Green Energy Expansion Plans, Rural Communities Collide In Polk

Sierra Club supports the expansion of solar and other renewable forms of energy, but it seems the expansion plans by investor-owned utilities into rural areas have hit a snag related to rural environmental justice.

Today the Polk County Planning Commission voted to deny a plan by Tampa Electric to expand its existing solar farms in and around Chicora, a community in southwest Polk established in 1885 and still inhabited by descendants of the original settlers. Residents say they are working to get approval of the community’s designation as a historic district in hopes of gaining further protection from encroachment.

TECO and other utilities and private entrepreneurs have been active in expanding solar power in rural areas in Polk and adjacent counties for the past several years.

But this raises a sometimes overlooked aspect of the rural environmental justice debate over issues such as esthetics and quality of life rather than pollution, odor or noise complaints.

Specific issues include security fences that residents say make them think they’re surrounded by a prison camp. The fences also may hinder wildlife movement, they alleged. Others complained flashing lights interfere with their sleep. Overall, residents say they feel these facilities are being located too close to their rural homesteads without fully taking into account the effects on their daily lives.

The final decision will likely be made by the County Commission, which ruled in an earlier case in the same area that TECO was encroaching too far into Chicora and needed to scale back its plans.

Southwest Polk County, much of which was mined for phosphate beginning in the late 19th century has a long history of being chosen for controversial projects, such as power plants, that were opposed in more urban coastal areas. The arrival of the plants stressed on local water supplies. This area was also the proposed site for an ultimately rejected plan for the state’s first hazardous-waste incinerator near another rural community.

This is an issue that deserves more discussion.




Trail Extension, More Solar Power Expansion Coming To Polk

It is nice to see some good environmental news these days.

Today the Polk County Commission approved a deal with Sanlan RV & Golf Resorts and Orlando Health to secure a 40-foot wide corridor south of the Polk Parkway between U.S. 98 and Lakeland Highlands Road to eventually connect the Fort Fraser Trail and Lakeland’s system of pedestrian and bicycle trails.

No date was announced for construction, which will depend on further engineering and design work, County Manager Bill Beasley told commissioners.

The connection of the two trail systems has been discussed for several years to expand recreational facilities in this growing urban area of the county. One of the key issues has involved how to get under or around the toll road, which in the past has been a formidable physical barrier to connecting the trails.

Meanwhile, the Polk County Planning Commission will consider a proposal on Wednesday to expand solar power facilities in the Chicora area south of Mulberry as part of a series of projects mostly initiated by Tampa Electric to develop more solar within its service area. Another TECO solar project is planned west of Mulberry near the Polk-Hillsborough line.



Happy New Year; Hope Is On The Way

I wanted to wish all of our members in Polk, DeSoto, Hardee, Highland and Sumter counties a Happy New Year with a hope that the new year will bring better things for the environment.

The new administration in Washington promises to undo the damage that has occurred during the last four years on clean air, clean water, water conservation and the protection of our public lands.

With any luck, the efforts to bring the pandemic under control will eventually create a time when we can get together face-to-face and once again hold outings to share our love for the outdoors.

There also will be plenty of work to do to advance our environmental agenda to control climate change, protect native habitat and combat the forces that seek to undermine decades of hard work to protect out natural heritage.

We can do it.

Circle B To Host New Year’s Day Hike

The annual hosted hike at Circle B Bar Reserve will occur at 9 a.m. Friday at the popular outdoor venue.

The event will involve a 2.5-mile hike through a variety of restored native habitats. Volunteers will be present along the route to point out wildlife and other natural features.

Participants should dress appropriately with closed-toed shoes and bring binoculars or a camera. No registration is required.

The weather forecast calls for a windy and partially sunny day.

People can hike at their own pace and should practice social distancing and take any other measures in connection with the pandemic.

If you want to hike in a less-crowded venue, there are several other sites owned and managed by the Polk County Environmental Lands Program.

They include Lakeland Highlands Scrub in the south Lakeland suburbs, Gator Creek Reserve north of Lakeland, Sherwood L. Stokes Preserve east of Haines City, the Sumica and North Walkiniwater sites east of Lake Wales and Crooked Lake Prairie near Babson Park.

For more information on the county’s environmental lands sites, go to

DeSantis Finally Fills Long-Vacant Polk Swiftmud Governing Board Seat

The typical Friday afternoon new releases from Tallahassee included an announcement that Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed Ashley Bell Barnett to the long-standing vacancy on the board.

According to the release, Bell is a former educator and analyst for the Polk County School District and lives in Winter Haven.

Her appointment is for four years and is subject to Florida Senate confirmation. She fills a seat vacated more than a year ago by retired Haines City businessman Paul Senft, who left the board in August 2019..

Bell Barnett is the daughter of former County Commissioner and current State Rep. Melony Bell.

The Polk Regional Water Cooperative had proposed appointing former County Commissioner John Hall to the post.



More Lake Kissimmee Lakefront Headed For Protection Following Purchase

A 2,909-acre parcel on Lake Kissimmee that was once proposed for a golf course development may be on its way to permanent preservation.

Conservation Florida announced recently that an unnamed philanthropist has purchased the property with the intention of entertaining an offer to sell the development rights through a conservation easement.

The property was proposed in 2016 for a golf resort call Lost Oak, but the project stalled in 2018 when the Polk County Planning Commission voted to recommend denial and the developer withdrew his application a short time later.

The property lies north of Coleman Landing at Shady Oaks, a county park and campground.

The land, which was once the site of fish camps and weekend retreats, was purchased by the South Florida Water Management District in 2004 in connection with the Kissimmee River restoration project, which also included a plan to raise the regulated level of Lake Kissimmee.

However, some of the land ended up in the hands of a developer in 2007 as a result of another land deal elsewhere in the Everglades Basin.

The recent purchase will provide Conservation Florida and its partners time to raise funds to purchase a perpetual conservation easement on the property, which contains many stately live oaks and four miles of lakefront.

This is part of a larger effort to protect as much natural landscape as possible in the Kissimmee River Basin under the H2O: Headwaters to Okeechobee initiative.



Sierra Will Renew Push In Polk For Electric School Buses With VW $

Ancient Islands Sierra Club’s Clean Energy Committee is continuing to urge the Polk County School Board to use funds from the $57 million settlement awarded to Florida from Vokswagen over its cheating on diesel emissions tests in violation of the Clean Air Act.

The application deadline is Jan. 18.

School Board members rejected a similar proposal last year in favor of purchasing propane-fueled buses, arguing electric buses don’t have range to handle bus routes, said Karen Freedman, the committee’s chair.

Freedman argues electric buses offer the advantage of having lower maintenance costs than conventionally-fueled school buses.

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Sierra Club, electric buses can save between $149,000 and $190,000 in fuel costs and $200,000 in operation and maintenance costs over the life of the vehicle.

School Board members often mention maintenance costs in connection with capital purchases for new facilities because they are recurring budget items. Adding electric buses and other vehicles would reduce the fiscal impact.

In addition, the reduction in emissions can reduce the threat of respiratory diseases such as asthma and cancer by reducing air pollution.

Meanwhile, there is a push to install more electric vehicle charging stations in more locations.

Nearly all of the charging stations in Polk County are located at private businesses rather than at government offices.