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.

 

 

Greenbelt Tax Breaks Abuse Continues

The abuse of legitimate agricultural tax exemptions under Florida’s permissive Greenbelt law continues to be an issue, the Orlando Sentinel reports in the latest take on this problem.

This has been a long-standing problem.

Several years ago it was revealed that Polk County routinely granted these tax breaks to developers with vacant land in urban areas by classifying vacant land along six-lane highways and stalled residential developments with roads and utilities as “hayfields” and “agricultural waste lands” to shield land owners from rightful taxes at the expense of tens of thousands of dollars in local taxes.

This corrupt practice, which state officials have will been unwilling to address, will continue until Florida legislators tighten the law.

 

 

Proposed Albritton Water Bill’s Environmental Effects Unclear

One of

One of the key issues in a bill (SB 64) filed by Sen. Ben Albritton, whose district includes much of our membership area, is how the increased use of treated sewage (aka reclaimed water) will affect the environment.

At first glance, the bill has a laudable goal, which is to eliminate most discharges from sewer plants into lakes, rivers and other surface waters. This continues a trend that has been under way for many years that has involved diverting the water discharged by sewer plants to irrigate crops or lawns or to provide cooling water for power plants.

But like many seemingly environmentally-friendly proposals this one contains loopholes that have raised questions.

It allows the water to be discharged into water bodies to meet minimum flows and levels, though that substandard flow is typically the result of overpumping the aquifer to meet increasing development water demand or overdraining the surrounding landscape for commercial or agricultural development.

One of the issues in using treated sewage for augmenting surface water flows and levels or for any attempt to use it to augment aquifers to be used for future drinking water supplies is that its changing chemical composition.

At one time, the main concern was either bacteria or the release of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen that lower surface water quality, sometimes by quite a bit.

Today the concern is about a mix of sometimes hard to detect chemicals from pharmaceutical compounds whose health effects for humans and wildlife are not completely understood.

That also relates to another provision of the bill that involves something called “potable reuse,” which means treating sewage to the point that it can supposedly be used as drinking water, the so-called “toilet to tap” process that is already in use in other parts of the country.

The bill calls for studies. The outcomes of such studies will rely on who conducts the studies.

This comes against the background of this section’s preface that states ” sufficient water supply is imperative to the future of this state and that potable reuse is a source of water which may assist in meeting future demand for water supply.”

In that same vein, the bill proposes to mandate local officials to enact developer subsidies to get more homes per acre if they implement the installation of gray water systems, which are systems that reuse any water that does down the drain in showers, bathtubs and washing machines (but not toilets and kitchen sinks) for lawn irrigation.

This reduces the use of higher quality water for lawn irrigation, but doesn’t deal with the fact that lawn irrigation is an unnecessary water use in a state that already has a well-documented water supply problem caused by overconsumption.

According to a recent study, newer homes—most of which come equipped with automatic irrigation systems—typically use more water that older homes.

Additionally, the proposal would saddle homeowners will the responsibility of maintaining these systems after the developers have collected their density incentives and moved on.

This bill merits a lot of serious discussion.

 

 

Sierra, Other Environmental Groups Seek Tougher EPA Gypsum Stack Oversight

Sierra Club has joined a national coalition of environmental organizations in seeking more oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over phosphogypsum waste stacks in Florida and other states.

The waste, which is a byproduct of the mining and manufacturing related to fertilizer production. Is acidic and radioactive. In recent decades incidents at plants in Florida involving sinkholes or breaches in containment walls have resulted in potential aquifer contamination and disastrous releases into rivers and other surface waters that caused major wildlife deaths.

Specifically, the petition seeks to:

  • Reverse its 1991 regulatory determination that excludes phosphogypsum and process wastewater from hazardous waste regulations;
  • Govern the safe treatment, storage and disposal of phosphogypsum and process wastewater as hazardous wastes;
  • Initiate the process for designating phosphogypsum and process wastewater as high-priority substances for risk evaluation;
  • Require manufacturers to conduct testing on phosphogypsum and process wastewater; and
  • Determine that the use of phosphogypsum in road construction is a significant new use that requires a determination on whether it is safe.

 

The recent decision by the Trump Administration to reverse a decades-old ban on using this material for road building has drawn widespread criticism, though it’s unclear whether this was more than a public relations victory for fertilizer industry since there may be little demand from road-building agencies and contractors for the material, which some engineers consider inferior to traditional materials that pose no serious environmental threats.

The review of permits for these stacks was once covered under the state’s development of regional impact process, but this and other strong growth and environmental reviews have been weakened over the past decade by the Florida Legislature.

 

 

 

Polk Commission Agrees To $460K Crooked Lake West Purchase

The Polk County Commission voted unanimously today to pay $460,000 to buy 31 acres to expand its holdings in the Crooked Lake West project along U.S. 27.

The purchase will improve access to the southern end of the property via a private road and also an opportunity to advance plans for hydrologic restoration of the property.

The Crooked Lake West project consists of 11,000 acres involving more than 100 property owners. As of last fall when a draft master plan was presented to the County Commission, 5,883 acres had been acquired.

The land is composed of either improved pasture or mostly undeveloped subdivisions containing scrub, marshes and forests between Alturas-Babson Park Cutoff Road and U.S. 98.

Polk County has been regularly acquiring small parcels through donations after owners or their heirs realized the land was undevelopable because there was either no access to county roads or the land was unsuitable for development.

This is the first significant acquisition in some time. County officials said other similar purchases may be forthcoming if funds can be secured.

The cost of Tuesday’s purchase was split between the remaining environmental lands acquisition fund and the stormwater tax fund.

Commissioners also agreed to fund a contract with a consultant Tuesday to assess water quality issues in the portions of the Peace River and Kissimmee River basins in Polk County.

The Crooked Lake West property’s role in this is to find ways to reduce direct stormwater runoff into Crooked Lake, the only water body in Polk designated as an Outstanding Florida Water. Currently the land drains into the lake via some agricultural canals that were constructed decades ago. Those canals are the target of the mitigation measures.

 

 

Two Cheers For Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Environmental Budget Proposals

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently rolled out a gushing press release on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed environmental budget for various state land and water-related programs.

Some of it is good as far as it goes, but it simply doesn’t go far enough.

The most glaring gap was DeSantis’ proposal to spend a mere $50 million for the Florida Forever program. That is half what was in last year’s proposed budget, It is still only a fraction of the $300 million the program should get by rights under a constitutional amendment and would have if it were not for the obstructionism and antagonism of DeSantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature.

Some of the funds touted, such as $40 million to fund development of alternative water supplies, is aimed at efforts to keep the growth machine going in the face of the facts that unsustainable growth has caused overexploitation of the state’s natural resources.

There is money for continued work on Everglades restoration, some money for springs protection and combatting harmful algae blooms, which is all to the good.

There is also now $180 million proposed to deal with sea level rise as state officials finally begin to take the resiliency issue seriously, but there’s also money to deal with the errors of past coastal development policies. The most notable expenditure in this category is $30 million for beach renourishment.

Finally, there is $145 million for dealing with water pollution, though how effective that will be unless it is coupled with stronger pollution source reduction regulations and enforcement of those regulations remains to be seen.

FDEP officials sent out a follow-up press release that included quotes from various organizations praising the budget.

It is worth noting that Florida Sierra and a number of other state environmental organizations were not among them.

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Haven Seeks State $ To Fix Lake Conine, Fund Septic Conversion

Winter Haven officials recently asked the Polk Legislative Delegation for state funds to fix lake pollution problems around the city, the Winter Haven Sun reports.

The focus is on Lake Conine in the city’s northeast area.

A project is already under way to create a wetlands treatment area off Lucerne Park Road.

The article cites problems with stormwater runoff and septic tank discharges, but did not mention the legacy pollution from a city sewer plant that discharged pollutants into the lake for many years, making it one of the more polluted lakes in the city. Sewer discharges also affected water quality in Lake Lulu at the headwaters of the canal system that discharges into a series of canals that flow into the Peace Creek Drainage Canal and ultimately the Peace River.

Septic-to-sewer conversions are expensive because of the high cost to homeowners to make the change. In addition to the cost of connecting to the city sewer system, state regulations also require homeowners to deactivate their septic tanks, an effort that can cost as much as $10,000. There have been proposals to come up with a loan program that will allow residents to take out loans to cover the costs and repay the costs over a period of time through assessments on their utility bills.

One of the issues being discussed is to make sure there is full disclosure to residents regarding the full cost to prevent financial hardships.