Now That Commercial Franchising Issue Settled, Can Polk County Commission Turn Its Attention To Broken Recycling System?

Polk commissioners voted 3-2 today to ditch a proposal by Waste & Recycling Director Ana Wood to get them to vote to consider commercial garbage franchising.

Ever since this idea surfaced earlier this year, the rationale has been a mystery.

Wood’s presentation that followed a video about how wonderful the landfill is because of its space and central location focused on a legislative-imposed deadline for deciding whether to get into commercial franchising.

It took persistent questioning from commissioners to draw out the reason this was even taking up their time in the first place.

As it turns, landfill revenue has not risen as projected, Wood testified, but was a little vague about what exactly accounted for that.

One possibility is that Republic Services, which contracts for commercial hauling and also operates a private landfill in Bartow, may have been taking its garbage to its own landfill.

A commercial franchise system could perhaps force Republic and any other commercial hauler to use only the county landfill, though the law is little murky on that point, commissioners were told.

That brought pushback from Commissioner George Lindsey, who said he didn’t think it was good public policy to use that policy as a hammer to squeeze private enterprise to the county’s financial advantage.

Besides, he and other commissioners concluded, there was really no problem with the current system that the public was clamoring to change.

If there is one issue about which the public is clamoring for reform, it is Polk County’s recycling system.

The main problems are the confusion over what to recycle, which varies depending on where you live in the county for no reason that anyone has yet presented and the lack of a coherent educational or enforcement campaign to deal with the widespread contamination of recycling carts by people who are either wishful recyclers or ignoramuses who simply use their recycling cart as a second garbage cart.

Other counties offer much clearer information on this issue. There has been a discussion about hosting some kind of countywide forum among local officials involved in solid waste decisions to come up with a more consistent message to the public.

So far all that it has been is talk.

It’s long past time for action.




Developer Hopes and Fiscal, Political Reality Collide in Polk

It seems nothing much has changed regarding the Polk County Commission’s willingness to further increase taxes or to go further into debt since I reported from the annual retreat that when the idea of seeking the fourth sales tax increase for roads in 30 years arose.

The Ledger reports in a followup story now that it has hired someone to cover county government again that the commission majority’s aversion to asking for more taxes has not changed since then.

You have to understand that although previous commissions tried and failed three times to persuade voters to pay higher sales taxes to fix a road backlog that was largely of their own making, they did raise taxes elsewhere to fund roads.

They raised the gas tax to the max , they added a special property tax for roads and they used most of the former Polk County Environmental Lands tax proceeds after the 20-year voter mandate expired. Those tax increases didn’t require a referendum.

A lot of this was developer-driven to meet transportation concurrency back when Florida had growth-management regulations that were enforced.

One key reason there are backlogs in road network capacity is that because for years Polk County approved development on the cheap. Road impact fees were either non-existent, temporarily suspended or imposed at a rate lower than what was required to fund the projects new growth was making more urgent. The local development community was the main opponent to impact fees.

The results were predictable.

So, it should not surprise anyone when voters look around and see what kinds of development decisions the County Commission has made—or refused to make—they are not eager to pour more money down the same rat hole to subsidize more of the same.

Finally, it might be useful to take a harder look at this long list of road projects to sort out which ones are true needs to solve real problems and how many of them are simply on someone’s wish list.

I’d add that it is hard to argue that in one of the fastest growing areas in the third-most populous state in the nation that traffic congestion will be the norm from now on in many places. Get used to it.


Are New Roads Really The Answer To Northeast Polk’s Traffic Congestion Problems Or Just More Sprawl?

For the past couple of years transportation planners and local economic development officials have been huddling to come up with some recommendations for dealing with the increasing congestion along the U.S. 27 corridor.

It was no surprise, then, that when a report was presented to the Polk Transportation Planning Organization today the formerly shelved eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway was back in the mix.

This proposed toll road’s route winds through northeast Polk near conservation l ands in the Marion Creek Basin and through what was once a totally rural area that is gradually seeing suburban development as Haines City and neighboring cities annex eastward.

Local economic development officials lobbied for the road years ago because it would open more land to industrial development, residential development and commercial development. Urban sprawl, in other words, which they consider a good thing.

But tying this road’s justification to traffic congestion on U.S. 27 is a bit of a stretch.

The fact is that tens of thousands of cars and trucks are clogging U.S. 27 every day is because people are commuting or traveling or hauling freight to and from destinations along this major highway or other highways such as Interstate 4 that intersect it.

Building a beltway around cities along U.S. 27 will simply add another feeder road that will ultimately simply increase the highway’s congestion.

And that’s not all.

There are proposals to extend Power Line Road east of Haines City to run from somewhere north of Davenport, maybe around the eastern end of Ernie Caldwell Boulevard , and south toward the outskirts of Lake Wales.

Meanwhile, there was another proposal to four-lane a section of Deen Still Road in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern and continue that road-widening project down Old Grade Road to I-4. Local Sierra leaders spoke against this idea at today’s meeting because it could lead eventually to more pressure to develop deeper in the GSACSC and would not divert enough traffic from U.S. 27 anyway to justify the expense and ecological damage it would cause.

Another idea would extend County Road 547 westward from Davenport into another section of the Green Swamp to connect to Polk City Road at the edge of Hilochee Wildlife Management Area.

A major gap in the presentation was the lack of any mention of using improved transit to reduce congestion, This could benefit the large number of people who work at tourist attractions and the hotels and restaurants around them and now have little choice but to drive to work. This is especially significant since Polk planners several years ago created a so-called Transit-Oriented Development District overlay that allowed much denser development in the U.S. 27 corridor and elsewhere, arguing it would create higher density that would encourage transit.

So far all it has done is to create the higher density and higher traffic congestion.

The good news, if there is any, is that none of these projects are in anyone’s transportation budget at the moment and it could be some time before there is any funding.

Watch for further discussions at future TPO meetings and public workshops as project studies emerge.

Finally, monitoring some of what is occurring is not as easy as it once was.

The TPO has decided to meet at a sports complex in Winter Haven instead of the County Commission board room in Bartow. That means the meetings are not recorded and broadcast on PGTV where the proceedings are easier to review. It also means the meetings are being held in a room with poor acoustics and an intermittently dysfunctional sound system, which means even if you take time to attend the meeting in person, it may be difficult to hear the discussions among board members.

A more transparent process might be worth considering.





The Legal Defense Of Development Decisions Cost Dilemma

A story published recently in The Ledger raised an intriguing point.

It involves how the County Commission responded when one of its development decisions this year was challenged in court.

These suits don’t happen often and two cases that come to mind didn’t end well for the county.

They approved a mining permit that was actually a prelude to preparing land for development and lost.

They denied a permit for a development on Lake Kissimmee that was started without a permit and still lost.

Once upon a time courts generally deferred to the judgment of local elected officials, but those days are long past.

The current lawsuit challenges a decision to allow suburban-density development next door to rural multi-acre homesteads after denying development proposals on the same site at earlier hearings.

The issue that was raised by the plaintiffs and their lawyer was why is the entire cost of defending the lawsuit is being paid by the taxpayers, especially since it will involve hiring an outside private law firm for what is likely to be a hefty cost to taxpayers.

There was some discussion—and that’s all it is at this point— among county commissioners about developing some sort of policy to require the developer to share the litigation costs.

How that would be structured—if it even occurs– hasn’t been decided.

One logical place to put such a provision is in the development order that ratifies the county’s decision. That may require an amendment to the county’s development regulations or some new ordinance to authorize it.

That’s providing such a practice is found to be legally permissible in the first place. I’m sure the county’s legal staff is researching that question.

County staffers likely will also be looking around to see if any other jurisdictions have any policy of this sort or would any action Polk take set a precedent. And, if it does, would it expose the county to lawsuits from developers who could argue they proceeded in good faith relying on county regulations and shouldn’t be held financially responsible if there’s a legal challenge.

Legal questions and issues can be very complicated and this one is no different.

Of course, if the Polk County Commission didn’t pass what are sometimes fairly permissive development regulations with all kinds of exemptions and density transfers and other manufactured developer rights, they might not have ended up in this position in the first place.

Green Swamp Road Pressure Coming From All Directions


Polk County’s proposal described in this space earlier this year to extend Deen Still Road through conservation lands –including a state park–under the guise of improving traffic flow turns out not to be an anomaly.

The Tampa Bay Times now reports another proposal by the Florida Department of Transportation, which 45 years ago proposed a new highway through the center of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern to connect U.S. 27 to U.S. 98, is now proposing a bypass route around Zephyrhills through other conservation lands to connect U.S. 301 to U.S. 98.

Meanwhile, at next week’s Polk Transportation Planning Organization, the FDOT’s so-called U.S. 27 Mobility Study, which initially involved state transportation officials and local business interests, includes two proposals to extend or improve roads through the Green Swamp.

One involves what has turned out to be an improved truck route –details are sketchy–along Deen Still Road and Old Grade Road at the edge of two units of Hilochee Wildlife Management Area as the result of a decision many years ago by Polk County officials to pave the roads to reduce their maintenance costs.

Another involves a proposal to extend County Road 547 westward from Davenport to connect to Polk City Road near a historic African-American community and at the edge of Hilochee.

These are supposedly unfunded long-range transportation proposals., but road plans have a long life and some are eventually advanced when no one’s paying attention.


Polk Oks ‘Toilet To Tap’ Pilot Study

Polk officials today approved a cooperative funding agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District to conduct a pilot study of the technical and financial feasibility of using highly treated sewage as a future source of drinking water.

Polk Utilities Director Tamara Richardson said the pilot study will be completed within two years. She said if the study concludes the conversion is feasible, the source could be tapped within eight to 10 years.

This is among the alternative water sources that may be available to meet expected demand that will outstrip the current use of the Upper Floridan Aquifer.

County and city officials are also studying a plan to tap the lower-quality water in the Lower Floridan Aquifer. That approach will require building something akin to a desalination plant to bring that water to drinking water standards. It will also require the installation of a countywide pipeline system to deliver the treated water to local utilities.

One question the study will answer is whether treating sewage to drinking water standards is cheaper than the well projects, which involve not only well and treatment plant construction and the pipeline, but construction of an even deeper well to get rid of the treatment plant’s brine residue.

The project approved Tuesday would involve water at the county’s Northwest Regional Plant in the Lakeland suburbs. Richardson said the plant produces about 1 million gallons of treated wastewater a day and at the moment is simply discharged rather than being reused to some way to offset the region’s water demand.

Winter Haven officials recently agreed to participate in a similar study partly financed by Swiftmud. The city discharges its treated sewage into the Peace Creek Drainage Canal.



Suit Will Test Polk’s Developer-Friendly Policy Rationale

A recently filed lawsuit may resolve a long-simmering dispute that has pitted rural homeowners against developers and Polk’s developer-friendly planning practices.

The specific case involves repeated attempts to win approval for various versions of a subdivision in a still-rural section near Kathleen, an unincorporated area north of Lakeland.

It involved creating a subdivision with as much as 10 times the density of the adjacent rural homesteads.

The rationale for approval by county planners has included one of the made-up sops to developers that give them extra density credits for not developing wetlands on their property even though a lot of wetlands are undevelopable anyway and a policy that says that if there is denser development on a majority of the land within two miles of the project site, it’s okay to approve denser development here. Sometimes they also throw in the transit-supported development district overly even in areas where transit use isn’t likely to justify higher density.

The rationale for that two-mile policy and its application appears to be at the heart of the court challenge, according to a report in The Ledger.

The controversy over this development, which was first proposed in some form or another a couple of years ago, spawned a short-lived effort to draft regulations to better define compatibility to give developers some way to predict when their proposal would be approved. The effort ended when it became clear that compatibility is always a subjective judgment.

Subsequent controversial public hearings, such as the decision on whether to allow a solar farm in the middle of the Chicora community in southwest Polk, have reinforced this conclusion.

The rural solar farm disputes are now moot. The Florida Legislature has stepped in to tell local officials that solar farms can go into any rural agricultural area with a willing seller and they don’t have much say in the matter.

Legislators also passed a measure to include a property rights element in local growth plans. In land-use cases, property rights claims cut both ways, so it will be interesting to see what the effect will be and whether the rules will be written to accommodate development interests at the expense of surrounding homeowners since property rights claims have been raised in some recent development cases.