Press Release: Lawsuit Challenges Osceola’s Support of Road Through Split Oak Forest

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE [PDF]

Lawsuit claims that the decision was made in violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law

KISSIMMEE-  The first hearing for this lawsuit is scheduled for January 2, 2019, 2:00 pm in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, Osceola County Courthouse, Room 6A in Kissimmee, Florida.

In their most recent filings with the court, Friends of Split Oak Forest, Speak Up Wekiva and Valerie Anderson (Plaintiffs) allege that the Osceola County Board of County Commissioners (Defendant) violated “Florida’s Sunshine Law” when they issued official support for a major expressway route through Split Oak Forest at the request of Tavistock Development Company last April.

Plaintiffs contend that Osceola County officials took action on a proposition before the Board without allowing the public a fair opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, in violation of Florida Statutes Chapter 286.0114(2). Plaintiffs assert that the Board Chairman, Fred Hawkins, Jr., intentionally took steps to prevent the public from knowing that the proposition would be considered for approval at the April 16 meeting.

Gopher tortoise, a threatened species. Gopher tortoises were relocated to Split Oak from development sites. Photo: Robert Sena / Split Oak Forest.

The Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967 and is designed to protect the public’s ability to access governmental meetings and be heard before decisions are made by elected officials. “It is important that local governments follow the law so that citizens can effectively engage with their government,” said Valerie Anderson, President of Friends of Split Oak Forest and one of the plaintiffs. The Friends of Split Oak Forest and Speak Up Wekiva have come forward to fight for the public’s right to be heard.

Background: Osceola County partnered with Orange County to purchase Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area in 1994 using public funding. Use of this type of funding required that the Counties agree to protect the lands forever (“in perpetuity”) for mitigation and conservation. The Deed Restrictions pursuant to the Grant Award Agreement, recorded in April of 1994, state:

“The Project Site shall be managed only for the conservation, protection and enhancement of natural and historical resources and for passive, natural resource-based public outdoor recreation which is compatible with the conservation, protection and enhancement of the Project Site.”

The original Deed Restrictions over this property are still in full force and effect. This property is also protected by various Conservation Easements which have their own set of legal conditions and limitations according to Florida Statutes.

During the past ten years, Osceola County, through the Osceola County Expressway Authority, has consistently favored and approved proposed Osceola Parkway Extension routes that would slash through Split Oak Forest in violation of the explicit Deed Restrictions, the clear intent of the original agreements and the public trust.

On April 16, 2018, the Osceola County Board of County Commissioners voiced their support of an alignment of the Osceola Parkway Extension through Split Oak Forest. The roadway project is currently in the process of a Project Development & Engineering Study by the Central Florida Expressway Authority.

Contact: Valerie Anderson, (386) 852-2539, valerie@friendsofsplitoak.org, website: friendsofsplitoak.org

October Flower is a bit early, hm?

During my August 13th hike with the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) employees and their consultants we walked around Lake Two, where I noticed a small scrubby-looking plant with white flowers. Peering down at the plant revealed a mass of delicate flowers.

October Flower (or Jointweed) flowers up close in Split Oak Forest near Lake Two

October Flower (Polygonella polygama), also known as Jointweed or Showy Jointweed, is a locally abundant plant that likes it dry. It’s a native member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae), which means it smells lovely. It can be found throughout the southeast.

Ten days after my hike, recent visitors to the park have reported that it is flowering en masse along the sides of the trail and makes a striking impression.

My observation is the first iNaturalist record for October Flower in Split Oak, though it was previously documented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

See also

Huegel, Craig. 2010-08-27. October Flower – Polygonella polygama. Blog: Florida Native Wildflowers

MH Sub I, LLC. 2018. October Flower, Showy Jointweed. Webpage: Dave’s Garden

Cook, Will. 2015-07-11. Common October-flower. Webpage: Carolina Nature

Florida Native Plant Society. 2018. Polygonella polygama. Webpage: Florida Native Plant Society

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

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.

CFX Environmental Advisory Group Meeting January 31st, 2018

The Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX) Environmental Advisory Group (EAG) meeting today, January 31st, was from 9-11:00am in the Osceola Heritage Park. This is a long-standing advisory group that covers all projects that CFX is currently undertaking. Most environmental organizations and affected governmental agencies are invited. We had not been previously invited, though Florida Audubon, Florida Native Plant Society (FNPS), and Sierra Club representatives have been attending these for years.

Today, Dave and I were there for Friends of Split Oak. Representatives from the following organizations were there: Dewberry, Kimley-Horn, CH2M, FDOT, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Suburban Land Reserve (Deseret), Southport Ranch, Lake Mary Jane Alliance, Sierra Club Central Florida, Poinciana Residents for Smart Growth, Tavistock Group, Orange Audubon, Kissimmee Valley Audubon, Osceola County, and Orange County.

The other projects, Poinciana Parkway and Northeast Connector, were presented prior to the Osceola Parkway Extension.

Matthew Lamb of CH2M, the project manager, presented on the Osceola Parkway Extension. He started with the Western alignments from the 417/Airport and then moved to our area of interest, the ‘East Alignments’.

Slide 69 of the January 31, 2018 Environmental Advisory Group meeting presentation

The preliminary feasibility study was completed in March 2012 by OCX, the summary report (ETDM Programming Screen Summary Report) was completed in June 2012, and the agreement to takeover this project from OCX (by CFX) was signed September 8, 2017. He had a slide about Split Oak and how he heard all this this feedback that said “minimize impacts to Split Oak Forest”. We have requested but haven’t received the public comments yet, but I would bet that his hearing might be a bit off.

Bob Mindick (Osceola County) said that all of the plans don’t indicate habitat and wildlife corridors. The maps of the alignments need to include wildlife corridors. He thanks those that put the Florida National Scenic Trail in Split Oak. He and Beth went to DC. Also, he wants to address the cost estimates, not sure how fixed those costs are – they don’t take into account the changes in fire management or the impact on fire management costs.

I responded and said that FNAI already has identified high quality corridors in its Critical Lands Identification Program and that would not be difficult to delineate corridors on the maps shown.

Bryan Barnett (FWC) said when you look at the road combinations there are very significant mitigation requirements. Maybe you should have a big picture mitigation project. He said that FWC would endorse that.

Marge Holt (Sierra Club) said her group supports the 300 alignment of the Southport Connector [it is the furthest north alignment of the three and would impact a single caracara nest but destroy the least other habitat]. They also would support a big picture mitigation project.

Audrey (Toho Water) asked what the time frame is for this project.

Deborah Green (Orange Audubon) said she would also support a regional mitigation effort and offered Lake X as excellent habitat. She also cautioned about accurate Right of Way acquisition costs. One of the criticisms of the PDE from OCX was that the prices were inflated.

Suzanne Arnold (Lake Mary Jane Alliance) read this letter from Charles Lee.

I spoke up and said that I disagreed with Charles. I don’t believe that putting a road through conservation land held in fee simple by a county protected by conservation easements and deed restrictions improves regional conservation. In fact, it does the opposite by decreasing the defensibility of conservation protections throughout the state.

Bob Mindick said he disagreed with me and my approach was NIMBY and not considering regional impacts. Charles has a sense of vision and that all protections are limited if you think something’s permanent that’s not true. What can we do with something that’s sensitively done and delicately done? The final answer is to be seen and outright opposition is premature.

Dave Wegman (Friends of Split Oak) asks if these alignments are the ones that will be shown at the public information sessions? Will there be any additional public meetings?

The lady running the meeting doesn’t really answer the questions. Glenn steps in and doesn’t really answer the question either. They do say that the Project Advisory Committee (PAG) is meeting next week and that’s public input (the PAG is made of developers and consultants)

Suzanne Arnold asked if the refinement (that we saw at the G4/Split Oak Subcommittee last week) will be included or shown in any way at the public meetings.

The answer was not definitive.

The presentation slides from the meeting are here.

Slide 70 of the January 31, 2018 Environmental Advisory Group meeting presentation

Edited 2018-02-23 6:54am for clarity and to attach presentation.
Edited 2018-02-06 2:20pm to remove duplicate links.