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.
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.