Water Disputes Heat Up In Polk As Regulators Propose Limits

Cooperation appears to be at risk at the Polk Regional Water Cooperative.

This probably should not surprise anyone who has been following water policy issues for any amount of time.

Everything was great when all you had to do was to agree to get together to get money from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to conduct alternative water supply studies and to meet some local funding deadlines.

That all changed in recent months.

Member governments begin balking at paying for multi-million-dollar projects involving deep wells, desalination plants and pipelines hey claimed wouldn’t help their constituents even though it might contribute to the general project’s goals.

Some local governments announced plans to develop alternative water supplies on their own, or at least try to.

Others criticized the PRWC staff and consultants for pursuing projects in their service area without consulting them.

Then last month the state issued proposed rules that would limit further water withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer. A number of local governments have filed legal challenges that will be considered at an upcoming weeks-long administrative hearing.

And that’s just the lead up to Wednesday’s PRWC board meeting.

Next week Swiftmud’s Governing Board will discuss whether to continue funding the cooperative’s work now that many of its members are challenging the new state rule that Swiftmud officials were involved in drafing.

Meanwhile, a Florida Senate committee filed a bill this week that would ratify the proposed water rules for now and require reports in a few years on how much of a hardship the rule presented to public and private permit holders.

Local officials are opposing that legislation, claiming it cuts off their due -process legal challenge rights.

The staff analysis of the bill points out that everyone was warned this was coming 10 years ago and had ample to prepare if they were so inclined.

This is a developing saga, a lot of which will depend on whether the proposed legislation goes anywhere and what the outcome to the challenges turns out to be.

Stay tuned.

 

Tax Promises, Tax Deceit & Conservation Funding

If you enjoy braving the crowds at Circle B Bar Reserve or enjoy the solitude that allows you to hear an Eastern bluebird sing or enjoy pineland wildflowers at Sumica, you can thank a small group of local environmental activists who put together a visionary grassroots tax referendum in 1994 to save the best of what was left of Polk’s special places.

The referendum barely passed in the face of indifference to outright hostility by county leaders and an active campaign by some conservatives. Meanwhile, a county sponsored tax proposal on an earlier ballot that year to raise taxes to finance more development-related infrastructure went down in flames.

This history lesson, which came to mind during a conversation with a local newspaper executive, is relevant in connection with the ongoing fight to get state officials to honor voter intent to appropriate funds for conservation purchases as voters directed them in a constitutional amendment approved in 2014 and the fourth attempt in 30 years to persuade Polk County voters to increase local sales tax to pay for road projects.

That’s because the last transportation-related tax increase that occurred in Polk County came at the expense of the voter-approved tax increase to buy environmental lands.

The environmental lands tax was authorized for 20 years. When 20 years came and went, the Polk County Commission didn’t end the tax. Instead they reallocated the property tax levy to pay for roadwork and other day-to-day county growth-related operating expenses. Voters didn’t get a say in the matter.

The troubling part of this tale is that commissioners had no trouble deciding conservation funding to expire, but brushed aside the idea that the accompanying tax increase should expire.

This, of course, was all totally legal even though it raised public integrity issues because of the fiscal sleight-of-hand that was involved. The same goes for the Florida Legislature’s refusal to properly fund the Florida Forever program, though a legal ruling in that dispute is still pending.

Fast forward to today.

The $1.3 billion list of so-called road capacity projects includes $170 million to realign and extend Deen Still Road from one side of the Green Swamp Area of Critical Concern to the other to accommodate increased truck traffic. That traffic boom has occurred since Polk County decided to pave the formerly unpaved road network when the area was more rural and sparsely developed. There’s an open question about whether any of these road improvements comply with the settlement agreement with the state that was part of a drawn-out battle between Polk County and state planning officials over how intensely development would be allowed in the Green Swamp.

Ironically, the tentative proposed route of the new road may cut through the southern end of Colt Creek State Park, part of whose purchase was financed by money from the Polk County Environmental Lands Program.

Another interesting historical footnote is that Colt Creek State Park is certainly in the Green Swamp, but does not lie in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern because the former owner, Charlie Mack Overstreet, had enough political influence in Tallahassee when the boundaries were approved in 1974 to exclude his ranch.

Polk Commissioners Vote 3-2 To OK Second Chicora Solar Farm

Solar farms appear to be becoming the dominant land use in Chicora, a community founded in the 19th century in southwestern Polk County.

Tuesday the Polk County Commission voted 3-2 to approve a proposal by Tampa Electric to add two more parcels to the two parcels already approved for solar farms. The solar farms are part of TECO’s move to increase its green energy footprint in this part of Florida.

The controversy wasn’t over the merits of solar power, but the fact that one of the solar farm tracts is right in the middle of the community on the site of a former citrus grove.

Residents argued the facility is an unwelcome intrusion that changes the character of their community.

TECO officials and their consultants responded that the solar farm would be a much less intensive land use in terms of traffic, noise and water use than any alternative.

During the hearing TECO officials did agree to relocate the barbed-wire-topped security fences deeper into their property and buffer the fence and the solar complex with a thick planting of cedar trees. In response to residents’ complaints about the esthetics. TECO officials also promised to work with the community toward their application to obtain a historic designation for the community.

The vote came during the first week of the 2021 session of the Florida Legislature during which legislation has been proposed to pre-empt local officials’ ability to decide on the location of solar farms as long as they’re in agriculturally zoned areas of the county. The legislation also doubles the size of solar farms allowed to be exempted from state power plant siting regulations.

 

Solar Zoning Bill Could Have Local Effect

 

One of sites for proposed solar farm within Chicora community in rural Polk

 

Tuesday the Polk County Commission will hear an appeal of the Planning Commission’s denial of a request by Tampa Electric to get approval to expand its solar farms in the Chicora community in southwest Polk.

Whatever the hearing’s outcome turns out to be, pending legislation being considered this year in Tallahassee will take away commissioners’ discretion on future solar farms in rural areas if the bill passes and becomes law.

The legislation, HB 761, would double the size of solar farms that can be developed without going through the Florida Power Plant Siting Act and allow them by right in any agriculturally zoned property.

Although Sierra supports the expansion of solar and other green energy sources, the effects on farmers and rural homeowners could be potentially significant.

The is also one of a quartet of proposed bills that seek to wrest local control over energy policy and the siting of energy infrastructure and place all of it the hands of the Legislature and the lobbyists.

The Chicora case is interesting because the residents aren’t even TECO customers. They are served by the Peace River Electric Cooperative.

Although the solar farm itself will be visually buffered by a line of trees, residents object to the prison-like security fence around the site, which was formerly occupied by a citrus grove.

 

Green Swamp Highway Idea Resurfaces

Fifty years ago the Florida Department of Transportation announced it was considering extending what was then State Road 54 across the Green Swamp to connect to the Gulf Coast via the highway’s western section.

It was the second proposal after an earlier idea was sidetracked because it would affect what was then a Southwest Florida Water Management District reservoir planned at the time as part of something called the Four Rivers Basin Project intended to prevent future flooding in the Tampa area. Flooding that occurred following Hurricane Donna in 1960 led to Swiftmud’s formation as a flood-control agency.

Demonstrating that old public works projects never die, they just hibernate, a proposal for the realignment of Deen Still Road, which now runs through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern from U.S. 27 north of I-4 to Rock Ridge Road off U.S. 98 north of Lakeland, is among the unfunded Polk transportation “needs” list. It was among the projects included in a recently unveiled proposal to push for a sales tax referendum to pay for this and many other road construction projects.

Jay Jarvis, Polk’s director of roads and drainage, said the project would involve removing some curves in the road that pose a hazard for truck traffic, which has increased since Polk officials decided to pave the road several years ago.

The idea of paving a road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern has long troubled environmentalists because the improvement could lead to more pressure for development. For now that is impossible because the critical area designation limits development in the main areas of the Green Swamp.

The Green Swamp contains the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers and the high point of the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of central Florida’s drinking water. It is also a major hub for a series of statewide wildlife corridors.

However, in addition to simply straightening some curves in the road (and probably raising sections that are now temporarily flooded during the rainy season) the proposed project would involve adding a new road section that would cut through Swiftmud’s 11,052-acre Hampton Tract and a section of 5,067-acre Colt Creek State Park and emerge somewhere near the intersection of U.S. 98 and State Road 471.

Jarvis said the road project faces some environmental permitting obstacles and the mitigation required to deal with the new highway’s environmental impact could advance some projects sought by land managers on the two properties.

There is no funding for the project, but if it obtains funding, the project is worth watching.

 

 

Old Florida Plantation Development Purchased; Can’t Be Used For Reservoir To Help Polk Water Supply

The former Old Florida Plantation property, which was once proposed for a megadevelopment on the southern shore of Lake Hancock, has a different future.

The Florida Department of Transportation and Southwest Florida Water Management District officials agreed last fall on a $12.2 million purchase part of the property Swiftmud officials purchased in 2003 for $30.5 million to implement a proposal to construct a wetlands treatment area on former mined lands south of the lake to reduce pollution flowing downstream to the Peace River.

Lake Hancock, which suffered decades of pollution from sewer plants in Lakeland and Auburndale, stormwater runoff from as far away as Lake Gibson in north Lakeland, is one of the most polluted lakes in Florida.

The FDOT purchase of about 1,104 acres of the former 3,347 development occurred in connection with plans to build a new toll road east of the lake.

The potential use of the property for water supply storage arose this week during a Polk County Commission annual retreat. Commissioner Neil Combee, a former Swiftmud Governing Board member, asked whether Polk could pressure Swiftmud officials to follow through with earlier plans to sell off part of the property for development.

Combee said the proceeds from the purchase of the property might be able toa advance alternative water supply projects being considered by Polk offiiclals.

He was unaware of the recent purchase, which occurred after he left the board.

Sierra has been following the disposition of the property in connection with attempts to develop an alternate entrance to the Marshall Hampton Reserve. The current entrance site lies in the path of the Central Polk Parkway, a toll road that will be constructed between State Road 60 and the Polk Parkway.

Polk Commissioners May Seek Another Sales Tax Hike To Build New Roads In 2022, But Idea Isn’t Unanimous; Past Attempts Failed

It is no secret that traffic in some parts of Polk County can be pretty slow-moving at times.

It is the logical result of decades of pro-growth policies enacted by the Polk County Commission that have made the county an attractive place to develop new subdivisions.

The regulations are flexible and contain some workarounds if you don’t get what you wanted on the first try. The so-called transit development overlay has allowed greater building densities than the original growth plan allowed.

Impact fees intended to pay for transportation improvements brought on by growth were low or non-existent for years and then suspended following the collapse of the real estate bubble. They’re back, but they can’t be used to pay for backlogs caused by past planning decisions.

The result is a $1 billion list of road projects county officials say are needed to handle future growth demands, though some appear to be proposed to open additional land for development.

Now, commissioners are discussing whether to ask voters in 2022 –for the fourth time in 30 years–to approve a sales tax increase to fix the mess they helped to create.

The three previous sales tax referendums in 1992, 1994 and 2014 were defeated, mostly by large margins.

Although commissioners have been unanimously behind such efforts in the past, during Thursday’s retreat commissioners split over whether this is a good way to deal with the road backlog.

Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, argued the tax is necessary to deal with the coming growth “tsunami,” arguing doing nothing is not an option.

But Commissioner Neil Combee, who was in office during some of the earlier sales tax proposals, said he said voters will see this as simply a measure to enable further growth when many voters feel the county is already overdeveloped.

“People are saying enough is enough,” he said, citing how the widening of Kathleen Road in his district was then used to argue for more development in what had been a relatively rural area of the county.

Commissioner Bill Braswell questioned whether Polk can ever raise enough money to solve traffic congestion problems, pointing to the situation in Orlando.

He said by the time they finish paying for the current list of unfunded projects, there will be another list ready for the next attempt to raise funds.

County Manager Bill Beasley said he will reach out to local business and civic leaders to gauge their support and report back to commissioners.

Commissioners won’t have to make a decision on whether to proceed with the referendum until the summer of 2022.