Polk’s Gateway Plan Was Supposed To Protect Environment and Rural Lands; It Took The Planning Commission To Make It Happen

Last year Ancient Islands Sierra joined the fight to derail a proposal to wrest more development reviews from the Polk County Planning Commission and turn the process over to a hearing officer and to make it more onerous for the public to appeal hearing officer decisions.

The majority of the County Commission agreed with our criticisms and killed the idea.

That decision’s value certainly came into play Wednesday when the Planning Commission was reviewing a proposal to develop a city-sized subdivision proposed to contain more than 1,000 new in a rural area along the Peace Creek Canal east of Bartow under the procedure that planners and some development interests sought to take away from them.

County planners as they almost always do, recommended approval with conditions, but it was clear based on some of the conditions that this proposal was incompatible with surrounding rural homesteads.

The fact that the recommended buffering involved earthworks and a block wall that rose to probably half the height of the wall the islanders used to keep out King Kong was telling.

Then there are the provisions of something called the Gateway Selected Area Plan that dates to 2016.

The plan was supposedly a guide to future development along the State Road 60 corridor between U.S. 27 and the outskirts of Bartow about where this proposed development is located.

However, it was clear Wednesday that the stated policies in the original plan and actual implementation have diverged, seemingly to the detriment of rural residents and environmental features.

It initially did not propose to change land uses in the area, but testimony Wednesday showed that had occurred anyway.

It was also supposed to protect agricultural lands and environmental features such as the Peace Creek Drainage Canal. Although the plan didn’t say this, the protection of the Peace Creek was more important than many people realize. That’s because this section of the waterway was actually a natural stream in the middle of the 19th century, according to historical maps. Other parts of the current system farther from the Peace River were a series of sloughs and other wetlands that were dredged to drain land for agriculture.

But reading the staff report and listening to the applicant’s consultant, you wouldn’t have gotten much of a sense of this.

The development around the creek was discussed in terms of preventing downstream flooding more than preserving natural habitat.

The planned houses were more of the same standard argument about housing shortages and growth pressures rather than whether this was a smart place to build in the first place.

There is a reason the pioneers established Bartow where it is rather than out there.

This brings us back to the value of the Planning Commission.

Sure, the staff report seemed to check all of the right boxes. which may have satisfied the legalistic requirements a hearing officer might be interested in examining.

But the big picture gets lost in that kind of evaluation and the collective thinking of a diverse group can cut through the claims and get to the heart of the matter.

That led the panel to vote unanimously to deny the application.




Florida Conservation Funding Voters Approved In 2014 Suffers Another Setback After Judge Sides With Obstructionist Legislature

Sierra Club and other conservation groups have been in court since 2015 fighting the Florida Legislature’s efforts to ignore the will of the voters to levy state tax money to revive the Florida Forever program to buy more conservation land before it’s gobbled up by new development.

It looks as though environmentalists will be in court awhile longer.

A Leon County judge ruled Monday in favor of the state, concluding the whole issue is moot because legislators already appropriated the money and conservation groups didn’t act quickly enough to stop them.

This is bizarre because judges have already ruled there wasn’t anything that could be done to undo previous budgets approved by the Legislature and the Governor, even if they did misappropriate the money . The issue has always been whether this foolishness should be allowed to continue in future budgets.

In response to the ruling, Sierra Club Florida stated the ruling essentially decided the will of Florida voters is meaningless and if the ruling stands it will allow legislators to continue thumbs their noses at voters and use money supposedly mandated for conservation as a slush fund for whatever they choose.

At stake in this litigation is the spending of an estimated $1 billion a year in land that should go to state and local land conservation programs instead of for pork barrel projects to subsidize the sugar and development industries, Sierra maintains.

“Sierra Club Florida calls on the Legislature to immediately drop their opposition to the lawsuit and get on with the job of protecting the environment and heritage upon which Floridians and the state’s economy depends,” the statement concluded.

Florida Legislators File Bills To Abolish Local Soil and Water Conservation Districts

County soil and water conservation districts are on the chopping block in the upcoming session of the Florida Legislature.

Senate Bill 1078 and House Bill 783 filed by Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Keith Truenow respectively propose to abolish the districts. The districts were established in the late 1940s and early 1950s to provide technical assistance to farmers. Some districts also actively advocate for water conservation and better land management. They also sponsor educational programs such as the annual soil judging contests and envirothons.

Affected locally would be the Hardee, Highlands, Peace River Polk and Sumter districts.

Under the proposed legislation, which has been referred to a number of committees in both chambers, any assets of the districts would be transferred to the water management districts if the Legislature approves the measures.

No staff report has been prepared yet to lay out the rationale for the proposed change, though in the past some have contended that the agencies’ original duties have largely been taken over by the water management districts and they may have outlived their original purpose.

Nevertheless, the districts, which are overseen by elected boards, have offered an opportunity for an entry for people interested in running for local elected offices.



Water From Polk Going To DeSoto Mine

When we think of water flowing out of Polk County, we usually think of the seven rivers whose headwaters or upper reaches lie here or the aquifer beneath.

There’s the Alafia, Hillsborough, Kissimmee, Little Manatee, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee.

The Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern contains the high point of the Floridan Aquifer, which supplies water for Polk and surrounding counties.

If you’ve following the debate over phosphate mining in DeSoto County, people in Polk County way wonder what that has to do with them.

As it turns out, the water to run that mine—an average of 10.7 million gallons a day—will be coming from the well Mosaic’s Fort Green mine in southwestern Polk County.

To put that figure in perspective, Polk County Utilities produces and distributes 15.7 mgd to serve customers in unincorporated areas of the county.


FDOT Study Of Trail That Could Connect Marshall Hampton Reserve and Circle B Is On The Horizon

Much of the discussion around the future of Marshall Hampton Reserve has been the effect on the current trail system and entrance area when a new toll road plows through the northeastern corner beginning sometime next year.

The Central Polk Parkway’s first phase between U.S. 17 and Winter Lake Road and ultimately the Polk Parkway will cost an estimated $219.4 million to build. It will be followed a couple of years later by the $149.7 segment between U.S. 17and State Road 60.

So far no further extensions are in the Florida Turnpike Enterprise’s work plan. These projects were once considered part of a much larger project to slice through rural lands in the Heartland to open more land to more intense development under the guise of dealing with a long-term plan to deal with traffic congestion.

The roads that have been approved are being promoted as a way to reduce the amount of truck traffic in Bartow as the freight terminal and other industrial development in south Winter Haven builds out.

For those of you who tuned in late, the Winter Haven city limits extends to south of State Road 60, just a few miles north of Alturas.

Meanwhile, while the scenic oak hammock at the beginning of the trail system at Marshall Hampton is being leveled to make way for the new toll road, Florida Department of Transportation officials have taken the lead on a new trail project long considered by Polk County park planners.

That involves a way to connect the trail systems at Marshall Hampton and Circle B.

That would involve constructing a boardwalk through the swampland between Lake Hancock and Winter Lake Road to connect Marshall Hampton’s Acorn Trail to Circle B’s Lost Bridge Trail.

An $870,000 study to examine the feasibility of this project is tentatively scheduled to begin sometime in 2024 or 2025.

One of the biggest issues for a project like this, based on the history of a similar boardwalk at Mosaic Peace River Park. Is how to deal with the inevitable damage caused by the occasional falling of large trees as a result of hurricanes or other natural forces.

Nevertheless, if this project turns out to be feasible, it would create a new link in a trail system that circumnavigates one of the largest lakes in Polk County, connects thousands acres of undeveloped habitat and the urban trail systems beyond.

Watch for developments as the time for the discussion nears.

Some Thoughts On Proposed Changes In FWC Gopher Tortoise Relocation Regulations And Tallahassee’s Environmental Failure

A proposal by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to allow gopher tortoises to be relocated more than 100 miles from the development sites from which they have been removed has generated some concerns.

I deal with those presently, but first a little history might be helpful.

Gopher tortoises didn’t have much protection of any kind in Florida until 1972 when it became illegal to sell or export them. And even thought this species was declared threatened in Florida in 1975 and downlisted to species of special concern in 1979, it was not until 1988 that it became illegal to “harvest” (catch and kill and eat) them.

That was followed by a series of rules and revisions of rules and development of management plans and revisions of management plans governing how exactly to deal with gopher tortoises that lived in the path of development.

Initially developers were allowed to bury them alive and pay a fee to fund purchase of mitigation areas, but today developers have to remove them from their burrows, keep them alive and transport them to an approved relocation site.

This process has been complicated by the need to try to prevent the spread of an upper respiratory disease that was wiping out these reptiles in some parts of Florida and finding relocation sites in a rapidly developing state where suitable gopher tortoise habitat was also prime development land.

Another wrinkle in this process was the problem of how to protect other species ranging from gopher frogs and Florida mice to Eastern indigo snakes and Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes that regularly used gopher tortoise burrows along with hundreds of lesser-known invertebrates. They are known as commensal species.

Although the frog and the mouse are no longer classified as threatened species, the indigo snake is federally protected and the rattlesnake is being considered for federal protection. So is the gopher tortoise for that matter.

State wildlife officials acknowledge the relocation of commensal species is not well-researched and about all the current regulations say –except for the indigo snake—is to let them go their own way out of the path of the bulldozers and hope they survive at relocation sites.

The argument over whether gopher tortoises can be relocated 50 miles away or 100 miles away or 150 miles away is really about a bigger issue.

What is really needed is stronger measures to limit development in gopher tortoise colonies in the first place by buying and protecting more key habitat areas.

That’s because development restrictions face political resistance and legal challenges over claims that they infringe on property rights.

However, the effort to buy the land necessary to protect gopher tortoises and other native plants and animals has been hamstrung by the Florida Legislature’s refusal to fully implement the funding authorized in a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved several years ago by Florida’s voters.

The dispute is still tied up in court and the hundreds of millions of conservation dollars that were supposed to be available remain unspent.

And that, not agency rulemaking, is what this is really about and will continue to be about until we get some change in Tallahassee.



State Bird? What State Bird?

This is embarrassing, but it seems that as Florida legislators prepare to debate whether the Florida Scrub-Jay should replace the Northern Mockingbird as the state bird, there is no official state bird.

The measure proposed and passed by the Florida Senate in 1927 to make the Northern Mockingbird the state bird was never ratified by the Florida House and never enacted in Florida law.

All of the other state plants and animals and festivals and plays and songs etc. are included in state law.. The mockingbird’s status was just one of those things almost everyone took for granted.

This historical research came to light during the current campaign to make the Florida Scrub-Jay the official state bird.

This, of course. Is an oversight that could be corrected in the 2022 session. Or, legislators could start over and name the Florida Scrub-Jay, the only bird species found only in Florida and a symbol of declining native habitat that should be protected, the state bird. Maybe it could revive discussion on fully funding the Florida Forever program as voters intended in a constitutional referendum.

There have also been suggestions—but no proposed legislation—to give that honor to the Roseate Spoonbill or the Swallow-tailed Kite or perhaps other species.

The lobbying is under way to secure endorsements from conservation groups and local governments.

This issue came up several years ago and was killed by National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer who was at odds with bill sponsor Florida Audubon over an unrelated issue.

Stay tuned.