People Behind Lakeland’s Bonnet Springs Park Earn FDEP Recognition

The creation of Bonnet Springs Park at the edge of Lake Bonnet near downtown Lakeland has earned the people behind the project recognition by the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation.

The award recognizes the 168-acre park’s emphasis on environmental education, exposure of the public to additional urban green spaces and the cleanup of a former blighted piece of lakefront property.

Honored with the FDEP’s Environmental Stewardship Achievement Award were Bill Tinsley, president of Bonnet Springs Park; Josh Henderson, CEO of Bonnet Springs Park; and Bonnet Springs board member David Bunch, who was instrumental in marketing the property for its current use.

“Bonnet Springs Park is an organization with a deep commitment to environmental stewardship,” said FDEP Southwest District Director Kelley Boatwright. “The voluntary cleanup and utilization of the property as a recreational park will provide a place of respite for humans and wildlife alike. This project is wholly beneficial for the environment and the community.” 

How Much Urban Development Does Rural Polk County Need?

Tuesday’s public hearing on whether a city-sized subdivision proposed in a flood-prone rural area between Bartow and Winter Haven should be approved raised an interesting public policy question.

Some members of the development community are sometimes critical of efforts to secure approval of more conservation lands by asking us how much is enough.

That question got turned around Tuesday when rural residents along the southern end of Gerber Dairy Road asked how much urban intrusion into still-rural areas of Polk County is enough.

By the way, the County Commission sided with the residents and rejected the development 4-1.

This is a complicated issue, though, and no one should be surprised if the case ends up in court.

Here’s why.

For years the county’s development regulations have been modified in subtle ways that the general public never noticed to accommodate more intense development almost everywhere.

There are so-called transit-supported development districts that allow denser development along busy highway corridors regardless of whether anyone who moves there in their wildest imaginations would take the bus to work.

There are Special Area Plans that lay out all kinds of scenarios to accommodate development in places like the State Road 60 corridor where this development was proposed.

There are subtle growth map changes to designate large areas of vacant land as “Urban Growth Areas” that flies below the radar for average residents living nearby because they are occupied trying to get on with their lives and don’t spend much time studying the intricacies of county zoning regulations until the results smack them in the face.

Then there’s the provisions that allow developers to use the retention ponds they’re supposed to install anyway to deal with flooding and stormwater pollution problems as open spaces or recreational areas. This is kind of like the designation of ketchup as school lunch vegetable in another era.

However, despite commissioners’ seeming outrage about how these regulations are applied or interpreted, the fact is they or their predecessors approved every one of them and never asked for any changes.

During the discussion preceding the vote Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer and the only no vote, stated that if commissioners want to change the rules, that’s their choice. However, he argued it’s hard to justify the denial of a proposed development that’s complying with the rules they had previously approved.

This goes back to a previous discussion he led what amounted to an argument that development applicants should be guaranteed approval is they met all of the broad criteria laid out in the county’s development regulations.

The counterargument is that sometimes projects are proposed for which those regulations don’t always make sense and are in the wrong place at the wrong time. This appeared to be one of them.








The Assault On Conservation Lands By Road And Development Projects Is Neverending; We Need To Be Vigilant

The news on the conservation land front has been mixed lately.

There have been some recent conservation easement purchases that will help to protect more land from the bulldozers along the Lake Wales Ridge and along some tributaries of the Peace and Kissimmee rivers.

But then there’s the Split Oak Forest debacle north of us in Orange and Osceola counties.

It is at the center of a long-running fight over plans to jam still another toll road through conservation lands to allow commuters to get to and from the latest urban sprawl development as the Orlando megalopolis spreads its tentacles farther and farther into the countryside.

There’s a big meeting next week in Tallahassee before Florida Communities Trust, which provided some of the money to buy Split Oak Forest to save some remain green space in that part of Florida, to determine where they stand on the wisdom of this project.

According to press reports, developers and the road-building lobby originally wanted to run the road through the middle of Split Oak. The revised proposal, which has split the environmental community, proposes to route the road through one corner of the preserve and to donate some beat-up woods and pasture elsewhere to compensate for the environmental damage, loss of recreational access etc. etc. etc.

I have not seen any information on how much it would cost—providing this scheme wins approval– to restore the offered property and whether it would even be attractive enough to encourage anyone to visit in the first place.

How does this affect me, you might ask?

Because it could set another bad precedent by eroding the ability of public conservation lands to withstand the onslaught of the development and road-building lobbies, which are often two sides of the same coin.

As many of you know, a portion of the Marshall Hampton Reserve across Lake Hancock from Circle B is already destined for a slight trim of its northeast corner containing a mix of fields and oak forests to make way for the western leg of a toll road called the Central Polk Parkway. The road is intended to collect traffic from the freight and industrial park in south Winter Haven and beyond and route it to the Polk Parkway.

The bulldozers should be moving on that project within the next couple of years. Enjoy your shaded hikes while you can and watch for a new parking area farther south, or at least that’s what been promised.

More disturbing in this vein is the revival of a long-abandoned plan to run another major highway through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern on a route that would potentially cut through another tract named after the late Marshall Hampton and a portion of Colt Creek State Park. Its justification is improved freight movement.

The good news is that there is no funding for this project. But road projects never really die—another version of this idea was first proposed in the 1970s by the Florida Department of Transportation– and the next generation of local environmental leaders in Polk may have to deal with it, too.

When the road was first proposed in the early 1970s, the Green Swamp had only recently been declared an Area of Critical State Concern and how it would be protected was up in the air. There was little if any public conservation land there –today there are tens of thousands of acres of conservation lands—and it was not as well recognized what an important link the Green Swamp was in a statewide network of wildlife corridors.

Add to that in those days the idea of considering environmental impact of road projects was a new concept. Polk County sometimes built roads through swamps elsewhere to accommodate well-connected developers. It was a different era.

What the sneaking suspicion some of us have is that once there is a new “improved” road running through the Green Swamp, things could change. There could be future political pressure after many of the people who understand the Green Swamp’s importance are dead to ease off on the development restrictions now in place to accommodate population growth and economic development, despite the long-term consequences.

Everything, whether it’s ecology or the politics of roads and development—is connected and we fail to recognize that at our peril.


More Hardee County Land Protection Expected

An additional 501 acres in the Charlie Creek area in northeastern Hardee County is expect to gain additional protection through the expansion of the acreage in conservation easements on a private ranch.

The option to proceed was approved at a recent Florida Cabinet meeting under the state’s Rural and Family Lands program.

The purchase price for the easement was $1.4 million, half of which may be covered by funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Program.

The property reportedly contains gopher tortoise, Sherman’s fox squirrel, burrowing owl and sandhill crane and lies in section of a statewide wildlife corridor that allows for the dispersion of other wide-ranging species such as Florida black bear.

This is one of a series of purchases of conservation easements that have occurred on this property, the Charlie Creek Ranch, and on other private tracts in the area since 2017.

Conservation easements are voluntary purchases of development rights that provide cash to property owners while allowing them to continue traditional multi-generational agricultural activities.



Another Environmental Lands Referendum Monkey Wrench

Just when we thought the path was clear to work to persuade voters to approve a property tax increase of 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable value to restart the environmental lands purchase program originally approved by voters in 1994 was clear, along comes another attempt to monkey wrench the effort.

During Friday’s agenda study session, County Commissioner George Lindsey, one of two commissioners to vote against putting the issue on the ballot last month, took another run at the referendum. He suggested changing the tax to 10 cents per $1,000 of taxable value because even at that taxing level, arguing it would still raise more money than the original referendum.

There will not be a formal vote on the amount of the tax levy until the ordinance being drafted by the county’s legal staff is presented to the County Commission. No date for that hearing has been announced.

There are a couple of problems with this gambit.

One is that the uncertainty over just what the proposed tax will be throws the messaging on what to tell voters about the referendum in disarray.

The other thing is that it ignores, either intentionally or unintentionally, is the doubling of real estate prices over the past 30 years and whether the subsequent increase in the value of the tax roll in Polk if the tax is halved from the original proposal will be adequate to provide enough money to offer landowners fair prices for their property in inflationary times.

Stay tuned.



More Land Along Lake Wales Ridge Gets Protection

State officials this week approved the $1.5 million purchase of a conservation easement limiting future development at a private ranch adjacent to Highlands Hammock State Park in Highlands County.

The 354-acre property owned by the Miller family is part of the Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Florida Forever project intended to protect land within this area of Florida that contains the largest concentration of rare and endangered species within the continental United States.

According to the report supporting the purchase by the Florida Cabinet sitting as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund, the Lake Wales Ridge Ecosystem Florida Forever project consists of 67,167 acres, 37,600 acres of which have been acquired or are under agreement to be acquired.

The property also lies within a wildlife corridor that is part of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network.

This section of the state’s system of wildlife corridors provides for the movement of wide-ranging species such as the Florida panther and Florida black bear.

The easement will also create a buffer around a section of the state park’s northern boundary to prevent further development encroachment.

Farther south the Trustees also agreed to pursue an option to purchase a conservation easement from Lykes Bros., Inc. on 6,864 acres within the Fisheating Creek Ecosystem in Glades County for $10.6 million.

This is an important area for the protection of the Florida panther. It also contains an important pre-migration roosting area for Swallow-tailed Kites, which form large flocks in late summer before heading for their wintering grounds in South America. Many of these iconic birds also nest in the area.



Register Now For Southwest Florida Climate Summit

If you’d like to learn more about what has happened and what scientists predict will happen and how political leaders are or are not responding, the upcoming 2022 Southwest Florida Climate Summit scheduled for April 7 and 8 is the place to be.

You can participate in person or online during the two all-day sessions that will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is hosted by the Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership.

In-person participation will cost $25 per person and will be held at The Collaboratory, 2031 Jackson St., Fort Myers. On-line participation via Zoom is free.

Guest speakers will include a mixture of academic experts from fields ranging from engineering and meteorology, water management officials, environmental managers and health officials. They will discuss the predicted effects of climate change in this part of Florida on flooding, wildlife, human health and how the places we live will be affected and what some efforts are proposed to make the region more resilient to deal with the predicted changes.

To register and for details on the agenda and the presentations, go to 2022 Southwest Florida Climate Summit | Live CHNEP Website