By Scott Maxwell
The story is vintage Florida — in all the worst possible ways.
Decades ago, when growth was running rampant and Central Florida’s natural resources were being polluted and paved over, state and local officials set aside a swath of land that they promised to protect forever.
Now they want to plow a toll road through it. To allow for more development.
Some critics argue this pay-for-pave plan would be an affront to the voters of Orange County, who voted overwhelmingly in 2020 to protect this land. Those people are right.
Others argue this road is really just a plan to help politically connected donors open up new land for development. Those people are right, too.
But today — as state officials prepare to vote Wednesday morning whether to allow this massive paving plan — I want to talk about perhaps the most basic reason this land should remain protected:
Because that’s what you were promised.
And I’m sick of watching politicians break their promises.
See, one of the great and gross ironies about the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area is that it only exists because developers agreed to pay to protect this swath of land where birds nest and deer roam in exchange for fouling land elsewhere.
Developers were allowed to destroy gopher tortoise habitats and pour concrete that might damage water quality elsewhere in the 1990s in exchange for helping protect the 1,700-plus acre Split Oak forest that straddles the Orange and Osceola county line.
As the Sentinel wrote in 1995, Split Oak was created to be “a place where land developers can pay for their sins of environmental destruction.”
Yet now state and local officials want to pave over that.
Road planners and county officials argue that their current plan — to destroy what they describe as just a small portion of the preserve — is the best option out of a bunch of bad ones. I reject their premise.
Because they’re starting with the presumption that we must build yet another toll road — one that the Sentinel has reported will “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.”
I don’t believe government has an obligation to cater to the whims of developers. Even if they are donors to everyone from Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
I’m sick of watching politicians break their promises.
Wednesday will be D-Day for Split Oak. That is when the governor’s appointees to the Florida Communities Trust — which helped finance Split Oak through its “Preservation 2000″ land-buying program and now controls its “Florida Forever” successor — will decide whether they should break that promise and allow this land to now be fouled.
Please take a moment to re-read some of the key words in last sentence. Trust. Preservation. Forever.
How is this even a serious debate? There are legitimate questions about whether it’s even legal.
Long-time Floridians love to wring their hands and tell war stories about days gone by when Florida’s natural resources were fouled. Well, those days are still here. Today is one of them. Everyone involved is etching their own legacy.
Most Orange and Osceola county commissioners, as well as members of the Central Florida Expressway Authority, have already chosen their stance. They sided with developers and growth at any cost. They are OK with breaking promises.
A vocal exception is new Orange commissioner Nicole Wilson, who was elected after fighting to protect Split Oak. In a letter to the Communities Trust board, Wilson called the paving plans “a violation of public trust … the destruction of conservation land purchased with public dollars to build a toll road for the benefit of private development interests.”
Defenders of this deal justify it by stressing that the developers who’ll benefit will donate even more land for preservation purposes. And they promise that, if we just let them foul this land they previously agreed to protect, they swear they’ll protect all the land from now on.
Only a fool would believe such a thing. It’s like dating an adulterer and expecting them to be monogamous.
It’s enabling addicts; agreeing to let the pave-and-sprawl junkies score one more hit in exchange for them promising this time will be their last. Really, really. They mean it.
Well, I’m sick of watching politicians break their promises.
DeSantis actually has an opportunity here. He has vowed to be a conservationist conservative and claimed he isn’t beholden to the powerful interests who fund his campaign. And he loves to pound on Democrats. He can advance all three of those goals this week if he urges his land-trust appointees to reject this proposal.
He could humiliate local Democrats in Orange and Osceola counties by demonstrating a stronger commitment to preservation and conservation than they did.
And he and his appointees can show voters they know darn well why this preserve was created in the first place and that they appreciate the frustration of Floridians … who are sick of watching politicians break their promises.
email@example.com. This piece first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.
firstname.lastname@example.org This piece first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.
Split Oak Forest is nearly 1,800 acres of public land in east orange and east Osceola counties.