By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
The Osceola County Commission on Monday accepted $37 million in private funds to extend Osceola Parkway amid growing debate about the road’s impact on local conservation land and existing neighborhoods.
The money comes from Mormon church-owned Farmland Reserves, which owns the 300,000 -acre Deseret Ranch, and All Aboard Florida, a private rail company.
The funding agreement also includes another $33 million from the Florida Department of Transportation.
The $70 million will go into an escrow account help pay for the road – about $1 million for its design and another $69 million to acquire right-of-way access on owned land to build it.
The controversy surrounding the project centers on exactly where the road should be built, a decision ultimately up to the Central Florida Expressway Authority, or CFX.
Farmland Reserves and Tavistock Development Company have been lobbying CFX to build a 12-mile
extension of Osceola Parkway through Split Oak Forest, a proposal vehemently opposed by local residents, environmental organizations and other governmental agencies
Osceola and Orange counties jointly purchased Split Oak 20 years ago to offset the impacts of development on the ecosystem, a conservation process called environmental mitigation. The 2,000-acre Florida scrub forest – which straddles the Orange/Osceola line near Lake Nona – was to remain untouched and open to the public in perpetuity.
Publicly funded improvements to the land by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have allowed populations of gopher tortoises, Florida scrub jays and Florida panthers to thrive there alongside the booming residential and commercial development in the area. Hiking and equestrian trails now crisscross the pristine habitat, visited by locals and visitors year round.
Friends of Split Oak Forest, a grassroots organization based in Osceola, for months has been leading efforts to convince CFX to build around the forest. Another option would put the road closer to Lake Ajay Village. Residents of the 40-year-old gate community also started lobbying officials against that proposal.
Friends of Split Oak and Lake Ajay residents had been pushing for a no-build option recently. But now that Osceola County has accepted $70 million in public funds and private incentives for the road, the no-build option is highly unlikely.
Osceola County Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr., who also chairs the CFX board, released a video statement following the board’s approval of the funding agreement on its consent agenda, typically reserved for non-controversial, routine county business.
“Nothing in the funding agreement affects Split Oak, Lake Ajay or any of the areas that you may be hearing about that are controversial, where this road may go. It has nothing even to do with the alignments. This just allows funding to be started. One for design. And two for some parcels to be acquired in the future, all coming back to the Board of County Commissioners.”
Speaking during the public comment portion of Monday’s board meeting, Friends of Split Oak founder and land-use analyst Valerie Anderson told commissioners that “the rest of Florida is watching how you treat your public land.”
“This is land owned by the citizens of Osceola County and has been maintained by the taxpayers of the state of Florida. The Osceola (Board of County Commissioners) promised to protect and keep this property conservation forever. Twenty two years doesn’t seem like forever to me,” she said.
The CFX board will be discussing where to build the Osceola Parkway extension March 8. The 9 a.m. meeting is at CFX headquarters, 4974 ORL Tower Road, in Orlando.
Residents who can’t make it, can email their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.