Orange County decides to respect the will of the voters and stop supporting the road through Split Oak

Commissioner Emily Bonilla requested that the Orange County Commission clarify their position on Split Oak in advance of the FWC meeting on 12/5 (see her commissioner's report here). Since the Nov 2020 election where protecting Split Oak passed by 86%, Orange County staff have still been expressing support for the road through Split Oak, including speaking in support of removing protections for Split Oak at the April 2022 meeting of the Florida Communities Trust Board.

Commissioner Nicole Wilson was an immediate second to Commissioner Bonilla's motion for the board to vote on the issue. Commissioner Moore was a quick no, both Commissioners Uribe and Scott tried to recuse themselves and stalled but eventually voted yes. Commissioner Gomez-Cordero, another longtime supporter of Split Oak, voted yes. Mayor Demings was the final yes vote for the motion to pass, 6-1.

Please thank the commissioners that voted to align themselves with the voters of Orange County- you can give special thanks to Emily Bonilla and Nicole Wilson ( and who argued persuasively to respect the will of the voters. The other commissioners that voted to protect Split Oak were Mayor Jerry Demings, Commissioners Mayra Uribe, Maribel Gomez Cordero, and Mike Scott (,,, and

Public Comments


To the Mayor and Commissioners:

I recently learned that the Split Oak conservation land has been added to the agenda for the Orange County Board of County Commissioners meeting for tomorrow, Tuesday, November 28, 2023. As I am unable to attend in person, I am writing as a deeply concerned citizen of the state of Florida, strongly urging the mayor and the commissioners to ensure Split Oak Forest is protected by law in perpetuity, forever.

The issue of protecting Split Oak was supported overwhelmingly and resoundingly by Orange County constituents - the same voters you represent. Much of this land is within the county, and as the county representatives, you have a democratic duty to uphold the voice of the people. And they have already spoken.

This land is of high ecological value to the state of Florida and its residents - it is a priceless resource to our local wildlife, the natural resources that we all depend on, and that our future generations will depend on us protecting for them. This land has been maintained with tax payer dollars. This land, by Florida state law and constitution, is legally protected in perpetuity.

If elected officials such as yourselves took any actions to remove these protections, you not only disrespect your constituents who you represent, but risk setting a dangerous and undemocratic legal precedent. If you cannot uphold the law when it comes to Split Oak, what will happen to the other conservation areas in the state when developers want to move in? What will happen to our coasts, our natural areas, our aquifer, our springs? - the list goes on. We have to keep the lines clearly drawn on this issue.

With more than 86% of voters supporting codifying protections during the 2020 Charter Amendment Ballot Imitative, the representatives of Orange County echo the demands of additional layers of protections for Split Oak rather than using staff time to work on progressing a toll road (which has very viable alternative routes and does NOT need to go through Split Oak) against the will of the voters.

Think, honestly, what it could lead to if you act against democracy, against the voice of the people you represent. Florida is a great state because of its natural beauty, its biodiversity, and its wildlife. Please, you must do everything you can in your power to protect it for many generations to come.
Katrina Stephenson
- - -
Florida Native Plant Society
VP, Passionflower Chapter

Dear Mayor Demings, Commissioner Wilson, Commissioner Moore, Commissioner Uribe,
Commissioner Gomez Cordero, Commissioner Bonilla, and Commissioner Scott:
I believe that during the BCC meeting tomorrow that you will come with an open mind and a willingness to listen to those who come before you to speak about Split Oak Forest.
Three years ago, in 2020, an amendment to protect Split Oak Forest was passed with 86% of of the vote. No matter where you stand on this matter, the majority of voters in Orange County would like for Split Oak to remain protected, free of development. I tell my children that voting matters. The people we elect are there to represent us - to ensure our voices are heard. I am writing this email on behalf of my neighbors, friends, and family. Can you hear us?
Many of you have neighbors, friends, and family of your own. What do they want? What would you like to tell them?
Scarcity is not a reason to ignore written promises of protecting the forest. If so, then many of nature's wonders in Florida and beyond will soon be gone.
Split Oak Forest is in Orange and Osceola County. Please continue to show surrounding counties that we in Orange County have integrity - that promises are meant to be kept.
Whatever happens outside of Orange County is beyond your control, but at least you did your part.
Thank you,
Anh Volmer
Orange County Resident

Resources for the FWC Meeting on December 5, 2023

The meeting is December 5th from 8:30am to 5pm at the Hyatt Regency Orlando at 9801 International Drive.

Confused? Jump to the FAQ

Folk who can attend the meeting should plan to arrive by 8:30am to sign up to speak1.

We'll be hanging around the lobby area, find us and then sign up to speak on Split Oak (Item 7E)2 with an FWC staff member holding a tablet. Ask them to validate your parking.

You should be able to relax until at least 9:30 when the awards are slated to end. I don't know when we'll know when Split Oak is up.

Please attend even if you're hesitant to speak - you can plan a speech and then just walk up to the mic and say "I oppose" and then walk away. It counts just as much.

Recommendations for comments

Comment both online ahead of time and plan to be there and speak in person, if at all possible. I'm coordinating speakers, so please email me if you can ahead of time so that we can be as effective as possible together.

Focus on opposing FWC releasing their conservation easements in the Osceola County part of Split Oak. Relay how much Split Oak means to you in its entirety. Comment on your historical involvement in protecting Split Oak.

Letters and comments already submitted to FWC

Impactful quotes are shown first, with the author or organization below with their full letters linked. Graphics from that letter are shown below the citation.

If this application is approved it threatens the very foundations of conservation land protections under the Florida Constitution, Florida law, and agency regulations on a state-wide basis. As of the date of this letter, we have over 17,000 petition signatures in opposition to the Project. While the Proposed
Release raises numerous legal, practical, and moral questions, it is most critical to keep in mind the dangerous precedent that would be set if FWC approves the Proposed Release, thereby giving up conservation lands and conservation easement rights that are supposed to be protected in perpetuity
at the behest of development interests.

Friends of Split Oak Forest read full letter

There is no bona fide conservation rationale for this proposal, and in fact the construction of a toll road is in direct conflict with the stated mission of the SOFWEA. On page 4 of the management plan [...] it states “The following mission statement was developed and approved by the FWC and Orange and Osceola Counties to guide management activities at the SOFWEA. ‘It shall be the primary management missions at SOFWEA to manage plant communities and public use in a manner that gives first consideration to the habitat needs and life history requirements of the gopher tortoise.’” We see no positive conservation benefit from loss and fragmentation of habitat for gopher tortoises by this project, as proposed.

Gopher Tortoise Council read full letter

Split Oak Forest was acquired to serve as mitigation for destruction of lands for development elsewhere in central Florida. Allowing the release of this perpetual conservation easement would establish a precident to allow lands protected through the discontinued FWC Gopher Tortoise Mitigation Park Program and the Preservation 2000 bond-funded program to be transferred and utilized for uses that are inconsistent with the environmental protection objectives for which they were acquired. This action would violate and erode the public’s trust and support for the current Florida Forever land protection program and for the concept of offsetting development’s impacts through mitigation. If Split Oak Forest is allowed to be fragmented and a significant portion converted to highly incompatible use as a toll highway where there are viable alternative routes, then no state or local land acquired and managed for conservation would be safe from later conversion to uses that are completely inconsistent for the purposes they were acquired.

Defenders of Wildlife read full letter

The balance sheet that weighs environmental impacts against mitigation sufficient to compensate for those impacts, or to achieve the "net conservation benefit" dictated by the Commission's policy on releasing easements, is rendered meaningless when mitigation lands become the target of mitigation.

Florida Native Plant Society read full letter

The current proposal for a road through Split Oak violates the clear language of Florida’s Constitution and ignores the mandate of Florida citizens who voted to amend our Constitution in 1998 to protect our Florida Forever conservation lands and the 86% of citizens who voted in 2020 to protect Split Oak Forest by amending the Orange County Charter.

League of Women Voters of Orange County, Florida read full letter

Though the proposed replacement lands in Orange County may serve some conservation purpose to protect an historic slough (wetland system) that flows northerly toward the St. John's River, and it may provide a buffer for the Lake Mary Jane Communities (LMJC) from the proposed Sunbridge Parkway (proposed to the east), it in no way can be logically argued that the proposed replacement lands in Orange County will add "like-habitat contiguous" acreage to Split Oak Forest as is required to meet FWC's criteria. That assertion, if being made by the applicant, is simply false and appears to be intended to deceive the reader and insult those persons tasked with considering the seemingly incomplete application materials.

Kim Buchheit, Orange Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor read full letter

I respectfully request that you not release the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area Conservation Easement and preserve this natural ecosystem.

Representative Anna Eskamani, Florida House District 42 read the full letter

Florida is losing large tracts of conservation land to intensive development – exactly the kind proposed to the east of Split Oak Forest. If it is allowed to be broken apart, no land acquired for conservation would be safe from toll roads or commercial or residential sprawl. That CFX’s highway would serve future residents created by sprawl is no reason to sacrifice Split Oak.

Sharon McBreen, Orange County resident read full letter

Releasing publicly owned, protected, valued, recreational park land for the sole benefit of a corporation violates the legal agreements that were made, it violates public trust, and it violates people’s rights to enjoy that public land.

Jessica Sullivan, Osceola County resident read full letter

It is my understanding that FWC is considering releasing easements on Split Oak Forest in addition to releasing the 100 acres of the park south of the road to Osceola County without restrictions regarding conservation. Please do not do so!
This property is home to native, endangered and rare plants and animals that need protection as the area becomes more and more developed.

Laura Bennett-Kimble, Lake County resident read full letter

Central Florida already has a significant lack of facilities for outdoor recreation, certainly compared with other metro areas. We should fiercely protect the few resources that exist.

Split Oak is a gem that serves as the only real resource for hiking, as well as serving as a buffer to keep local neighborhoods, and tremendous wildlife diversity…..healthy and safe.

Stephen Fernandez, Osceola County resident read full letter

Overturning the easement would violate this public trust and place numerous species at risk. Most importantly though - releasing the easement would set a dangerous precedent in our state. Such action could open the door to the loss of protection for areas of critical habitat throughout the state to make way for more development – at the expense of our environment, our wildlife, and our enjoyment of nature.

Ruth Nichols read full letter

FWC has the power to stop not only the eventual destruction of Split Oak Forest but set the example of how future development should approach these issues. The people in Orange county were given the opportunity to vote and 86% agreed to not allow this toll road. If given the opportunity the people of Osceola County would vote the same! NO the compromise presented by so called experts wanting this toll road is pathetic at best. What would be more pathetic is if FWC agreed with these coercive speeches.

Michael Lella, Osceola County resident read full letter

I have watched Florida transition from fee-simple acquisitions with nearly-acceptable levels of management funding to conservation-easement-only policies that, particularly in light of FWC's consideration of releasing Split Oak's easements, leave more and more recently-acquired conservation land at future risk for development.

This decision isn't only about Split Oak. In fact, it's barely about this modestly-sized WEA. This is about the position of FWC regarding conservation land it protects and manages when faced with pressure from development interests.

Who are you?

Valerie Anderson, Osceola County resident read full letter

FWC's stated mission is "Managing fish and wildlife resources for their long-term well-being and the benefit of people." FWC's vision statement says "The FWC envisions a Florida where fish and wildlife are abundant and thriving in healthy and connected natural landscapes with vital working lands and waterways; where natural resources are valued and safely enjoyed by all; and wherein natural systems support vibrant human communities and a strong economy."

If FWC agrees to release its easement on Split Oak, FWC is directly going against everything its mission stands for, not to mention the overwhelming majority of voters and residents in Orange and Osceola counties. 

Katrina Stephenson, Lake County resident read full letter

Rarely do we Central Floridians have an opportunity to express our opinions about our state’s development, but we did have that chance during the November 2020 election and voters overwhelmingly voted 86% in favor of protecting the Split Oak Forest in its entirety from future development, and specifically from a potential toll road that threatens to diminish its very existence. I am requesting that each of you in your position with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission also honor our voters’ decision to wholly protect and preserve the Split Oak Forest from any future encroachment, by a toll road or otherwise.

Cathy Miller Kennedy, Osceola County resident read full letter

Approval of releasing this perpetual conservation easement and the subsequent development of this toll highway would fragment Split Oak Forest and severely limit the use of prescribed fire as a habitat restoration and management tool across the entire tract.
A decision to release this perpetual conservation easement is premature at this time and would be inconsistent with FWC’s Guidelines for Accepting or Releasing Perpetual Conservation Easement adopted June 4, 2019.

Dave Finnegan, Osceola County resident read full letter

The proposed release flies in the face of the spirit, if not intent of Florida Statute 704.06 Conservation Easements, which stipulates that  conservation easements are perpetual, undivided interests in property.  Such easements are a compact with the public, which has an expectation that governments will honor the compact far into the future.  However, we have noticed a trend where agencies rationalize the abrogation of conservation easements to accommodate growth at all cost, specifically by governments (Osceola County in this case)  and money making private enterprises (Tavistock Development Co. and Suburban Land Reserve in this instance).

Douglas Sphar, Brevard County resident read full letter


Parking at the Hyatt Regency is $35; One of our members, Kip, has started a parking fund so that no one hesitates to attend. Let us know you would like to be reimbursed here. The Hyatt has indicated that they will validate your parking to bring the price down to $15. Still, we're happy to reimburse you.


  1. What is the FWC? The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is a state agency primarily charged with managing Florida's fish and game animals but it also manages a lot of land, owns land, and holds conservation easements.
  2. What is this meeting? This is a meeting of the governing board of the FWC. These are regular and seem to rotate around the state. The governing board has seven members and are appointed by the governor of Florida. Read their provided bios here.
  3. What are these meetings like? There are usually a lot of folks who hunt and fish. You can watch the most recent one on the Florida Channel here.
  4. Does Orange County's newly-stated position of support for Split Oak change anything at this meeting? It won't change anything about how the FWC board runs the meeting, but the public comment won't look like the Florida Communities Trust in April 2022 where Orange County staff spoke in support of the road.
  5. Can I send in my comments ahead of time? No. Written public comments were accepted until 11/30 5pm EST.
  1. Split Oak was originally on the agenda for after lunch but FWC updated the agenda website indicating that Split Oak *may* be considered earlier in the day ↩︎
  2. *and anything else you'd like to speak on the agenda, and sign up to speak on off the agenda if you have something else to say, Katrina Shadix is suggesting the following:
    -Please prohibit the use of conibear traps, snare traps and steel jaw traps.
    -Please stop the spraying of deadly herbicides into our waters and on wildlife and their food.
    -No Florida black bear hunt
    -Please re-list the Florida black bear as a state threatened species ↩︎

Road through Split Oak to be considered April 20 at the FCT Board meeting

Clip of the April 20, 2022 Florida Communities Trust Board Meeting Agenda with the Split Oak item circled in red

The agenda for the upcoming Florida Communities Trust meeting on April 20 has been released and allowing the Osceola Parkway Extension to be built in Split Oak will be considered. Please call in or attend in person in Tallahassee to voice your opposition.

Call in instructions are in the Agenda.

Your emails are needed immediately!


The CFX board is having their virtual June meeting tomorrow morning at 9. They are proposing appointing Charles Lee to the Environmental Stewardship Committee. THIS IS NOT GOOD.

Sacrificing the Osceola portion of Split Oak Forest to appease the developers in return for other, inferior land has been his pet project for the past three years. It is the opposite of environmental stewardship.

WE NEED as many of you as possible to DO THE FOLLOWING by 5PM TODAY:

Please post the following or similar comment by emailing to or by visiting the

Friends of Split Oak strongly object to the appointment of Charles Lee because of his history of supporting compromise with developers rather than supporting policies that prevent environmental exploitation. He firmly advocates sacrificing a portion of meticulously-conserved preserve for 1500 acres of degraded, unsuitable or detached land, which is a numbers game to appease the developers of this project. For this reason he is deeply distrusted by many in the environmental community. The links below illustrate that this distrust dates back at least 31 years. Appointing him to the Environmental Stewardship Committee would in effect be “putting the fox in charge of the guarding the hen house.”

ACTION ALERT – Orange County Charter Review Meeting Today

Our Split Oak Charter Amendment is likely going to pass another significant hurdle tonight @ 5:30pm 💚
Want to do a public comment in support? Please consider it! You must email and with a request to speak, they'll respond with an invite to the WebEx meeting.
Your concise and well-articulated public comment could provide the impetus an undecided CRC member needs to pass our resolution. Please consider making a 15 second to three minute comment in support. I will be available for tech support. My number is 386.852.2539.
You're also welcome to just watch the meeting on Orange TV using this link.

Comment Suggestions

  • I support this Amendment because the voters have a right to decide what happens to their public land.
  • This Amendment is very well written and would allow Orange County to protect this Orange County public park currently under threat of development.
  • I visit Split Oak and the impact of construction anywhere within the park would reduce the currently very high conservation and recreational value the park has.
  • Split Oak Forest was supposed to be protected 'in perpetuity'. Those protections are still in place and do not have to be removed. State-level loopholes that were added to statute after Split Oak was purchased and restored are being used to justify an unnecessary road to service new suburban sprawl. Our public land should not be targeted in this way.

Press Release – Voluntary lawsuit dismissal by Friends of Split Oak Forest

Friends of Split Oak Forest, Inc. on Friday February 28, 2020 filed a notice of voluntary dismissal “without prejudice" of their ongoing Sunshine Law lawsuit (Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Case No. 2018-CA-00152) against Osceola County in order to utilize their resources to oppose any changes to Split Oak Forest’s protections at the state level. “Without prejudice” means the suit could be refiled in the future if necessary.

In 1998, an amendment to Florida’s Constitution to expressly protect conservation lands was approved by 72 percent of the voters and became enforceable.  Article X, Section 18 of the Florida Constitution prohibits the disposition of conservation lands unless there has been a determination that the property is no longer needed for that purpose.

“There is a feasible alternate alignment of the Osceola Parkway Extension that has been optioned by the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) that would completely avoid Split Oak Forest. However, this route is more expensive and CFX has begun to pursue using Split Oak Forest, a public park, for the toll highway,” says Valerie Anderson, President.

The Split Oak Forest was purchased with state funding and is subject to the Florida Constitution. In a 2015 report, the Florida Fish and Wildlife commission, the Forest’s managing agency since its creation, stated that none of Split Oak Forest should be disposed of.  The land’s high value has not changed and all of it is needed for the reasons for which it was originally acquired, which include wetland and Gopher Tortoise mitigation. The Wildlife and Environmental Area is also protected by a number of additional conservation easements held by various governmental agencies. They have not been released and remain in place protecting the property, as stated in the original documents, in perpetuity.

The Friends of Spit Oak Forest will continue to fight to preserve these lands that were acquired for conservation and mitigation purposes and have been expertly managed for endangered species and as a public park for twenty-six years.

For additional information contact: Valerie Anderson,, 386.852.2539

Discover Split Oak © Dante Dancel

Celebrate Gopher Tortoise Day with Friends of Split Oak – April 10th

Festivities are on April 10th, 2019 from 1-5pm at Split Oak’s Main Entrance, 12175 Clapp Simms Duda Road, Orlando, FL

NARCOOSSEE- Learn about gopher tortoises and their habitat with hands-on activities: science, arts, native plants, nature walks on the Florida National Scenic Trail at Split Oak Forest. Meet Sheldon, an ambassador gopher tortoise! Events will be taking place all afternoon from 1-5. This event is free and open to the public.

An adult gopher tortoise walks across Split Oak Forest's Athena's Meadow toward photographer Michael Snyder.

Gopher tortoises were relocated to Split Oak Forest when their homes were destroyed elsewhere in Central Florida to make way for development. Money from the now-defunct gopher tortoise entombment program was also used to purchase Split Oak Forest originally. Split Oak Forest is the perfect place to celebrate these amazing, long-lived herbivores.”

Valerie Anderson, President, Friends of Split Oak Forest

Gopher Tortoise Day increases awareness of this fascinating creature and the need to protect its habitat. Gopher tortoises are listed Threatened by the State of Florida and are experiencing rapid habitat loss. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species of North America’s longleaf pine forest, providing refuge for over 350 other species in their burrow, including native bees. Gopher Tortoise Day, April 10th, was designated by the Gopher Tortoise Council as an annual celebration of gopher tortoises.

The two major threats to gopher tortoises are habitat loss due to development and road mortality, for example, getting hit by cars. Gopher tortoises require open, dry, sandy upland habitats with abundant low-growing vegetation such as pine flatwoods, scrub, and coastal dunes. Split Oak contains all of those habitats except coastal dunes. Gopher tortoise habitat requires regular and careful management . Gopher tortoises have coexisted with native plants and animals of Florida for centuries.

Participating organizations include:

Press Release [odt] [pdf] | Official Event Page

About Friends of Split Oak Forest: Friends of Split Oak was founded in 2018 in response to plans by the Osceola Expressway Authority to build the Osceola Parkway Extension right through Split Oak to serve Tavistock’s Sunbridge development. Friends of Split Oak Forest is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to the health and integrity of Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area, which is a 1700-acre conservation area managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.