Controversial Polk toll road back in state’s hands

A year after the Polk County Commission voted unanimously to form their own expressway authority to try to find another way to build the controversial n Central Polk Parkway, I learned recently the idea has been quietly dropped and any future development of the project would be handled the Florida Department of Transportation’s Turnpike District.

Polk officials voted to form the authority after FDOT officials announced in late 2015 that they would not fund further planning for the road because their analysis showed it was not financially feasible at this time.

The only portion of the 50-mile, $1.5 billion project that is under active consideration at the moment is a short section between the Polk Parkway near the county landfill and the area around the CSX rail freight center in south Winter Haven. That section has not been controversial.

The controversy—Sierra Club has been on record in opposition—involves the larger section that would loop through rural areas east of Haines City in the Marion Creek basin, potentially opening the area to more development and making the use of prescribed fire for land management more difficult because of smoke management conflicts a new road and subsequent surrounding development will cause.

That section of the road has the backing of Haines City area economic development boosters who, to their credit, have been pretty up front in supporting the road primarily as an economic development project rather than the solution to traffic congestion on U.S. 27. The latter was the official line from Polk County planners when the project was first proposed in 2008.

It has been clear from correspondence I’ve seen that the proposed road’s ability to advance real estate development has been the main topic of local officials’ inquiries about the project’s status.

That’s in contrast to Lakeland leaders’ coyness about the purpose of the Polk Parkway, which began as simply the desire for another route between Florida Avenue and U.S. 98 and grew into a toll road that spurred a lot of new development in Lakeland and Auburndale.

Whether that road ever generated enough toll revenue to justify its construction remains an unanswered question.

Also unknown is when FDOT officials will re-evaluate the rural section of the Central Polk Parkway. This isn’t over yet.

Bull Creek will remain public

Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area east of St. Cloud in Osceola County will remain public land, the St. Johns River Water Management District announced this week.

District officials reported that negotiations have ended on a controversial land swap that would have turned the popular outdoor recreation area and important regional habitat area into a private agricultural operation.

The land swap had drawn widespread opposition from various recreational user groups ranging from hikers to hunters.

Other critics of the swap pointed out that Bull Creek is important habitat for rare Florida butterfly species such the Arogos Skipper and the Dusted Skipper (pictured at left).

As a result, the site draws a number nature photographers and was among the sites for field trips when the North American Butterfly Association held its national convention at Westgate River Ranch Resort near Lake Wales a few years ago.

Widening SR 60 to Kissimmee River topic of Jan. 31 meeting

Preliminary plans to widen State Road 60 from County Road 630 to the other side of the Kissimmee River will be the topic of a public open house from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 31 in the main hall at Westgate River Ranch Resort, 3200 River Ranch Blvd., which is off SR 60 East near the Kissimmee River.

The open houses typically involve exhibits on the project set up around the room with technical staff from the Florida Department of Transportation or its consultants available to answer questions.

This portion of the highway is still relatively undeveloped, containing ranches, rural homesteads, conservation lands and the resort.

According to advance information provided by FDOT officials part of the current environmental planning involves getting input on road alignments. Alternatives include expanding the road either to the north or south of the existing pavement. This will also include obtaining land to construct stormwater ponds to comply with environmental regulations.

The area around the Kissimmee River and nearby Lake Kissimmee are home to a number of important wildlife species include Crested Caracara, Snail Kite and Bald Eagle. It is also home to Coleman Landing, a county park that provides access to Lake Kissimmee and camping.


Mosaic last-minute no show at Sierra meeting

A Mosaic representative who was scheduled to discuss the recent sinkhole that emptied one of the ponds at one of the gypsum stacks at the corporation’s New Wales plant south of Mulberry backed out just hours before the planned presentation tonight.

From what I’ve been able to piece together, Mosaic officials were wary of being ambushed by TV crews who had inquired about the presentation to our Ancient Islands Sierra Group at Circle B Bar Reserve.

The cancellation perplexed local Sierra leaders, who pointed out this is an international company that is normally pretty sophisticated in handling situations like this.

Mosaic had been invited following a detailed presentation its staff made at a Sierra briefing earlier this year in Sarasota.

Sierra members have been interested in hearing more about whether the presence of these waste stacks that store large amounts of acidic water pose an unusual sinkhole risk when they are located at the edge of an area in Florida where sinkholes are more likely to occur.

When the stack was undergoing zoning review by Polk County in 2015, Mosaic’s consultant said his analysis concluded there was little chance of a repeat of the sinkhole that occurred in 1994 at another stack at the plant. The same consultant had argued against installing a liner in the older stack when it underwent zoning review decades ago.

The sinkhole that opened last summer sparked concerns about the safety of drinking water at private wells in the area. Tests so far have not shown any contamination attributable to the sinkhole in any wells outside of the New Wales plant property.

Following sinkholes company workers typically activate pumps to draw water from the aquifer and recirculate it into the plant to keep the plume contained. The same process was followed after the much larger 1994 sinkhole.

Meanwhile, Sierra members would still like to hear what Mosaic officials have to say about the recent incident, which also triggered a call for a new state law to require public notification when incidents of this magnitude occur.

That change will be discussed in the 2017 legislative session, which convenes in March.

Notes from last weekend’s Everglades Coalition conference

Everglades National Park needs more water, more clean water.

That was one of the clearest takeaway messages technical experts and advocates repeated at the Everglades Coalition annual conference last weekend in Fort Myers .

This is an important issue for Ancient Islands Sierra because we lie at the Everglades’ headwaters.

If you want know why the water delivery is important, read the following.

The Everglades needs more water to restore degraded wildlife habitat and to prevent more species from disappearing from the landscape.

The Everglades needs more water to push back the encroaching salt water that accompanies sea level rise.

The Everglades needs more water to replenish the Florida Bay estuary.

The Everglades needs more water to replenish the Biscayne Aquifer.

One of the issues that has been confused—sometimes intentionally –in the public mind is the debate over what to do about toxic algae blooms that flowed into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries last year, shutting down beaches, businesses and some marine life.

Sending water south from Lake Okeechobee along its historic path to Florida Bay is primarily about restoring the Everglades.

Lake Okeechobee ‘s pollution, which was the primary source of the coastal algae problem, is a separate issue.

Like many other Florida lakes, it suffers from the cumulative results of decades of pollution from within its watershed. Those pollutants are in its bottom sediment and will continue to be recycled for decades as agencies work to build retention areas north of the lake to treat some of the upstream pollution.

That won’t help the coastal algae problems anytime soon, but other solutions might abate the problem.

One that has been mentioned often lately is reviewing the regulation schedule—how high the water level is maintained and when and for how long—for Lake Okeechobee, which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

What is being proposed is to keep the lake at a lower level than it is kept now, which will reduce the need for dramatic, environmentally harmful water releases when storms strike. The only reason the upper levels are maintained is to provide adequate irrigation water for the sugar farms surrounding the lake. It’s time to rethink that proposition, people are saying. Corps officials present at the conference said they would be willing to discuss the idea.

Neither South Florida Water Management District officials nor their friends in the sugar industry agreed to participate in any of the meeting’s panel discussions. Both have been aggressive in opposing many of the environmental community’s proposals.

Stay tuned.

Polk water summit Jan. 24

The Polk County Water Cooperative will meet at 6 p.m. Jan. 24 in the County Commission board room in Bartow.

The meeting is open to the public.

The agenda will be posted at

It’s not up yet, but according to a preliminary agenda circulated late last year, the focus of the meeting will be on securing more funding for future projects beyond the help Polk will be receiving from Swiftmud for priority projects.

That will include lobbying the Florida Legislature during Polk County Day later this year.