Why put a toll road in a Florida nature preserve?
The story is vintage Florida – in the worst possible way.
Decades ago, when growth was rampant and central Florida’s natural resources were polluted and paved over, state and local officials set aside a strip of land they promised to protect forever.
Now they want to dig a toll road there. To allow more development.
Some critics say this paving payment plan would be an affront to Orange County voters, who voted overwhelmingly in 2020 to protect this land. These people are right.
Others argue that this road is really just a blueprint to help politically connected donors open up new land for development. These people are right too.
But today — as state officials prepare to vote Wednesday morning to authorize this massive paving plan — I want to talk about perhaps the most fundamental reason why this land should remain protected:
Because that’s what you were promised.
And I’m sick of seeing politicians breaking their promises.
You see, one of the big, crude ironies about the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area is that it only exists because the developers have agreed to pay to protect this strip of land where the birds nest and deer roam in exchange for fouling land elsewhere.
Developers were allowed to destroy gopher turtle habitats and pour concrete that could damage water quality elsewhere in the 1990s in exchange for helping to protect Split Oak Forest by more than $1 700 acres that straddles the Orange and Osceola county line.
As the Sentinel wrote in 1995, Split Oak was created to be “a place where property developers can pay for their sins of environmental destruction.”
Yet now national and local authorities want to pave this.
Road planners and county officials argue their current plan – destroying what they describe as a small part of the reservation – is the best option among a bunch of bad ones. I reject their premise.
Because they assume that we to have to build another toll road – one that the Sentinel says will “primarily benefit from huge real estate projects by the Tavistock Development Co. and Suburban Land Reserve, a Deseret Ranches member of the Church of Jesus corporate family- Christ of Latter Day Saints.”
I don’t believe the government has an obligation to cater to the whims of developers. Even though they are donors for everyone from Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to Governor Ron DeSantis.
I’m sick of seeing politicians breaking their promises.
Wednesday will be D-Day for Split Oak. That’s when the governor’s appointees to the Florida Communities Trust – which helped fund Split Oak through its “Preservation 2000” land purchase program and now controls its successor “Florida Forever “- will decide whether they should break that promise and allow this land to now be clogged.
Please take a moment to re-read some of the key words in the last sentence. Trust. Preservation. Still.
How is that even a serious debate? There are legitimate questions as to whether it’s even legal.
Lifelong Floridians love to wring their hands and tell war stories of days past when Florida’s natural resources were polluted. Well, those days are still here. Today is one. Each person involved engraves their own heirloom.
Most Orange and Osceola county commissioners, as well as members of the Central Florida Expressway Authority, have already chosen their positions. They sided with developers and growth at all costs. They are okay with breaking promises.
One vocal exception is Orange’s new commissioner, Nicole Wilson, who was elected after fighting to protect Split Oak. In a letter to the Communities Trust board, Wilson called the paving plans a “breach of public trust … the destruction of conservation land purchased with public funds to build a toll road for the benefit of ‘private development interests’.
Defenders of this deal justify it by pointing out that the developers who will benefit from it will give away even more land for preservation purposes. And they promise that if we let them defile this land they previously agreed to protect, they swear they will protect all the earth from now on.
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Only a fool would believe such a thing. It’s like dating an adulterer and expecting him to be monogamous.
This allows drug addicts; agreeing to let cobblestone and sprawl junkies score one more shot in exchange for their promise that this time will be their last. Really really. They think so.
Well, I’m sick of seeing politicians breaking their promises.
DeSantis actually has an opportunity here. He has sworn to be an environmental conservative and claimed he was not beholden to the powerful interests that fund his campaign. And he loves hammering Democrats. He can advance all three of these goals this week if he urges his land trust designees to reject this proposal.
He could humiliate local Democrats in Orange and Osceola counties by showing a stronger commitment to preservation and conservation than they do.
And he and his appointees can show voters that they know full well why this reservation was created in the first place and that they appreciate the frustration of Floridians … who are tired of seeing politicians break their promises.