CFX Board considers road through Split Oak feasible

Today the entire board and many members of Friends of Split Oak Forest as well as members of Speak Up Wekiva and concerned local residents attended and spoke at the Central Florida Expressway governing board meeting.

On the agenda were the three projects taken over from the Osceola County Expressway Authority. The chairman of that board, Atlee Mercer, made some amusing comments to the CFX board toward the end of the public comment period:

“These roads haves been talked about for almost 30 years. We had a plan. We vetted it entirely. We passed it at our board. We passed it on to you. You chose to revisit it. That’s OK. I get it. But don’t lose sight of that plan. I’m here to say that this road, this connection, is critical to the long-term health of Central Florida and the East Coast. And it needs to be constructed because it is an integral part of that southern beltway.”

Yes, roads are really, really healthy, Mr. Mercer. This is part of his ‘this is a road that’s got to be built’ mantra that he leans on in times like these.

It’s unfortunate because the Osceola Parkway Extension is not a critical part of the beltway. It’s a spur of the beltway that leads into the airport. The completion of the beltway would be an extension of the Northeast Connector to the that has not yet been planned.

Map of the beltway from the spring 2018 CFX concept studies season
Orlando metro beltway map with my annotations indicating the logical placement of the corridors completing the beltway

Friends of Split Oak Forest, along with most of the commentators, were concerned with the Osceola Parkway Extension, of which six out of the seven routes go through Split Oak Forest.1 Despite consistent requests from a variety of groups starting during the CFX Kickoff series of meetings in Fall 2017, CFX leadership refuses to re-examine a route that avoid both Lake Ajay Village and Split Oak: OCX E-1. I wrote an entire post on this issue.

OCX E-1 by Kimley Horn

At this meeting, several board members indicated that they would like the alternative that avoids Lake Ajay and Split Oak to be considered. Let’s see if these board member comments go the way of Buddy Dyer’s comment about investigating lower speed limits so that sharper curves could be considered. That way is nowhere. By interviewing CH2M engineers and CFX engineers long after the board meeting where Buddy said that, I learned that no orders had been given to engineer any route options at a lower speed limit.

Osceola County released this video after the meeting.

Several news articles were written immediately following the meeting:

Central Florida Expressway Authority moves ahead with study of contentious Split Oak road by Scott Powers in Florida Politics

Expressway Authority advances toll road at Split Oak Forest and Lake Ajay Village by Kevin Spear in the Orlando Sentinel

Florida Pennyroyal

Florida (or wild or false) Pennyroyal (Piloblephis rigida) is a native plant in the mint family that grows in Split Oak Forest. It grows into pretty obvious mounds and usually flowers in the spring. It can be used to make a delicious tea or mixed drink. You’ll find it throughout peninsular Florida in the dryer upland plant communities while hiking, as well as in native plant enthusiasts’ yards. You can find this plant for sale at native nurseries like Green Isle Gardens in Groveland and The Natives in Davenport1

Florida Pennyroyal photographed by Valerie Anderson found near Lake Two in Split Oak Forest WEA, March 3, 2018.

Florida Pennyroyal used to be a reliable nectar plant for honeybees, but is no longer. Central Florida beekeepers that I’ve spoken to aren’t aware of it as a nectar plant2. As a member of the mint family, its flowers are easily accessible to honeybees.

I have personally observed Florida Pennyroyal twice in Split Oak Forest, once this past Saturday near Lake Two and last November I saw it without flowers in the Osceola part. iNaturalist has two other observations in Split Oak Forest. The USF Herbarium has four vouchered specimens in Orange and Osceola counties, the earliest from 1952, pictured below.

USF Herbarium specimen of Piloblephis rigida collected by George R. Cooley, 1952

Invasive species in Split Oak Forest

This post kicks off National Invasive Species Awareness Week 2018! Split Oak Forest has been incredibly well-managed by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for over 20 years. They’ve kept a tight burn rotation as well as aggressively controlled the few invasive species that were onsite when Split Oak Forest was acquired by the two counties.

Wild hogs (Sus scrofa) are the most destructive invasive animal species in Split Oak. They are difficult to control even when trapped and hunted extensively. They dig on the sides of paths and firebreaks and anywhere they can find grubs, fungi, and easily-accessible roots.

Natal grass (Melinis repens) is scattered throughout Split Oak Forest, but appears to be restricted near the main entrance, disturbed areas (like our spoil sandhills by Lake 1 and Lake 2), and along firebreaks.

Natal grass in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh by J.M. Garg via Wikimedia Commons

Caesar weed (Urena lobata) is restricted to the oak hammock called Eagles Nest Hammock. There is little groundcover there to compete with it, save a few saw palmettos (Sabal palmetto) and beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).

Caesarweed in Osceola County by Osceola CISMA

Split Oak is lucky to be not afflicted with cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica), which ifs very expensive and difficult to control.

Cogongrass in Osceola County by Osceola CISMA

Similarly, no old world climbing fern (Lygodium microphyllum) is found in Split Oak, but I have found it along the Swamp Trail in Moss Park just 100′ from Split Oak’s boundary.  We (and Orange EPD and FWC) should keep an eye on it and preferably treat it soon.

Old world climbing fern in Osceola County by Osceola CISMA

Split Oak Forest Burn History and Fire Management

In light of an incorrect statement by an elected official about Split Oak Forest’s burn history, I have decided to describe Split Oak’s fire management and why it’s critical to the integrity of the park.

I requested Split Oak Forest’s burn history from the managers of the site, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and was given this Burn History Map 2017 -2018. I created a heat map of the whole site using this data.

To summarize, every burn unit in Split Oak Forest has been burned with a prescribed fire in the last thirteen years. FWC has conducted 125 separate controlled burns on Split Oak since they’ve been managing it.

216 acres (+/-12%) of Split Oak was burned in the past year. Four burns were conducted last fall.

There are two places within Split Oak Forest that have never burned under FWC’s management. The first is Lake Hart, which is a body of water, so would only burn if it’s water levels dropped several feet for an extended period of time so that the bottom could dry out and be flammable. This would not occur because SFWMD controls Lake Hart’s level via S62. You can view S62’s real-time status here.

The second is the Lake Mary Jane Marsh. ‘Slough marshes’ such as this one used to burn more frequently in the past but are rarely burned by public agencies on purpose these days because the muck will smoulder for weeks and sometimes months. A good example of this were the muck fires last spring that caused road closures in Lake County, covered by WFTV.

Newly emerging saw palmetto fronds indicate a less-than-week-old fire in Unit 13. Photo taken August 2017.

Burned sticks of oak sprouts and gallberry bushes as well as the fire-scarred longleaf pine in the foreground and a completely torched longleaf in the background are evidence of the July burn in Unit 7.

A burn-scarred slash pine tree from the April 2016 burn in Unit 16A as of January 2018, looking over Lake Two.

Split Oak Forest must be managed according to a management plan that honors the original intent of establishing Split Oak Forest (page 15):

“The principle management emphasis at Split Oak Forest will be the protection and enhancement of habitat that is important to state and federally listed wildlife populations.”

Based on the condition of Split Oak prior to acquisition by the two counties, only improved fire management were anticipated as necessary to meet that goal (page 4):

“Only fire management is needed in most of the upland portion of the site.”

It turned out that FWC had to do more invasive species control than they had anticipated, and there are still significant populations of caesarweed (Urena lobata) and natal grass (Melinis repens).

Prescribed fire is a major theme in Split Oak Forest’s current management plan.

The League of Women Voters opposes any road through Split Oak Forest

We gained four strong voices today in the fight to save Split Oak Forest from the Osceola Parkway Extension:

  1. Wayne Liebnitzki, a  Republican running for the US Senate Seat in District 9
  2. The League of Women Voters of Florida
  3. The League of Women Voters of Orange County
  4. The League of Women Voters of Seminole County

Here is their letter to Fred Hawkins, Jr., Chair of the Osceola Board of County Commissioners and Chair of the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

New CFX Alignments East 5 v. East 6

To reduce the project’s effects to wetlands, we recommend that alternatives 1, 2, and 3 be redesigned to terminate at County Road 15 (Narcoosee Road).” – John Wrubilik, US Fish and Wildlife Service, page 18

We prefer that the road begin at the airport and stop at SR 15/ Narcoossee Road, a position that multiple federal agencies stated in their official comments to the Turnpike Authority in 2012. These comments are quoted throughout this post. However, the Central Florida Expressway Authority is still proposing routes east of Narcoossee Road, including routes that impact Split Oak Forest. This blog post analyzed the most recently released alignments.

Since December of 2017, CFX has been showing two alignments that impact Split Oak Forest less, East 5 and East 6. The following map is from the December 14, 2017 board meeting agenda:

Page 321 with routes for both East and West segments of the Osceola Parkway Extension.

Let’s zoom in a little on Split Oak Forest.

Osceola Parkway Extension East segment with points of interest labeled.

Point A shows where East 5 and 6 begin diverging from the rest of the alignments, crossing Clapp Simms Duda Road onto the parcels owned by various investment companies. Any existing homes on the properties appear vacant and these properties are fenced together with standard four-strand barbed wire and are grazed by cattle. These two options also avoid impacting the mitigation site on the north side of Clapp Simms Duda, here labeled ‘World DRI Mitigation Site’.

The Corps concurs with the USFWS recommendation to reduce the project’s effects to wetlands and redesigning all alternatives to terminate at County Road (CR) 15 (Narcoosee Road). […] It should be noted that if FDOT continues to propose an alternative which extends east of CR 15 the Corps will request dispute resolution.” – Andrew Phillips, US Army Corps of Engineers, page 17

Point B is where the difference in curve radius between East 5 and East 6 is most obvious. East 6 is much closer to the Lake Ajay Village and would take three lots in that community. East 5 takes a less relaxed curve and avoids taking any lots. I confirmed with two CFX-employed engineers that there is no reason that East 6 could not be curved like East 5.

Point C is where East 5 curves early to impact Split Oak, while it could delay curving and continue straight for another couple hundred feet and avoid impacting Split Oak.

The three alternatives merge at Tindall Acres Road and Boggy Creek Road. Beyond this point, the logical terminus is County Road 15. NMFS recommends that the roadway terminate there. The project purpose of supporting traffic demands and system linkage could still be accomplished. This would also eliminate the majority of impacts to the highest quality wetlands along the corridor. The extension of the road into the undeveloped area past County Road 15 would promote further development causing a great deal of indirect impacts to wetlands.” – Brandon Howard, National Marine Fisheries Service, page 17

Point D is where East 5 begins to impact Split Oak, where East  6 avoids Split Oak, but is too close. FWC has previously recommended that roads, homes, and businesses be located over 1,000′ from Split Oak’s boundary, a position that Friends of Split Oak Forest espouses.