Phoenix-Like East Polk Toll Road May Rise Again

If you thought the worst toll road damage in Polk would involve work planned in a couple of years on a toll road that would slice off a piece of Marshall Hampton Reserve’s oak-shaded trails, think again.

That project called the western leg of the Central Polk Parkway will connect the area around the Winter Haven industrial park and freight rail terminal with the Polk Parkway.

The impact on the Marshall Hampton Reserve also involves the relocation of the parking area and trailheads and some alteration of some of the lands east of Lake Hancock purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District as part of the Lake Hancock reservoir project that are now owned by the Florida Department of Transportation. Swiftmud also owns the Marshall Hampton Reserve, but Polk County manages it.

This western leg was one of two toll road projects shelved by state transportation officials in 2015 after they concluded there wasn’t enough projected traffic to make them financially feasible. At the time that especially applied to a section that would travel in a large arc through sections of rural eastern Polk County between State Road 60 and Interstate 4.

There have been stealthy attempts to revive the eastern leg in recent years.

For instance, a plan to replicate part of the route from the south end of Powerline Road to Scenic Highway was contained in a list of unfunded transportation needs announced at recent County Commission retreats.

There are hints that it popped up again in the discussion of seemingly unrelated effort called the Northeast Polk U.S. 27 Mobility Study. That study was begun in 2019 purportedly to figure out ways to improve traffic flow on the section of U.S. 27 between State Road 60 and U.S. 192 at the Polk-Lake county line.

But if you dig deeper into the very preliminary comments and other local transportation planning reports, it becomes clear that this also became a vehicle to revive previously abandoned road projects such as the eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway.

This project, which was pushed largely be economic development officials in Haines City, is more troubling than the western leg because it would go through or near environmental preservation areas and rural homesteads in the Marion Creek and Reedy Creek basins.

The area is home to a number of rare and endangered species and is part of a statewide wildlife corridor and may include some land that could be considered for acquisition if Polk County voters approve a measure in November to restart funding of the Polk County Environmental Lands land-acquisition program by renewing funding for it.

The revival of the eastern leg popped up again in a May 6 notice published by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection seeking written public comments on the environmental impacts of this proposal.

The notice refers to the same phony claims about emergency evacuation, congestion management and more efficient freight movement that is part of all of the road-building lobby’s reports of this sort back in the pre-2015 presentations.

More recent analyses somehow want to make it an alternative corridor to U.S. 27, which is questionable because most of the traffic on U.S. 27 is likely headed to a destination along U.S. 27 or trying to reach Interstate 4 and not interested in a lengthy rural detour. All this road will cause is more urban sprawl.

Anyway, written comments are due by June 1:

Send them to:

Chris Stahl, Coordinator

Florida State Clearinghouse

Florida Department of Environmental Protection

3900 Commonwealth Blvd. M.S. 47

Tallahassee FL 32399-2400

 

We’re Not Nevada, But Are Lawn Cutbacks In Our Water Future?

Polk County officials are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years to develop so-called alternative water sources. These projects involve tapping the upper nether regions of the Floridan aquifer in rural areas of the county and building an extensive pipeline system to deliver the treated water to faraway cities.

The rationale for this is to continue development as usual because the traditional historic freshwater aquifer has been overexploited and would become salty instead of fresh if the overpumping continued unabated.

One issue that utility officials have been struggling with to avoid this type of expenditure is to persuade customers to use less water, which relates to how residential subdivisions are developed .

Water conservation is a concept that has been slow to catch on in many parts of Florida, where residents are used to being able to water their lawns as much and as often as they felt was necessary to maintain this green monoculture.

Ironically, newer subdivisions use more water than older ones because most of the new homes come equipped with automated irrigation systems.

This is important because lawn irrigation makes up the largest portion of residential water use and the rules for when and how often people can irrigate don’t appear to be aggressively enforced. Last month was Water Irrigation Month in Florida and elsewhere, but driving through one town along the Lake Wales Ridge the other day the sprinklers were running at midday in a section of the main street medians.

The Lake Wales Ridge is an apt place to talk about the folly of lawn irrigation because before heavy development and agriculture arrived, the landscape didn’t resemble anything lush.

This ridge that runs from northern Lake County to southern Highlands County is really a series of prehistoric desert islands.

The late Henry Swanson, who served as agriculture extension agent in Orange County decades ago, aptly pointed out that every other place at about this latitude on the planet is a desert. He warned about the coming water shortages that have become more obvious to more people in recent times and are what spurred the water projects mentioned above.

The thing that makes Florida less desert-like is when the prehistoric seas receded a peninsula that’s often able to benefit from rainfall from crossing sea breezes, but there’s speculation how long that will last as climate change has more of an effect on regional weather patterns.

In other parts of the United States that don’t have the benefit of sea breezes are wall-to-wall deserts, officials have taken a radical approach to save water.

In Nevada, for instance, legislators voted last year to mandate that residential lawns had to go because they could only be maintained with irrigation, which they ruled wastes declining water supplies for merely esthetic purposes.

Officials in southern California are also reportedly trying to crack down on unnecessary lawn irrigation too.

If this were proposed in Florida, it would result in a lot of pushback from the lawn industry—sod has become by some accounts Florida’s largest agricultural crop—and the lawn-care industry that previously resisted the idea that fertilizer use during the rainy season should somehow be limited because the stormwater runoff from these hyper-enriched lawns contributed to the pollution of lakes and streams and the estuaries where the water ultimately reaches.

Homeowners who have been persuaded that lush lawns are the best thing in the world would rebel, too because they don’t know any better.

Nevertheless as the pressure on water supplies increases, it may be worth considering whether current practices are a good idea.

Keep in mind that the current water plans under consideration are only designed to deal with the predicted shortages that will occur over the next couple of decades.

The planet is expected to exist much longer than that.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking much farther out.

 

 

Environment Was MIA In Latest “State of the County” Program

When local business and government officials gathered recently to hear the official version of the “State of the County,” they got only part of the story.

The presentation as all built around the mathematical mirage that Polk is the fastest-growing county in Florida, based on some recent data. That of course ignores the fact that percentages are based on the difference between the starting point and the ending point, not on absolute numbers.

Between the 2010 and 2020 census, Polk ranked seventh in overall population growth.

Nevertheless, Polk is certainly a lot more crowded place than it was a few decades ago.

This is an environmental issue and one of the reasons for the current campaign to persuade voters to tax themselves again to buy and protect some of the county’s remaining green spaces while they’re still available.

That is why it was disappointing that the environment was barely mentioned in this program. And when it was mentioned, it was in terms of the need to develop more water supplies to keep conducting business as usual.

The fact that the reason water is an issue is because the resource was overexploited for years when it wasn’t being overpolluted and maybe the challenge of the future is to do better didn’t come up.

There was talk of crowded roads, but not the reality of the fact that living in a fast-growing area and expecting no traffic congestion seems to be delusional.

A close look at the 20 so-called priority road projects for which fortunately for the environment there is no money at the moment would illustrate where the priorities lie. Hint: It doesn’t involve protection of green spaces from more urban sprawl.

The provision for adequate parks and open spaces also seemed to have escaped mention.

And so it goes.

Peace River Paddling Trail Needs Help

Polk County and Fort Meade have developed a series of boat launching areas along the Peace River and Polk County parks officials are developing wayfinding along portions of the river in southern Polk where the main channel is not always evident.

But more needs to be done.

Decades ago Polk County had a small department whose job was to keep the Peace River open to recreational boaters by removing everything from water hyacinths to downed trees.

Water hyacinths don’t seem to be a serious problem anymore south of Lake Hancock, but downed trees are another issue.

At the moment water flow in the section of the river in Polk County is barely enough to make paddling practical. But even in places where it is practical to launch, don’t expect to be able to reach Hardee County at the moment because fallen trees block passage.

The most visible blockage is in the section at Peace River Hammock just south of the Fort Meade launching area.

From the photo above it is obvious this is not a simple or easy job, but if local officials are serious about attracting paddlers, this would be a good step in the right direction.

 

 

A Victory For Green Energy; DeSantis Vetoes Rooftop Solar Bill

The clouds cleared Wednesday over rooftop solar’s future in Florida after Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill that would have reduced and eventually removed financial incentives for installing rooftop solar energy panels on homes and businesses.

The legislation, which was widely reported as having been written by lobbyists for Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest private electric utility, would have allowed electric utilities to charge solar customers for generating their own power and reducing demand on the private utilities’ grid.

Although private and public utilities have installed extensive solar farms all over the state to supply electric power to their distribution systems, thousands of homeowners and businesses have also decided to invest in solar energy to lower their carbon footprint and to reduce their long-term energy costs by lowering their electric bills.

The bill would have made the investment less attractive.

Although the utilities argued the current setup subsidized rooftop solar at the expense of the rest of the customers, that claim was never independently reviewed and the solar industry maintained the claim was exaggerated.

Sierra and other groups actively lobbied for the defeat of the legislation and after it passed for a gubernatorial. veto because providing more power from renewable resources will help to reduce the threat of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is an incredible win for Florida’s families, businesses and environment,” said Luigi Guadarrama, Sierra Club Florida’s political director.

People Behind Lakeland’s Bonnet Springs Park Earn FDEP Recognition

The creation of Bonnet Springs Park at the edge of Lake Bonnet near downtown Lakeland has earned the people behind the project recognition by the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation.

The award recognizes the 168-acre park’s emphasis on environmental education, exposure of the public to additional urban green spaces and the cleanup of a former blighted piece of lakefront property.

Honored with the FDEP’s Environmental Stewardship Achievement Award were Bill Tinsley, president of Bonnet Springs Park; Josh Henderson, CEO of Bonnet Springs Park; and Bonnet Springs board member David Bunch, who was instrumental in marketing the property for its current use.

“Bonnet Springs Park is an organization with a deep commitment to environmental stewardship,” said FDEP Southwest District Director Kelley Boatwright. “The voluntary cleanup and utilization of the property as a recreational park will provide a place of respite for humans and wildlife alike. This project is wholly beneficial for the environment and the community.” 

How Much Urban Development Does Rural Polk County Need?

Tuesday’s public hearing on whether a city-sized subdivision proposed in a flood-prone rural area between Bartow and Winter Haven should be approved raised an interesting public policy question.

Some members of the development community are sometimes critical of efforts to secure approval of more conservation lands by asking us how much is enough.

That question got turned around Tuesday when rural residents along the southern end of Gerber Dairy Road asked how much urban intrusion into still-rural areas of Polk County is enough.

By the way, the County Commission sided with the residents and rejected the development 4-1.

This is a complicated issue, though, and no one should be surprised if the case ends up in court.

Here’s why.

For years the county’s development regulations have been modified in subtle ways that the general public never noticed to accommodate more intense development almost everywhere.

There are so-called transit-supported development districts that allow denser development along busy highway corridors regardless of whether anyone who moves there in their wildest imaginations would take the bus to work.

There are Special Area Plans that lay out all kinds of scenarios to accommodate development in places like the State Road 60 corridor where this development was proposed.

There are subtle growth map changes to designate large areas of vacant land as “Urban Growth Areas” that flies below the radar for average residents living nearby because they are occupied trying to get on with their lives and don’t spend much time studying the intricacies of county zoning regulations until the results smack them in the face.

Then there’s the provisions that allow developers to use the retention ponds they’re supposed to install anyway to deal with flooding and stormwater pollution problems as open spaces or recreational areas. This is kind of like the designation of ketchup as school lunch vegetable in another era.

However, despite commissioners’ seeming outrage about how these regulations are applied or interpreted, the fact is they or their predecessors approved every one of them and never asked for any changes.

During the discussion preceding the vote Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer and the only no vote, stated that if commissioners want to change the rules, that’s their choice. However, he argued it’s hard to justify the denial of a proposed development that’s complying with the rules they had previously approved.

This goes back to a previous discussion he led what amounted to an argument that development applicants should be guaranteed approval is they met all of the broad criteria laid out in the county’s development regulations.

The counterargument is that sometimes projects are proposed for which those regulations don’t always make sense and are in the wrong place at the wrong time. This appeared to be one of them.