Are Polk’s Transportation “Needs” Really Developers’ Wants?

For the second year in a row, the Polk County Commission was presented with a long list of road construction “needs” that sound a lot like economic development wants to open large tracts of rural lands for development and to renew efforts to turn the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern into a busy freight route instead of a network of local rural roads along a major statewide wildlife corridor.

The presentation came during the commission’s annual retreat.

The freight route involves an estimated $170 million plan to realign Deen Still Road to reduce the sharp curves and flooded areas that slow down truck traffic and to construct a direct route through conservation lands—including a portion of Colt Creek State Park—to get to U.S. 98 more quickly.

This idea was first broached about 50 years ago when the Florida Department of Transportation oversaw most of Florida’s paved road network.

It coincides with a current FDOT plan to widen the section of U.S. 98 along the edge of the Green Swamp north of Lakeland and northward into Dade City across the headwaters of the Hillsborough River to facilitate truck traffic.

One of the new road projects involves another Green Swamp highway that would extend what is now a dead-end road called Sanders Road west of U.S. 27 to somewhere along Polk City Road, perhaps at the edge of Holiday Manor, a Black residential community, or farther north at the edge of Hilochee Wildlife Management Area Keep an eye on who owns property along the route.

The same goes another “need,” which involves an economic development project that seems to mesh with Haines City’s development ambitions. That involves extending Power Line Road in a southwesterly direction through rural lands to eventually connect to Scenic Highway at the southern edge of the city’s industrial park and any other potential development plans it will enable along the way and northwesterly to the north side of Davenport along the U.S. 17-92 corridor through more future subdivision sites. The estimated price tag is $171 million and probably likely to increase.

These “needs” contrasts better-documented more tangible needs in existing developed areas such as the Lakeland suburbs around West Pipkin Road and the Winter Haven suburbs along Thompson Nursery Road/Eloise Loop Road.

How will Polk County pay for all of this, you might ask.

An idea floated last year and again this year for a sales tax referendum appears dead on arrival at the moment. Check back in 2024.

That leaves two other options. One involves a plan to consider increasing transportation impact fees, which can be spent only for new projects, not fixing problems that were ignored in the past. Those fees have not been updated since 2019.

Another idea is to shift how property tax revenue will be apportioned after the road budget took over a portion of the voter-approved environmental lands referendum levy several years ago.

It was interesting that today’s presentation didn’t include a discussion of what that means to the funding of other county functions and services.

That is, if subsidizing new deveIopment is the winner, who’s the loser?

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Curbside Recycling In Polk Takes Another Hit

Let me see if I’ve got this straight.

The Polk County Commission contracted with FCC Environmental Services, a branch of a multinational garbage company, to collect residential garbage, recycling and yard waste every week in unincorporated areas between the Hillsborough County line and the edge of Winter Haven.

But the company’s staff regularly misses pickups, a situation that seems to have gotten worse since the company signed a contract to also collect garbage in a big chunk of Hillsborough County.

County commissioners were upset, since some of them live in areas the company serves and were not getting their garbage picked up, either. They’ve been getting an earful from constituents, too.

FCC officials showed up at a commission meeting on Feb. 1, apologized and promised to do better. However, they did worse and commissioners declared an emergency a couple weeks later because allowing garbage to sit at curbside for days after it was supposed to be picked up is a public health and safety threat.

They authorized County Manager Bill Beasley to work out a solution.

This is where it gets weird.

The solution announced today was to allow FCC to limp along with its poor service by eliminating curbside recycling for a month and then reducing recycling pickups to every other week until further notice.

In other words, customers are being penalized by receiving less service for the same cost and who knows how many tons of trash that should have been recycled will be s going to the landfill instead of the recycling center.

In earlier days this may not have mattered because there were numerous recycling drop-off centers located around the county where you could take your cans, newspapers and cardboard boxes if you didn’t have curbside service.

Since Polk County Solid Waste eliminated the drop-off center near the landfill a few years ago because Director Ana Wood said it was inconvenient for the staff to service it, all that’s left for the general public is a small drop-off facility in Auburndale maintained by Republic Services.

Another partial alternative is to save and bag your aluminum cans and take them to one of the local scrap metal businesses. Prices have risen in the past year and it may be worth the trip.

This radical change, by the way, doesn’t affect customers whose garbage and recycling is picked up by Advanced Waste Disposal, the other contractor, who has been able to operate with few problems in eastern Polk County.

It will be interesting to see how customers react.

Winter Peace River Flow Well Below Norm

The news about the potential for using the Peace River continues to look grim.

Flow this week is about 15 percent of the long-term average at Bartow and about 20 percent of the average downstream at Fort Meade, which is near the point where the Polk Regional Water Cooperative envisions constructing a reservoir if it can obtain a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The latest analysis by climate scientists predicts a winter and spring drought in this part of the United States.

That points to one of the unanswered questions about using surface waters for future water supply, which is the still unknown effects of climate change.

The problem is that setting up a water supply project requires some assurance that there will be a dependable source of water to feed the future growth ambitions of Polk’s communities’ economic development boosters.

There are other things going on in the river’s watershed.

Another unknown is the effects on water quantity and quality as development has been proposed to encroach into the Peace Creek Drainage Canal, a World War I-vintage public works project that is one of the upper river’s main tributaries.

The latest proposal, which will be the subject of a public hearing before the County Commission on April 19, involves a plan for a city-sized development along the ditch in a rural area between Bartow and Winter Haven.

 

Is Suspending Curbside Recycling Really An Answer To Polk’s Garbage Emergency And Contractor Failures?

On Tuesday Polk County Commissioners declared the current problem with uncollected household garbage in the western half of the county an emergency.

Commissioners authorized their staff to work out the details to fix the problem with FCC, an Italy-based garbage company that has the current contract for that part of unincorporated Polk County.

What is troubling about the discussion was the suggestion that what needs to occur is to suspend collection of recycling carts or yard waste to allow the company to supposedly catch up with the collections it lately has missed around time it expanded its contractual obligations to include a big chunk of neighboring Hillsborough County.

Commissioners said this problem is widespread, but the only location they cited was Jacksonville, which formerly employed Polk Solid Waste Director Ana Wood.

Jacksonvile did suspend its curbside recycling collection in October and is scheduled to resume collections in April.

However, missing from the discussion is the fact that Jacksonville also has drop-off recycling locations that residents could have used in the meantime to prevent recyclables from ending up in the landfill.

Drop-off recycling locations once existed in Polk, but they have been eliminated.

The last one, which ironically was located near the Polk County Solid Waste & Recycling office at the North Central Landfill, was closed at Wood’s direction because it was just too much trouble to accommodate the public there.

And that is the crux of the problem with Polk’s recycling program in general. It is geared toward the convenience of the bureaucracy, not the convenience of the customers.

The system has been broken for awhile because Wood and her staff have reportedly resisted efforts suggested by other county staffers, such as the Communications Department, to better inform the public about recycling policies and contamination issues.

Solutions were laid out in a consutant report issued three years ago that’s still still collecting dust.

Despite promises that they will eventually get to it, sometime or other, customer frustration and lack of transparency continue and the majority of commissioners seem uninterested in fixing the problem.

 

Take A Break With Great Backyard Bird Count

If you’re looking for a brief break from the news of all of the environmental assaults coming out of Tallahassee this year, you might want to get outdoors and clear your head this weekend and do some citizen science.

That will involve participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which runs from Friday to Monday anywhere you can see birds.

This is a mid-winter bird survey started 25 years ago. It is intended to gather data on the status of resident and migrant bird species. It is one of the annual surveys that gives scientists data on population and distribution trends. One interesting question is how climate change is affecting the distribution trends over the years.

Anyone can participate, but to submit data you will need to create an account on eBird, an international database for bird observations.

 

 

Albritton Follows Through With ‘Water Rights’ Pledge; Idea Quickly Draws Criticism, Questions About State Water Policy

Early in this year’s legislative session Sen. Ben Albritton, whose district includes a big chunk of this part of Florida, announced he was working on legislation dealing with “water rights.”

True to his word, more than halfway through session, up comes Senate Bill 2508. The legislation suddenly popped up in the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday with just a few days’ notice.

The change that attracted everyone’s attention was a provision that would force the South Florida Water Management District, whose staff reportedly was caught off guard by the bill, to guarantee to legislators that any management plan to dealing with discharges from Lake Okeechobee:

“Do not diminish the quantity of water available to existing legal users;Do not otherwise adversely impact existing legal users; Do not diminish the existing levels of service for flood protection within or outside the geographic area of the
project component”

 

This sounds like business as usual. The most obvious beneficiary, critics charge, is the sugar industry, whose plantations lie in large tracts surrounding the lake and require large amounts of water to be productive.

The concern is the “flood protection” means continued heavy discharges from the lake’s nutrient-laden water that would once again produce damaging algae blooms in the downstream estuaries that are vital for healthy fisheries. A recurrence of massive algae blooms and fish kill could hurt tourism and coastal economies.

The other concern is that locking in water consumption entitlements could affect Everglades restoration plans, some of which involve sending more of the lake’s water south toward remaining natural areas in the Everglades by attempting to mimic historic natural flows the preceded the system of dikes and canals that now dominate south Florida’s landscape.

Press reports from the hearing didn’t address an even bigger issue that could have statewide implications.

That is the idea, which Albritton’s bill seems to hint at, is that anyone who has secured a water-use permit has something akin to a property right to hold on to that permit forever, regardless in changes in the hydrology of the basin from which the water is extracted.

That goes against how many people understand water law east of the Mississippi, which is that water is a resource that belongs to the public rather than private interests and should be protected and regulated in a sustainable manner.

Nevertheless, the idea that major permit holders have some kind of “water rights” has been simmering in the background for several years.

If Albritton’s bill in fact advances this idea, expect an even more heated debate than occurred during Wednesday’s hearing.

 

 

 

 

Developer Loopholes Get Polk Commission’s Attention

One of the recurring issues in Polk’s development regulations has been loopholes that allow projects the public thought were denied to proceed anyway in some kind of altered form, thanks to loopholes baked into the growth plan or the development code by development lobbyists or development-friendly county planners.

There was a project on the outskirts of Eagle Lake that suddenly became allowed as urban infill, an apartment complex in the Winter Haven suburbs that was okay after it was reduced from three stories to two stories or a restaurant reconstruction that escaped normal rules by being built on the footprint of the old restaurant.

Tuesday, an embarrassed County Commission discussed a school they had denied because of neighborhood objections that was headed to administrative approval under a different staff interpretation of the rules.

Commissioner Bill Braswell said these reversals made he and his colleagues “look like fools” and generated a public perception that there was some shifty behind-the-scenes stuff going on. It’s hard to blame the public for thinking that.

Commssioners asked County Attorney Randy Mink to look into ways to prevent this kind of thing from recurring.

Mink said he’s look into it, but added this is not as simple a task as it seems.

Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, questioned whether this change would be equitable, citing fairness and potential private property rights claims.

During the discussion commissioners also brought up attempts by the Florida Legislature to further restrict how local officials can regulate development based on alleged claims of business losses. That puts local officials, who would have to pay off developers and their lawyers under the proposed legislation, in a potentially tough financial situation.

That raises a public policy question over whether it isbetter to roll over and regulate less to avoid a budgetary hit or to stick up for the property rights of their non-developer constituents who already think the system is rigged against them?

Stay tuned.