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

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