future use.

How much would be available would depend on river conditions and the amount already reserved for Peace River Manasota Water Supply Authority and for the needs of the river and the Charlotte Harbor Estuary downstream. Right now there isn’t enough flow at the Bartow gauge to make launching a canoe or kayak advisable in this section of the river.

Rainfall is the only source of water in the river since overpumping decades ago eliminated base artesian flow. This year there was not enough rain to sustain anything close to average flow. How often this will occur is, of course, unknown. However, the vagaries of rainfall raises questions about how sustainable this approach will prove to be.

This project, along with the plans that already farther along to tap deeper sections of the aquifer and to treat it with reverse osmosis to remove contaminants, deserves to be monitored by the public because they will bear the expense.


Sierra Objections Help To Derail Polk Zoning Hearing Changes

Objections raised by the Ancient Islands Group of Florida Sierra led to changes and the eventual defeat of a proposal to turn some local land-use and zoning cases over to a hearing officer instead of the Polk County Planning Commission.

Sierra’s objections, presented by Chair Tom Palmer, involved turning a legislative function into an administrative one, erecting unnecessary barriers to appeals and removing discretion on how any denials of the hearing officer’s recommendation would be handled by the County Commission.

County Commissioner George Lindsey, who was on the losing side of the 3-2 vote, argued this was something that would make the hearing decisions more predictable and consistent for he and his colleagues in the development community. He argued that this is simply a maturation of the growth management process that dates from the 1985 growth management law.

Sierra argued that heading in this direction may create a system in which public hearings may simply be a formality.

In response to Sierra’s comments at the first public hearing, county staff revised the section on appeals to make it more appellant-friendly.

Nevertheless, the commission’s majority remained uncomfortable with the overall concept.

Additionally, since there is no longer any strong state oversight over local land-use decisions—state officials can raise objection, but no longer have any enforcement power—further erosion of local planning oversight reduces public confidence in the system.

That’s because there is already a public perception that the way the regulations are written, applied and interpreted already gives an unfair advantage to the development community. Stripping some decision-making from the Planning Commission would reinforce that perception.

Voting to reject the proposal were Commissioners Bill Braswell, Martha Santiago and Rick Wislon. Voting to approve the change were Lindsey and Commissioner Neil Combee.




Our Campaign To Protect More of Florida’s Wild Lands Stymied by Politics, Not Finances; The Money Is There!

One of the most disturbing aspects of environmental politics in Tallahassee is the image of environmental advocates appealing to legislators hat in hand for money to protect more wild lands before the bulldozers advance to make way for more rooftops and pollution and habitat fragmentation.

What’s really disturbing is that some environmental organizations –Florida Sierra is not among them–celebrate the fact that the land protection programs received only a pittance of the amount to which they’re entitled.

When I say pittance, I’m talking about the difference between the $100 million legislators grudgingly appropriated and the $1.1 BILLIION that’s technically available. It’s a difference between dimes and dollars.

I’m talking about the constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly approved nearly a decade ago to set aside a portion of the documentary taxes collected in connection with real estate transactions, which often involve new development.

The Florida Leglslature’s parsimonious approach to land conservation deserves condemnation, not praise.

This is Florida and as many of you know, legislators and the rest of the so-called leadership in Tallahassee has refused to spend the money. The dispute remains in court.

This continues to be an outrage, but it is typical of what has happened time and again when the voters approved a measure the GOP-controlled Legislature didn’t like. They predictably set in motion any action they could think of to delay or undermine its implementation.

$1.1 billion sounds like a lot of money and it is, but it reflects the other reality of purchasing land or development rights that protect working lands and keep them in private ownership in Florida these days.

That is –as the headlines about housing prices indicate–that real estate is lot more expensive now than it was a couple of decades ago before the Florida Forever program was halted to deal with the economic repercussions of the collapse of the Ponzi-like real estate speculation market.

Additionally, because the Florida Forever program was sidelined for many years, there’s a lot of catching up to do to acquire lands that have already been reviewed and prioritized.

There will be a lot going on in Tallahassee when the Legislature convenes in January as there always is, but restoring land conservation funding cannot wait any longer.

Contact your legislators and tell them it is past time to pay up.


Solar Farms Regs To Change

Legislative-mandated changes in how local officials can regulate the location of solar farms is coming before the Polk County Planning Commission on Wednesday.

The change will allow these facilities to be located in rural lands with only administrative review unless they fall under the Power Plant Siting Act, which so far the applicants have sized their proposals to avoid.

The only disputes have involved plans to locate a solar farm in the middle of the historic Chicora community in southwest Polk because of concerns over its compatibility with surrounding homesteads and a proposal to locate a solar farm in the northern sections of Lake Alfred because city officials wanted to develop the land for houses instead even though solar farms will require fewer city services than new subdivisions.

The solar farms will still, so far, require a willing seller rather than condemnation. The effort locally has been led by Tampa Electric, which is attempting to increase its non-fossil fuel footprint in its service area.