Commentary

Plan for new Central Florida toll road would split Split Oak Forest, a treasured park

Showdown next week over whether ‘preserve’ means what it says

April 14, 2022 7:00 am

Spit Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area would be endangered by the planned Northern Turnpike Extension. Credit: Dave Wegman courtesy of Friends of Split Oak Forest

Have you ever seen the movie “High Noon”? That 1952 flick is one of the best Westerns — the movies, that is, not the hotel chain.

The images are unforgettable: A desperate Gary Cooper trying to round up a posse to help him take on four bad guys. The townspeople reluctant to fight for their own community. Grace Kelly and Lloyd Bridges urging Cooper to get out of town. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking toward the climactic showdown.

Coop, the laconic hero, can’t really explain why he chooses to make a stand when everyone’s telling him don’t. The closest he comes to a statement of purpose is when he tells Bridges, “I’m tired of being shoved.”

What reminded me of this movie is that there’s a showdown coming in Tallahassee next Wednesday in front of a fairly obscure but important board. I’ve already got my bucket of popcorn.

I suggest you pay attention too. While it involves a local issue, the outcome will affect conservation efforts statewide.

I suggest you pay attention too. While it involves a local issue, the outcome will affect conservation efforts statewide.

Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area. Credit: osceola.org

The subject of this struggle is a sweet slice of Central Florida’s landscape known as Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area. It’s owned by you, the Florida taxpayer.

It was named for a massive oak tree that’s been — you guessed it! — split in half. No one knows how. Perhaps it was a lightning strike even bigger than the one in “Back to the Future.”

Here’s the way the Orlando Sentinel described this magical place last year: “Split Oak Forest, which spans a vertical rectangle of more than 2½ square miles, is alluring as more of a gentle park and less of rugged wilderness. It provides regular shade, easy trails, a mosaic of pines and oaks, and glimpses of a particularly gorgeous animal, the southern fox squirrel.”

Oasis amid the clamor

People treasure this home to scrub jays and gopher tortoises as an oasis amid the clamor and crowding of the area I like to call Theme Park Central. It’s pretty popular, too.

“Every weekend the parking lot is full and people are parking all along the sides of” the entrance road, Valerie Anderson, president of the Friends of Split Oak Forest, told me this week.

Ironically, the reason the forest still exists is because of all that development.

Orange and Osceola counties went to the state in 1991 and asked for money to buy Split Oak. An agency called the Florida Communities Trust gave them a total of $6.3 million from the Preservation 2000 fund. In return, they signed an agreement for the forest to be managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The two counties wanted to use Split Oak as a wildlife and wetland mitigation area. They did that to aid developers.

You see, the developers needed a way to make up for the damage being done by all the suburban sprawl they were creating. Split Oak would serve as that make-up (not make-out) spot.

A Florida Communities Trust report says the two counties agreed that they would pursue certain goals with that property.

Florida scrub-jay. The species is federally listed as threatened. Credit: Florida State Parks, DEP.

Those goals were to “maintain, increase, and ensure the abundance and distribution of state listed [protected] wildlife within the project site” and “provide recreational uses that are compatible with the protection and maintenance of listed wildlife populations, the retention of naturally occurring vegetative associations, and protection of sensitive natural area resources.”

They were also supposed to “manage for the quality and productivity of the site’s xeric plant communities.” And, last but not least, they were supposed to “increase public awareness of the importance of protecting and managing listed species population.”

Got that? Did you see any mention of plowing through it with a big toll road?

Because that’s what the two counties want to do now.

But first they have to convince the Florida Communities Trust board that it’s OK.

Whackadoo-ness

I know, I know — this sounds like that whole Florida Department of Transportation “roads to ruin” idea.

You know, the one where the Legislature voted to build three expensive new toll roads through forests and swamps all around the state. Amid a plethora of objections (and after spending lots of money on planning them), they repealed two of the roads. However, the lawmakers told the DOT to continue pursuing the extremely unpopular Northern Turnpike Extension.

But it’s not that.

Nor is it the Miami-Dade County plan to build the Kendall Parkway through wetlands meant to help preserve the Everglades and the county’s drinking water supply.

No, this is the Central Florida Expressway Authority, an arm of Orange and Osceola counties. In 2019 its board voted unanimously to extend a $790-million toll road, the Osceola Parkway, across this lovely preserve.

Florida toll road. Wikimedia photo

Florida already has more toll roads than any other state. This one, according to another 2020 Sentinel story, would “primarily benefit enormous real-estate projects of the Tavistock Development Co. and Suburban Land Reserve, a member with Deseret Ranches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints corporate family.”

Apparently, these poor development companies can’t afford to pay for the new road themselves, so the two counties are helping them out. Isn’t that sweet?

The initial plan, by a predecessor of the current expressway authority, was to slice through the center and split Split Oak in two halves. When the current authority took over, “we knew that would be a non-starter,” Brian Hutchings, the authority’s communications director, told me. “So we re-evaluated it to see if there was a better way of doing it.”

Their new plan was to clip a corner with what the counties call “the proposed linear facility,” which — hee hee hee! Sorry. That is such a bureaucratic way to say “road” that it makes me giggle every time I read it.

Lopsided split

With the road — excuse me, “linear facility” — crossing the corner, the forest would still be split, but it would be a lopsided split. About 1,500 acres would remain north of the new Osceola Parkway extension, and approximately 100 acres would lie south of it.

The highway itself blasts through 60 acres of the forest — 60 acres that, I would like to point out, has yet to be declared surplus by the state. That’s important, because a 1998 constitutional amendment bars governments from getting rid of conservation land unless the land has been classified as no longer worth conserving.

Believe it or not, in their proposal to the Florida Communities Trust board for the new road, the two counties argued that adding the expressway is not only “designed to have a minimal impact to the site.” They claim it actually helps Split Oak Forest. (Pause for three minutes for readers to stop laughing hysterically)

Slapping a slab of asphalt onto land that was supposed to be preserved forever seems contrary to the plain English meaning of 'preserve.'

I am not making that up. Their argument is that the forest is “not a widely known recreation destination,” which will come as news to all the people who’ve been flocking to the place since the 1990s. But running a road through it “will allow for enhanced access.”

Well heck, if a road does that much good, let’s just pave over all of the forest! Then we’ll have 100 percent access! Woo-hoo!

I have to say, slapping a slab of asphalt onto land that was supposed to be preserved forever seems contrary to the plain English meaning of “preserve.” As Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell observed in 2020: “Do you realize how whackadoo that is?”

The whackadoo-ness of the situation surged beyond the bounds of belief when the two counties wound up in a lawsuit over the whole thing.

What ‘preserve’ means in Florida

Andrews’ Friends group managed to get Orange County’s charter review board to schedule a 2020 referendum on preserving the, er, um, preserve. The question on the ballot called for the county charter to limit commissioners’ ability to make pro-developer changes to the forest’s management.

Miffed at this speed bump in its plans to steamroll the toll road right on through, Osceola County filed suit against its own partner, Orange County, to try to stop the referendum.

Osceola commissioners took that step by voting on an item not listed on their agenda, and claiming they were in such a rush they had no time for public comment. That’s not suspicious at all, is it?

Orange County had to defend itself in court against the suit. But Osceola and Orange remain partners in pushing for the new toll road. That puts Orange in the odd position of supporting the road, but also supporting its opponents.

Although the suit is pending, the referendum proceeded. It passed by an overwhelming 86 percent in November 2020. The voters also voted out a county commissioner who had supported the toll road and replaced her with a Split Oak Forest supporter.

Gee, it sure sounds like proposing to run loads of noisy, polluting cars and trucks through Split Oak Forest has boosted “public awareness of the importance of protecting and managing listed species population,” doesn’t it?

Perhaps because the developers were aware of what a heaping helping of weak sauce the counties were serving up, they tried to sweeten the pot.

They have promised that if the toll road is approved, they will donate 1,550 acres for more preservation. That land, currently zoned for commercial, residential, and industrial uses, would be added to the forest, thus making it bigger, albeit still divided.

Mitigation for the mitigation

Why are the developers doing that? Because the land they are donating would serve as (brace yourself!) mitigation for the mitigation.

Yep, that’s where we’re at now. They’re trying to make up for losing the natural land that was supposed to make up for losing the natural land that was lost in the first place. All to keep the development machine cranked up and running for a while longer.

But don’t worry, kids. If the Florida Communities Trust approves this bad deal next week and the Osceola Parkway extension bulldozes through Split Oak a few years from now, I am sure that added land the developers will donate will be “well preserved.”

By that I mean: “Well, preserved right up until someone needs another road to aid developers.”

The Friends of Split Oak Forest take a dim view of this land swap. On its website, the organization says that “sacrificing … Split Oak Forest to appease the developers in return for other, inferior land” is “the opposite of environmental stewardship.”

Anderson said her group plans to show up in force at the Florida Communities Trust meeting next Wednesday and make that argument and others for the park and against the parkway.

We’ll see if they find a receptive audience. The five members of the Florida Communities Trust governing board are all appointed by Gov. Ron “I’m So Anti-Woke, I’m Asleep” DeSantis.

Noah Valenstein, former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Credit: DEP

They include a Tampa homebuilder and a Miami Lakes real estate broker. Given their backgrounds, they may go for the road plan with all the gusto of a kennel full of hungry mutts who’ve been tossed a bag of leftovers from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

The other members are a former Volusia County Council member, a Department of Environmental Protection official, and ex-DEP secretary Noah Valenstein. Keep your fingers crossed about those folks.

Planting their routes in nature

I asked Anderson why her group is fighting this highway so hard. Unlike Gary Cooper, she had no trouble articulating a good reason for taking a stand.

“If Split Oak is not protected, then nowhere in Florida is protected,” she told me. “If toll roads win here, they will win everywhere.”

As you may have noticed earlier in this column, the folks who build roads in Florida do have a bad habit of planting their routes in the state’s remaining natural areas. To them “preserve” is more like a suggestion than a limitation.

If Split Oak is not protected, then nowhere in Florida is protected.

– Valerie Anderson, Friends of Split Oak Forest

They do that for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s generally cheaper to tear up a forest or a swamp than it is to tear down a bunch of houses and stores. The forest and swamp provide benefits to the environment and human health, such as refreshing the water supply and absorbing floods. But that doesn’t count for a single cent on the appraisals.

The other reason is that we’ve repeatedly let them get away with it. The road-builders have rammed through state forests and recreation areas and beach preserves. They have done all that in the name of accommodating developers’ demands without worrying about the public’s needs.

That’s why Split Oak Forest is a good place to draw the line, to force a showdown on these ridiculous arguments that paving the forest helps to save it.

It’s not quite as dramatic as “High Noon.” But it’s high time for the people who care about the special places that still exist in Florida to stand up for them. We all need to take a stand like Gary Cooper and say, to everyone from the governor on down, “We’re tired of being shoved.”

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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