Are More Predictable Zoning Hearings A Good Idea?

The first public hearing on a proposal to extend the idea that reviews of zoning and planning cases would turn out better for applicants if fewer people were involved in the decision-making didn’t go as planned Tuesday before the Polk County Commission.

Commissioners had already abolished the local Board of Adjustment and turned its function to decide on requests for variances and special exceptions to zoning and building codes to a hearing officer. Tuesday the issue was whether to turn over hearings to consider approvals of everything from cell phone towers to new subdivisions to a hearing officer instead of the county’s Planning Commission.

When the change went before the Planning Commission, that body voted 6-1 to recommend denial. Even Chair Becky Troutman, the lone dissenter, told commissioners she had questions about the proposal, but was concerned the challenge of dealing with the compatibility issue which was often at the heart of most of the appeals, remained unresolved.

Since this was the first hearing on the change, commissioners took no vote. A decision will occur Oct. 5.

Ancient Islands Group of Florida Sierra opposed the change, arguing it was unnecessary and that such decisions were better left to the collection of professionals from various backgrounds that make up the Planning Commission than a single professional hearing officer.

We also took issue with the more restrictive appeals process, which it made it harder to challenge decisions and limited commissioners’ ability to shut down bad proposals.

The root of the effort was an attempt by County Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, to create a review system whose outcome would be more predictable and less cumbersome for his he and his colleagues.

But other commissioners questioned the whether this was a good idea or even necessary.

Another and more cogent aspect of this discussion is that if the system were changed so decisions became more cut-and-dried—critics of Polk’s development review contend the staff reports are already heavily skewed in developers’ favor—people would be left to wonder why have public hearings at all.





Conservation Takes A Back Seat As Polk Cities Jockey For Bigger Water Permits

Officials in Davenport and Haines City have been aggressively annexing land for new residential subdivisions in their former rural outskirts in recent years.

Water line extensions typically accompany the subsequent development that the annexations anticipated and were contingent on.

As a result, officials in those cities have complained about not having enough permitted water capacity to meet projected growth demands. They have tentatively discussed trying to develop their own so-called alternative water supplies by tapping the lower reaches of the Floridan aquifer as the Polk Regional Water Cooperative is planning to do at two planned wellfields at the edge of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern north of Lakeland and in the Lake Walkinwater area east of Lake Wales.

However during this week’s PRWC meeting, a presentation on potential water conservation strategies to reduce indoor and outdoor (read lawn irrigation) residential water consumption revealed officials in Davenport, Haines City and most of the other cities in Polk County have no one on staff assigned to deal with water conservation even though aggressive conservation measures could reduce the need for developing new water sources and perhaps allow cities to live within their water budgets.

And, even in cities that do have a staff member assigned to water conservation, the practical effect is unclear based on casual observation of some residents’ water consumption patterns that belie conservation efforts.

Some residents in newer homes don’t have rain sensors even though they’re supposed to. That means the lawn sprinklers are sometimes running full blast in the morning after an inch of rain fell the night before.

Many lots are still dominated by a turf monoculture which requires not only more water, but more fertilizers and pesticides to maintain this high-input and outdated landscape.

The water savings are not trivial, either.

The Polk County Extension Office, which is working the PRWC on water conservation issues, estimates residents who follow their recommendations for adjusting their irrigation methods and their landscaping practices could save tens of thousands of gallons of water a year. Multiply that by the number of new homes that typically use more water than older homes because they come with a pre-installed irrigation system. Older homes use less water because many of them do not have irrigation systems.

Hiring water conservation staffers costs money, but the expense seems small compared to the tens of millions of dollars that will go into an alternative water projects that might not be needed if cities didn’t allow so much water to be wasted in the first place.



California Cracking Down On Fake Recycling Logos; Why Aren’t Florida Officials Doing More?

In case you hadn’t heard, most of the recycling logos you see on various kinds of containers and other products are a scam.

This is especially true for plastics, most of which have never really been recyclable because of their chemical complexity.

California is taking this issue head-on by proposing legislation that will ban companies from putting recycling logos on their products unless they can back up that claim that the containers or materials are really recyclable. Unsurprisingly, the plastics/petrochemical industry is pushing back, The New York Times reports.

Plastic waste is an increasingly serious problem in places like Florida with thousands of miles of coastlines, lakeshores and rivers that often are the destination to improperly handled plastic waste. Worse than the litter problem is the fact that this material breaks down into tiny particles that get into the aquatic food chain that eventually ends up in our bodies.

Plastics: It’s What For Dinner doesn’t have an appetizing ring to it, does it?

There has been a lot of lip service about plastic recycling in Florida. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection still lists single-use plastic bottles as among the recyclables in municipal curbside programs even though they’re not. Polk, to its credit, injected some reality into this issue a few years ago by dropping most plastic containers from its approved curbside materials list.

It would be a step forward if FDEP officials could break their ties with the plastics lobby and speak with legislators about an honest recycling program for our state, which means honest recycling labels.

That may help to solve another problem that plagues local government recycling programs, which is the contamination in recycling carts.

Some of the contamination is the result of residents continuing to recycle the way they were told to 20 years ago when the plastics scam had not been exposed.

Some of the contamination is the result of residents simply using their recycling cart to get rid of anything that won’t fit in their garbage cart.

The problem is if there is too much contamination, garbage companies are not going to the expense to sort through the incoming loads to separate the good stuff from the bad stuff, so it all goes to the landfill.

There are solutions local officials, who keep saying they’re going to do something about the problem but so far haven’t delivered, could do to reduce the contamination problem.

First, of course, would be an active education program. That goes way beyond posting a short video on your Facebook page and hoping someone sees it.

However, it shouldn’t stop there because educational efforts often miss a lot of the people they should reach.

Some jurisdictions actually send people out to check on what residents are putting in their recycling carts and leave notices when the carts contain contamination.

Other jurisdictions have simply removed recycling carts from residences that continue to ignore the recycling guidelines.

After all, we don’t accommodate scofflaws in other areas of society. Recycling should be no different.


The Heat Is On; Area Summer Heat Records Pile Up

If you read that this was not the hottest summer on record in our area, you need to read the fine print.

The figures released by the National Weather Service this week should get your attention.

Lakeland had the third hottest August on record and the eighth hottest summer since records were collected in 1915. However, the difference between the current and the record temperature is only about one degree Fahrenheit and the other top records are in the past decade.

The figures at other locations in the area tell a similar story, with the exception of a couple of historical outliers.

Add to that the fact that the temperatures are monitored at locations at the edge of town far from the urban heat islands where most people live may indicate the problem may be even worse than the official figures indicate.

The real indicator may be how much your electric bills, a lot of it related to how much your air conditioners were running to keep you comfortable, increased between last year and this year.

That may a dose of reality to the political rhetoric that says this is all just a hoax.





As Rainy Season Winds Down, Peace River Flows Lag

There has been a lot of discussion about drawing water into a reservoir somewhere around the confluence of Bowlegs Creek and the Peace River in the Fort Meade area in southern Polk County.

The problem with this idea is that it depends on high flows, which so far this year has not provided much water because some years the river flows heavily and sometimes it does not. This year, at least so far, is one of those years where flow is about a quarter of long-term average flow, according to USGS data that goes back more than half a century

Of course, this low flow occurred in 2004 just before three hurricanes raced across Polk County an augmented the flow to close to historic averages.

The question is whether the tradeoff between water planning and emergency planning is a good model.

Check back in October and find out


Behind-Schedule Polk Water Co-op Projects On Swiftmud Agenda

Polk Regional Water Cooperative was supposed to have been farther along with plans to drill two deep aquifer wellfields and figure out if they could get more water from the Peace Creek Drainage Canal and surrounding wetlands to remain qualified for millions of dollars from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

It isn’t and the issue of whether to give the cooperative an extension will come before Swiftmud’s Governing Board on Tuesday.

The staff is recommending approval.

PRWC has been pursuing the projects after an in-depth analysis of central Florida’s water use revealed the main aquifer that had been used traditionally had reached its sustainable limit.

According to the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting discussioin, the delays were the result of reconfiguring the wellfield projects, which diverted resources from the Peace Creek basin efforts.

How to handle future land uses around the Peace Creek have been an issue in recent years as Winter Haven and, more recently, Lake Wales have approved or are considering approval of the development of thousands of acres along several miles of the drainage ditch’s watercourse.

Meanwhile, Swiftmud officials have recently raised concerns about plans by some governments that belong to the cooperative to go their own way to develop alternative water resources. They’ve been told there will be money for joint projects, not go-it-alone efforts.

One particularly troubling proposal that came up but was not pursued by officials in Davenport, one of the cities that wants to drill its own well, was to develop a wellfield on conservation land in the Marion Creek basin east of Davenport that contains extremely rare plants. That site ‘s rare plants had already been heavily impacted by a poorly planned pipeline project and restoration work is under way.



Polk’s Lopsided Development Regs Get Renewed Scrutiny

Sunday’s Ledger reported how a little-known provision tucked into the county’s growth regulations allowed a developer to gain approval of a subdivision near Eagle Lake the County Commission had previously denied.

This is certainly not an isolated incident and unsurprising given the history of the writing and interpretation of growth management regulations in unincorporated Polk County.

The particular provision governs approval of so-called infill development. County records show the provisions were approved in 2002 and 2003.

That date coincides with the early days of the writing of the county’s development regulations, which was greatly influenced by the development industry.

It gets worse.

Shortly after the County Commission finally voted in 2000 to belatedly approve updated development regulations as required by a 1985 state law, they appointed a so-called “Glitch Committee” made up of members of the development community and their consultants.

The committee’s job was to take yet another look at the development regulations to catch any problems for them they didn’t catch the first time around. This infill development provisions seems to date from that period.

The infill regulations are fairly well-hidden, occupying a few pages in a 136-page section on conditional uses, which may not be an obvious place to look. There were allegations that the developer did not know about this provision, either, until county planners suggested the developer use it.

Add to that is the infill development standards are generic enough to give applicants and planners enough latitude to justify administrative approvals.

That seemingly permissive interpretative atmosphere in Bartow is what the ongoing litigation in this and other recent zoning cases is examining.

Stay tuned.