Polk’s Lopsided Development Regs Get Renewed Scrutiny

Sunday’s Ledger reported how a little-known provision tucked into the county’s growth regulations allowed a developer to gain approval of a subdivision near Eagle Lake the County Commission had previously denied.

This is certainly not an isolated incident and unsurprising given the history of the writing and interpretation of growth management regulations in unincorporated Polk County.

The particular provision governs approval of so-called infill development. County records show the provisions were approved in 2002 and 2003.

That date coincides with the early days of the writing of the county’s development regulations, which was greatly influenced by the development industry.

It gets worse.

Shortly after the County Commission finally voted in 2000 to belatedly approve updated development regulations as required by a 1985 state law, they appointed a so-called “Glitch Committee” made up of members of the development community and their consultants.

The committee’s job was to take yet another look at the development regulations to catch any problems for them they didn’t catch the first time around. This infill development provisions seems to date from that period.

The infill regulations are fairly well-hidden, occupying a few pages in a 136-page section on conditional uses, which may not be an obvious place to look. There were allegations that the developer did not know about this provision, either, until county planners suggested the developer use it.

Add to that is the infill development standards are generic enough to give applicants and planners enough latitude to justify administrative approvals.

That seemingly permissive interpretative atmosphere in Bartow is what the ongoing litigation in this and other recent zoning cases is examining.

Stay tuned.




PRWC Told To Stick Together

The Polk County Water Cooperative needs to stick together if they want continued funding and want to have a sustainable water supply project, Southwest Florida Water Management District officials told board members Wednesday.

The presentation is in response to some discussions by member governments to pursue alternative water supply projects on their own rather than joining in the countywide plan to develop wellfields, pipelines and treatment facilities to drill wells hundreds and thousands of feet into the ground to acquire water to treat for future water supply and to dispose of the contaminants from the process.

It was significant that some of the member cities, such as Davenport and Haines City, who have proposed the Lone Ranger approach, were not present.

Swiftmud officials made it clear that anyone who planned to go it alone would not qualify for agency funding.

If they are planning to spend money to seek water from the Lower Floridan Aquifer, for which there are currently no water restrictions on withdrawals, their permit applications may be approved.

Nevertheless, it was also clear that the cost will be large. It would cost an estimated $60 million to develop even a modest amount of water from these alternative sources.

Meanwhile, PRWC board members voted to proceed with their deep well projects.

Stay tuned for the future cost analyses.




Polk Stormwater Projects Vindicate Efforts By Sierra To Pass Tax

Ancient Islands Sierra activists urged the Polk County Commission for decades to enact a stormwater tax to tackle the historic pollution threats to local lakes and rivers.

After some false starts, commissioners finally passed the tax about a decade ago and appointed a technical committee to review potential projects to make sure they money was being spent effectively. This was similar to the committee that reviewed environmental lands purchases.

A report Tuesday from David Carter, the technical committee’s chairman, vindicates the environmental benefits that we advocated for so many years to bring to reality.

The Lake Gwyn project in Wahneta, which treats lake stormwater discharges from sections of the Winter Haven area, has reduced nitrogen pollution by 30 percent and phosphorous discharges by 59 percent.

A nearly completed project near Lake Conine in Winter Haven will eliminate the last direct discharge into the lake via a ditch system built many decades ago when that was standard practice and a common cause of surface water pollution.

A project under way west of Crooked Lake, Polk’s only water body designated an Outstanding Florida Water, will restore wetlands and treat water that historically flowed into the lake via agricultural drainage ditches.

Work is under way on a state-mandated 20-year stormwater needs analysis and training county staff to conduct further work, such as a lake vegetation analysis.

Meanwhile, the majority of the 108 lakes local officials monitor are either improving or retaining their existing water quality.

This wouldn’t have been possible with funding from the stormwater tax.

Also, like the Polk County Environmental Lands Program, when governments have a serious, dependable funding source to address a problem, this allows them to leverage that funding to form partnerships with other agencies to further the program’s goals and stretch the dollars.

This has been a success story that should be celebrated as a victory for the vision of the local environment community.



Kissimmee River Finally Restored, Sort Of

Officials from state and federal agencies gathered somewhere along the restored section of the Kissimmee River in Highlands County recently to celebrate the completion of the $1 billion “restoration” project. The public was not invited.

Restoration must be put in quotes because only part of the river has been restored. The rest of it is still controlled by locks and dams built in the name of the flood protection that got Congressional approval for the original project in the first place.

Politics and a lot of fudged data got the original project, which turned a meandering 103-mile river into a 56-mile ditch, approved in 1954. Ultimately changing politics and the environmental reality of what a bone-headed idea the original project was got the recently completed project approved in 1992.

The first Kissimmee River restoration meeting I attended was in the old Lake Wales City Hall sometime in the late 1970s, I think. The room was packed with local environmental leaders from, Sierra and other groups, boaters and anglers.

I learned from talking to the old timers that decades earlier local boaters had organized the Kissimmee Boat-a-cade to demonstrate what a great natural river the Kissimmee was when word first emerged that there was a move afoot to channelize it.

Nevertheless, the fix was in and to a certain extent the legacy of the original political decisions endured into the new project. The drained river gave ranchers additional free year-round pasture in the river’s historic floodplain. When the restoration project began, the taxpayers had to buy back what was probably originally state submerged land in the first place to secure the right to reflood land that seasonally flooded naturally. They did that not because it was right, but to avoid years of litigation over property rights claims that would have driven up the project’s costs and delayed its construction.

Nevertheless, anyone who has visited the restored sections of the Kissimmee River has witnessed the numbers and diversity of waterfowl and wading birds that have returned to their historic haunts. This is in stark contrast to the view along the unrestored sections, such the area just south of State Road 60, which are relatively sterile environmentally.

Sierra Club’s Ancient Islands Group, notably the late Richard Coleman, was involved in pushing for, supporting and monitoring the decades of work that went into planning and eventually implementation of what has been called the largest river restoration project in history.

By the way, the project also produced improved public access points along the river and elsewhere in the Kissimmee River Basin.

If you have a boat and haven’t been out on the river, but the trip on your list. If you visit the restored sections of the river, you won’t be disappointed.





Florida Wildlife Corridor Bill Raises Legal, Environmental Issues

The Florida Wildlife Corridor program that highlights the need to protect a still mostly intact network of natural paths for wildlife to get from one of Florida to another if they choose is one of the more ambitious Florida environmental effort in recent times.

The concept had been around for decades, promoted by a number of scientists and environmentalists, but the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition made the idea more tangible by spending months hiking and paddling on the land and recording the results in a series of professional videos.

So it was with great fanfare this year that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that appropriated $300 million to acquire land along the corridor.

But it quickly became clear there were problems or as they say in Tallahassee, devils in the details.

The Tampa Bay Times uncovered the fact that the appropriation, which by the way came from federal stimulus funds rather than funds from the voter-approved source that legislators are still fighting against in court, allows any of the land acquired either through outright purchase or purchase of a conservation easement be used to set up a wetlands mitigation bank.

There were a couple of problems with this.

As Craig Pittman reported in the Florida Phoenix, wetlands mitigation banks in Florida don’t have a very good reputation for restoring wetlands to mitigate for development-related wetlands destruction.. That’s based on his and a colleague’s research that resulted in a book-length expose of the process. To say some wetlands mitigation banks are scams is probably not much of an exaggeration.

Another problem is that the wetlands mitigation industry lobbied for and secured passage of a state law that prohibited wetlands mitigation banks on public lands, which at one time offered viable competition with the side benefit that their projects would actually improve the environmental features for which the public land was purchased.

How this applies to land still in private ownership but with a taxpayer-funded conservation easement on it will be an issue to watch to see if this ends up in court.

Pittman tried to get a comment from Sen. Ben Albritton from Hardee County, the architect of this idea, but wrote he didn’t get a response.

Albritton did tell the Tampa Bay Times that one advantage of some of these mitigation banks in more rural heartland areas he represents is that the mitigation would actually occur in the same drainage basin as the wetlands damage for which the credits are being purchased occurred.

Based on the history of the conduct of wetlands mitigation banks in other parts of the state, it’s too early to celebrate that as an improvement.




Polk Water Cooperative Dissension Gets SWFMD’s Attention

Officials at the Southwest Florida Water Management District are asking questions about just how regional and how cooperative the Polk Regional Water Cooperative really is.

The questions are apt because the agency has a lot of skin in the game. It has agreed to contribute $65 million and counting toward Polk County’s efforts to come up with a unified plan to develop so-called alternate water resources to meet projected public supply demand so the taps keep running and the toilets keep flushing as once-rural Polk’s population nears 1 million residents.

The latest discussion came up during Tuesday’s Governing Board meeting when Swiftmud General Counsel Christopher Tumminia presented staff concerns about whether the cooperative is functioning as it should and whether that funding should continue.

Some of the specific issues were whether the cooperative owns and controls the alternative water supply sites, whether it has the ability to repay the hundreds of millions it plans to borrow to pay for the projects and just exactly who’s still actively involved in participating in the projects.

Swiftmud is not going to fund a project that benefits only one city. Tumminia said, referring to the northwest Polk wellfield that may serve only Lakeland.

Governing Board member John Hall, one of two members from Polk, wondered whether they should invite cooperative board members to a future meeting for further discussion.

Swiftmud Executive Director Brian Armstrong said most of the questions the staff has are technical. Swiftmud officials are scheduled to attend the next PRWC meeting on Aug. 4 to present their concerns.

Polk’s effort has always been motivated by economic development dreams of leaders in some of the 17 cities who initially were involved in the establishment of the cooperative in 2017. The trouble is some, such as Davenport and Haines City, have discussed going it alone to develop their own alternative water supplies. Both cities have annexing like crazy into the former farmland and forests surrounding them and pushing new road projects to open up even more land for development

The message from Swiftmud officials is clear: if they want to do that, they’re on their own.

And just in case you’ve forgotten what this is about. A scientific study completed several years ago concluded the aquifer in this part of Florida is pretty well tapped out when it comes to sustainable withdrawals. That means anyone looking for more water needs to look elsewhere.

That has led to several years of getting permits for projects to tap the lower, poorer-quality reaches of the aquifer. That will require treating the water in a way similar to desalination in coastal areas and disposing of the brine even deeper underground.

There’s also talk of tapping the Peace River during peak flows when there are any—this summer hasn’t produced any so far—and storing water in old phosphate mine pits for later use. There is also talk of trying to get a share of the water that adjacent utilities that are drilling wells in remote areas in adjacent counties hope to obtain.

Proposed Iconic Species Amendment Will Stir Debate

One of the latest proposed constitutional. Amendments to surface for possible inclusion on the 2022 ballot is something called the Florida Iconic Species Protection Amendment.

It is proposed by an organization called the Center for Environmental and Democratic Rights., whose headquarters is in Spokane, Wash. The center works all over the world on issues involving the rights of nature to be protected from pollution, overexploitation and other issues.

It is advertised as a measure that would remove oversight of a number of species from the constitutional jurisdiction of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in order to protect Florida species ranging from red-cockaded woodpeckers to leatherback turtles.

But the heart of the amendment’s language is a single issue—whether Florida black bears can be legally hunted. The amendment, if approved, would permanently ban bear hunting in Florida. None of the other species on this list are game species.

This follows the controversy over bear-hunting in 2015, the first time the species had been legally hunted in Florida since 1993.

The 2015 season was based on a staff recommendation that the Florida bear population had recovered to the point that limited hunting would not seriously affect the population. However, in the background was pressure to allow trophy hunting by people who had never had a chance to hunt for bears and concerns that the hunt resulted in killing female bears and leaving their young to fend for themselves.

There has been no further hunting authorized since then, but it is a year-to-year discussion by FWC’s commissioners.

As the petition process moves forward, it is likely to encounter resistance on principle from hunting groups because of concerns that it could open the door to other hunting restrictions. It also will draw support from animal rights groups and other organizations that oppose hunting.

And, if voters were to approve the amendment, it would be interesting to see what the Florida Legislature would do to thwart it as it has on previous grassroots initiatives.

Stay tuned.