Polk Proposes New Development Review Scheme That Will Bypass Public Involvement, Add Higher Voluntary Standards

Polk County planners, at the encouragement of the County Commission, have come up with a cure for long Planning Commission agendas.

Their prescription, if approved by the Planning Commission and the County Commission, will mean that in some cases developers will no longer be plagued by having to sit through hearings and having to listen to complaints by the pesky public about the demerits of their projects.

Instead, all they will need is a favorable staff review that will occur without public notice.

But in exchange developers will have to add more sidewalks and park space, not cram their units so close together and plant some trees along the edge of the subdivision if their project is twice as dense as the one next door.

The effort, called prescriptive planned developments, will undergo its first public hearing Nov. 1 before the Polk County Planning Commission.

This approach raises some questions.

First is that planned developments or planned-unit developments as they were called when the idea emerged 40 years or so ago around here, was an attempt to push the envelope of the restrictions in existing zoning regulations by agreeing to additional conditions, This proposal expands that idea.

It will apply only in mapped Urban Growth and Utility Enclave areas, though the boundaries of those areas have a way of expanding unexpectedly or as the staff report puts it “Much of the UGAs and UEAs are not completely formed.”

Although it is billed as an “objective” approach to development review, it is based on the assumption that if the area is mapped within something called the Transit-Supportive Development Area– most of the areas along main thoroughfares outside cities—the development site has adequate infrastructure– at least when it comes to water and sewer service– for the addition of subdivisions containing up to 15 new homes per acre.

The ordinance is carefully worded to omit mention of other infrastructure deficits. If the stealth approval of new residential subdivisions means your kids are going to more overcrowded schools or your daily commute takes longer, this new ordinance is technically not to blame.

That’s because the Florida Legislature in cooperation with the development industry and the last two development-friendly governors did away with the state growth law requiring roads and schools to keep up with growth years ago and limited citizens’ rights to complain about it in court.

This is definitely part of a growing trend to grease the skids for development reviews by county planners whose staff reports—at least in Polk County– typically go out of their way to tout the advantages of any development that comes before them anyway.

Because of some restrictions imposed this year by the developer-controlled Florida Legislature, this ordinance will be available only to developers who voluntarily agree to abide by it. It also probably will be limited to developers who can justify their business decisions by being able to market to higher-end homebuyers willing to pay for the additional amenities. Affordable housing will occur elsewhere.

The proposed ordinance will expire at the end of 2024 unless the County Commission is happy with how it worked out.

In the meantime, you might want to watch and see how this works out in your neighborhood.

If you are unhappy, show up in Bartow and tell commissioners what you think.

 

 

Report: BS Ranch Stops Accepting Waste In Face Of Polk County Injunction Filing, DEP Permit Withdrawal

BS Ranch & Farm, an alleged soil-manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Lakeland, has stopped accepting waste from septic tank haulers, The Ledger in Lakeland reports.

This move comes following Polk County’s filing for an injunction to halt the waste flow, arguing the site near Saddle Creek, a major tributary of the Peace River, has become an unpermitted waste dump rather than a processing facility.

The creation of BS Ranch, which opened a decade ago without obtaining either environmental or land-use permits, has been the source of odor complaints and years of legal disputes.

BS Ranch’s decision to halt accepting waste leaves septic tank companies looking for legal places to dispose of the waste from tens of thousands of homes and business served by septic tanks in Polk County.

Polk County officials have been discussing alternative disposal sites, but nothing has been developed or funded and it may be some time before any facility that gains approval will be ready to accept waste.

The disposal of wastes from septic tanks and sewer plants and their environmental and health impacts has been an issue in Florida for several years.

1000 Friends of Florida will sponsor a webinar on sewer plant sludge, which is sometimes described by the neutral-sounding term biosolids Nov. 8 online.

For more information, go to Upcoming Webinars – 1000 Friends of Florida (1000fof.org

 

Has BS Ranch’s Allegedly Illegal, Environmentally Harmful Operation Finally Reached A Point Of Reckoning?

BS Ranch’s alleged soil manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Lakeland may finally have reached a point of reckoning.

In July the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft consent order that amounted to an operating permit extension.

Polk County officials challenged FEDP’s action because they claimed it allowed violations of state environmental regulations to continue and asked for an administrative hearing.

There will be no hearing because FEDP officials decided on Oct. 3 to withdraw and void the proposed consent order, concluding that ” BS Ranch will be unable to perform CO 22-0423 and that it is not an appropriate exercise of enforcement discretion, and it should not be approved as final agency action. ”

Meanwhile, BS Ranch does have an active request before the department for a permit renewal and that has to be acted upon at some point. Additionally all of the parties involved have legal rights to appeal any decisions state officials make.

 

As predicted in an earlier post, this drama could drag on for some time.

 

Polk’s request for an injunction, which was filed Sept. 22 in Circuit Court in Bartow, seeks to halt BS Ranch from accepting any more waste until it comes up with a plan to market the ,more than 1 million tons of waste it has already received or remove the waste from its property.

 

Polk’s injunction makes it clear that BS Ranch was permitted as a recycling facility, not a landfill and wants to seek the court’s approval to enforce its development regulations.

 

It is worth noting again that if Polk’s land development staff had been more thorough in their review a decade ago when this operation first came to their attention, this whole mess would have been avoided.

 

There really is an important distinction between being customer friendly and simply being a pushover.

 

It is never clear whether that lesson has been learned down in Bartow.

Proposed Sales Tax Vote To Fund Roads Splits Polk TPO

Traffic Tr

Traffic congestion is common in many parts of Polk County as this once rural county heads toward having a population of more than 1 million residents in the near future.

County Commissioner George Lindsey, a local developer, once again made his case for the latest of several sales tax referendums that have been proposed and defeated since 1992, at Thursday’s meeting of the Polk Transportation Planning Organization. The TPO is a panel composed of elected officials from all over Polk County.

He wants to have the measure put on the ballot in 2024. That will require approval by his colleagues, which so far has not been forthcoming.

He argued it is necessary because the number of substandard roads is growing and there is no money from existing revenue to deal with the looming deficit.

However past referendums have failed because of a mixture of general opposition to tax increases and concerns that the money would finance developer wish lists to open more land to development rather than solving existing traffic problems.

That is, many of the projects on Polk County’s current list of unfunded transportation “needs” look more like wants.

County Commissioner Neil Combee pushed back against Lindsey’s idea, repeating the Republican Party line that inflation is hurting families and an additional sales tax will hurt them even more. He accused tax proponents of living in “ivory towers and echo chambers.”

He cited the $40 million expense of widening a one-mile stretch of Old Lake Wilson Road in the Loughman area as an example, arguing this is a road the majority of Polk County residents will never drive on.

What was left out of his argument was the fact that much of development in northeast Polk and other parts of Polk County were mapped and approved without much thought on how to pay for the inevitable effects on the road network and other public services.

Impact fees to pay for the improvements were slow to be adopted and underfunded to keep the development community happy.

Increased development densities along two-lane roads were approved under the guise of supporting transit.

Many of those decisions occurred during Combee’s previous tenure on the commission.

And Combee’s position drew pushback from city commissioners on the TPO board, who argued against denying the public a chance to decide on this issue.

Lakeland Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said traffic is the main issue her constituents raise.

“We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past 50 years,” she said, arguing that it is the opponents of putting the issue on the ballot who live in an ivory tower.

That division was reflected in a motion proposed by Haines City Mayor Roy Tyler to send a letter to the Polk County Commission urging them to put the measure on the ballot.

The measure passed, with four of the five county commissioners voting against it.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Area September Weather Records Defy Generalizations

The figures released this week by the National Weather Service includes some hotter-than-average temperatures, but it offers a caveat about generalizing about climate records.

It seems weather, like politics, is all local.

Lakeland, where records have been kept from various locations in the area since 1915, recorded 82.9 degrees F average temperature, making the warmest September on record, but was still slightly more than 1 degree above the long-term average of 81.7 degrees. The record was 83.8 degrees in 2018.

Across the county in Winter Haven, where records began in 1941, a record of 82 degrees only placed it as the 25th warmest September . The hottest recorded average temperature in September was 85 degrees, also from 2018.

Down in Bartow , where records date to 1892, 81.1 degrees ranked only 49th on the hot September scale. The record there is 83.5 degrees from 2014. Interestingly, second hottest September was 83.3 degrees in 1925..

Rainfall records were even more scattered, like the showers that hit here and there every month during the rainy season.

Lakeland recorded 1.59 inches, making it the seventh driest September, while the 7.39 inches that fell in Winter Haven made it 27th wettest and the 7.67 inches that fell in Bartow last month only amounted to the 53rd wettest September.

Looking ahead to winter, the predictions are for rainier and cooler days as is typical when El Nino influences our weather patterns.

Stay dry.

 

Want To Help Access To Lakes, Rivers In Polk? Here’s Your Chance

Polk County commissioners are looking for volunteers who would like to serve on the county’s Lake Access Advisory Committee.

The Lake Access Advisory Committee studies how to increase public access to Polk County’s lakes and rivers and make recommendations to the County Commission. The Lake Access Advisory Committee includes 10 members appointed by the County Commission. Each commissioner appoints two members to the committee, with staggered member terms. Members appointed to the Committee serve a term of three years.

Since the committee was formed, it has been involved in reopening access to Port Hatchineha, worked with county staff on securing land and funds for new boat ramps to provide improved access to Lake Hancock, Lake Buffum and Lake Florence. Other improvements have included the addition of fishing piers at access points to accommodate more users.

Another ongoing project involves development of a blueway paddling trail along the scenic section of the Peace River in Polk County between Bartow and the county line near Bowling Green in Hardee County. One of the challenges has been to establish a program to remove downed trees that block boat access and require sometime difficult portages. This would be similar to the Polk County Waterways Department that existed in the 1960 to make the river navigable to small boats by removing trees and other debris from the waterway. The department also sprayed the channel to remove water hyacinths, which remains a navigation hazard along Saddle Creek north of Lake Hancock.

The meeting dates and location ae determined by the membership, meeting as necessary to carry out its duties.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the Polk County Lake Access Advisory Committee, please submit your resume and cover letter to miannenelson@polk-county.net by close of business on Oct. 11.

Draft Report Sets Goals For Preserving What’s Left In This Part of Florida

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a draft report for something called the Everglades To Gulf Conservation Area that includes part of the land inhabited by members of Sierra Club’s Ancient Islands Group in Polk, Hardee, Highlands and DeSoto counties.

The thrust of the 348-page report is to protect more habitat via the purchase of either conservation easements or to buy the land outright.

At this point no one knows how much land will be protected. It will depend on funding and having willing landowners who want to participate. No one’s land is going to be taken.

The purposes include wetland restoration, water storage, water treatment and species habitat.

The plan describes this area that stretches from Collier County to Polk County as “one of the most important regional conservation landscapes in the United States.”

The plan’s analysis describes that more than half of the region’s freshwater forested wetlands, upland hardwood hammocks, high pine and scrub. Pine flatwoods and wet prairies

Additionally, another 38 percent of another important habitat called dry prairie, which is home to important species such as Florida grasshopper prairie and crested caracara, remains unprotected.

Unsurprisingly, the main threat to the loss of these key habitat losses is encroachment of urban development farther inland and more intensive conversion of farm lands.