State Approves Creek Ranch Purchase

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet quickly voted Tuesday to proceed with the purchase of 1,342-acre Creek Ranch near Lake Hatchineha in eastern Polk County.

The purchase price is $36.1 million. There was no word on when closing will occur to finalize the deal.

The ranch was the focus of a fight involving Sierra Club and others last year over a plan to develop the property into a residential-commercial project that would put urban growth deeper into what has traditionally been a rural area of Polk.

The property’s development would have interrupted a lengthy wildlife corridor stretching from the Everglades to near the Green Swamp where Florida panther and Florida black bear have been documented.

The lack of intense development there will also aid in maintaining some of the dark sky aspect of that area.

Once the state acquires the property, it will be managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a wildlife management area. Agency officials say the plan to use the buildings on the grounds for staff housing and equipment storage.

There are also plans to organize youth conservation camp activities.   

Loopholes In Florida’s Conservation Easement Law Offer Cautions About Hopes Of Perpetual Protection  

There have been some pieces published recently in Florida that may give some people pause when they push for buying conservation easements as a cheaper way to protect land forever while encouraging legitimate agricultural operations to continue.

As it turns out the cautions are right there in plain view in the Florida statutes.

One part of the statute reads:

  A conservation easement may be released by the holder of the easement to the holder of the fee even though the holder of the fee may not be a governmental body or a charitable corporation or trust.

That sentence is pretty open-ended in that it does not place any restrictions on the circumstances in which such a release—that means a decision by some official body to relinquish its previously agreed to conservation protection—and it doesn’t require repayment the taxpayer money used to buy the easement in the first place.

Later in the statute, it clearly states that the holder of a conservation easement can sell or sublease the property for power line and pipeline corridors or new roads, though it does require a finding by the court of whether the conservation benefit of not building the road, for instance, or the public benefit of building the road is more important.

This issue is playing out now in the controversy over where the Central Florida Expressway Authority and its developer supporters can run a new toll road through a conservation area called Split Oak Forest.

Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area straddles the Orange-Osceola county line. Osceola is pushing the road. Orange County is opposing it. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages the property and has yet to announce its position.

But this is something that could play out in Polk County if county officials are ever able to find the money to finance a plan to realign Deen Still Road through existing conservation land—including a portion of Colt Creek State Park—to build a new truck route connecting U.S. 27 and U.S. 98 through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.

None of the public conservation lands involved in that proposal are conservation easements, but it seems the principle is at stake.

Sierra Gets Second Seat On Land Panel

Marian Ryan, conservation chair and vice chair for Florida Sierra’s Ancient Islands Group, was appointed Tuesday to the county’s Conservation Land Acquisition Selection Advisory Committee.

The committee makes recommendations to the County Commission regarding land purchases under the Polk County Environmental Lands Program, which is funded by a property tax voters approved in a 2022 referendum.

Ryan is involved in a number of local conservation organizations. In addition to Sierra, she is on the board of directors of Green Horizon Land Trust and is president of the Friends of the Parks Foundation.

She has served on a number of state and local committees including the Green Swamp Task Force, the Polk County Water Policy Advisory Committee and the Peace River Basin Management Advisory Committee.

She also served on  CLASAC  from 1996 to 2016 when it was making recommendations on the spending of money that had been approved by voters in a 1994 referendum.

Ryan was active in the campaigns for both referendums.

She was recommended for appointment by County Commissioner Martha Santiago. She fills the unexpired term of Kerry Hammock, who died in November.

Ryan joins Ancient Islands Chair Tom Palmer, who was appointed to the committee last year.

Tom Palmer
Winter Haven

Green Swamp Encroachment Proposal Resurfaces, The Latest Threat Of Many

A proposal to stretch the line between intense development and environmental protection in one of Florida’s most important environmental areas has reemerged along Deen Still Road.

It involves a possible change in the line agreed upon in 1996 between Polk County and a now-weakened state agency over where intense development can and cannot occur at the edge of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.

This idea was broached in early 2023, but never went beyond the conceptual stage. Now it’s back.

For those of you new to Polk County in particular and Florida in general, the designation involves 295,000 acres in Pok and Lake counties that was approved by the Florida Legislature in 1974 to protect key portions of the Floridan aquifer and the headwaters of four Florida rivers from overdevelopment. It is also a hub for a network of state wildlife corridors.

The Green Swamp in general is a plateau covering about half a million acres between the Lake Wales Ridge and the Brooksville Ridge.

The settlement allowed development adjacent to the U.S. 27 corridor, but not much farther west.

Or, as Mr. Mason said to Mr. Dixon, we’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Now there is a proposal to redraw the line to allow industrial development to encroach slightly deeper into the Green Swamp.

The discussion is in the preliminary stages and anything that occurs will require a public hearing before the Polk County Planning Commission and the County Commission and review by the Florida Department of Commerce’s community planning staff.

Once upon a time there was a separate state agency called the Florida Department of Community Affairs that was charged with oversight—and the power to sue to stop—unwise development plan changes in the Green Swamp and everywhere else in the state. The agency was abolished at the request of Gov. Rick Scott and under the Scott and DeSantis administrations in Tallahassee growth management oversight in Florida has become almost non-existent.

That is, the staff can object, but no longer has the power to take action if local officials ignore them.

It is impossible to say where the latest proposal will go, but Sierra is watching it and will provide updates if someone tries to slide down this slippery slope.

The problem is that this is not an isolated assault.

County planners recently hatched a plan to allow more residential development on substandard lots in the Green Swamp. Lake Alfred officials have approved questionable annexations that would introduce industrial development into another section of the Green Swamp near Hilochee Wildlife Management Area.

There is also a planned but thankfully unfunded plan on the county’s priority project list to realign Deen Still Road into a major trucking route that would likely increase wildlife roadkill at a time when other agencies are developing wildlife crossings over Interstate 4 to make it easier for wildlife to disperse regionally .That proposed road would bisect a section of the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Hampton Tract and Colt Creek State Park to complete a quicker link to a widened U.S. 98 north of Lakeland on the other side of the Green Swamp.

Who knows what will happen next.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

State To Purchase Creek Ranch; Wildlife Corridor Victory

The owners of Creek Ranch on Lake Hatchineha Road have agreed to sell the property to the state under the Florida Forever program, The Ledger reports.

Rumors that a deal was pending had been circulating in recent weeks.

The property is scheduled to be managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee and will be used, among other things, as a youth conservation camp.

The deal, which will not become final until it is considered later this month by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet, will also end months of controversy over the future of the property.

Last year the County Commission approved a plan proposed by owner Reggie Baxter for a development containing hundreds of new homes and some commercial development.

The idea drew strong opposition from area residents and from the Sierra Club.

The opposition centered on the property’s location between vast stretches of conservation land.

To the south are The Nature Conservancy’s Hatchineha Ranch, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park, Lake Kissimmee State Park and portions of Lakes Wales Ridge State Forest.

To the north lies the South Florida Water Management District’s Lake Marion Creek Wildlife Management Area and TNC’s Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Florida panthers and Florida black bear have been reported in the area, which is considered an important link in the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The corridor is also a migratory path for songbirds.

Although the initial discussion involved purchase of a conservation easement, the deal now involves the purchase of the entire ranch, including the ranch house and other buildings on the property.

The purchase price has not been made public.

 

 

The Stats Are In; No Warm Winters Around Here

There may be signs of warmer winters in the northern latitudes, but in Florida the data are just the opposite, according to the latest summaries compiled by the National Weather Service.

And despite the influence of El Nino, it was not particularly as rainy as it has been in the past.

In this part of Florida, it was way down in the double digits for rankings for coolest or wettest winters. We were not even on the scale for heat, despite reports from other parts of the world.

You can view the details at : Feb2024_Winter2023_24_final.pdf (weather.gov)

This is reflected in river flows.

Going into the typically dry spring season, flow in the Peace River in Bartow is barely enough to make boating possible without a lot of portaging, providing there are no tree falls to make the journey even more perilous.

Downstream at Arcadia, there is decent water flow, but less than the average flow for this time of year and without rain from upstream areas, it is likely the flow will decline.

If you plan a trip on the water on the scenic upper reaches of the river, keep that in mind.

 

 

 

More Land In Wildlife Corridor Has Been Protected

A 1,285-acre ranch in southern Highlands County will be the latest parcel to gain protection within the section of the Florida Greenways Ecological Network.

The protective deal was announced recently by Conservation Florida, whose staff provided technical assistance to secure the deal with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The formal approval occurred last March at a meeting of the Governor and Cabinet acting as the Trustees for the Internal Improvement Fund.

The proposed purchase price was $4 million.

The property is owned by Lee A. Lightsey and Tracy V. Lightsey.

The property is a former active cattle ranch that is now used primarily as a residence and a recreational hunting venue.

According to the staff report for the meeting, it is part of the 43,051-acre Blue Head Ranch Florida Forever Project that protects regional water and wildlife resources around Fisheating Creek, which flows to Lake Okeechobee.

Before this area was approved for conservation protection, it was along the route of a controversial toll road proposed nearly two decades ago called the Heartland Parkway, whose southern leg through rural lands and crucial wildlife habitat was later abandoned.

The northern portion in the Bartow-Winter Haven area of Polk County is under construction.

Another toll road was proposed more recently along a different route through large swaths of rural land and crucial wildlife habitat in southwest Florida, but was abandoned as a result of protests by environmentalists and property owners and a conclusion that it was unnecessary and financially unsound.

The existence of increased amount of protected conservation lands in this part of Florida—the list of prohibited activities listed in the conservation easement includes the construction of new roads unrelated to restoration work—seems to guarantee that the concern over the encroachment of new roads has lessened.

That makes easements like this a big win for the environment.