By Charlie Reed

For the News-Gazette

The Osceola County Commission on Monday accepted a deal with Tavistock Development Company that paves the way for extending Osceola Parkway through Split Oak Forest.

It was hammered out in private between Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. and the developer and brought before the board during the last 30 minutes of the Monday night meeting set aside for commissioner comments.

Hawkins gave commissioners a letter addressed to him from Tavistock issued April 13.

Tavistock letter

It gave them 10 days to accept and obligates the county and the commission to “lead a public process (both local and state) to get the associated land in the Split Oak Forest released for right-of-way” to Osceola Parkway. In exchange, Tavistock will move a proposed wastewater treatment plant away from Split Oak and donate the upland scrub habitat as part of an environmental compensation package.

Tavistock, which developed Lake Nona, is lobbying for the toll road extension to benefit its massive Sunbridge development that will span northeast Osceola and southeast Orange counties.

“Time is of the essence because in (Tavistock’s) world, time is money and they have a large community coming in that this plant is vital in supplying,” said Hawkins, who also is the chairman of the Central Florida Expressway Authority, or CFX. The agency manages the building and maintenance of toll roads in the region. The eastward expansion of Osceola Parkway has not been approved by the agency nor undergone the required project development and environmental study, often referred to as the “PD&E.”

“If CFX does move forward with the construction then our actions tonight will prompt the utility to be moved and Split Oak to be made stronger – an option that wouldn’t be available after the PD&E is completed because construction of the utility would already be underway,” Hawkins told his fellow commissioners.

“CFX is proceeding with the PD&E but already knows that from a construction-cost standpoint that this route is the route to build,”

he said.

That route would eat up about 160 acres of the 1,700-acre public conservation area. Friends of Split Oak Forest, a grassroots group of local residents and environmentalist from around the region, for months has expressed vehement opposition to any road alignment that cuts through the conservation area. Split Oak was jointly purchased by Osceola and Orange counties with public funds more than 20 years ago under the conditions that it would remain untouched by development.

Additionally, the likely route does not cut into Lake Ajay Villages, a gated community near Split Oak. But residents said they’re still unsure if the toll road will be positioned far enough away from their neighborhood to satisfy their concerns.

“Unfortunately, we remain out of the loop. Despite our request to have a “seat at the table” of any stakeholder or similar meetings, we have not been informed of any such meetings or received any update on the PD&E study since the March 8 CFX meeting,” said Lake Ajay resident Stacy Ford.

However, if the route keeps the road at least 1,400 feet away from the community and satisfies most of the environmental protection groups, “then I think most in our neighborhood would be happy with that compromise,” she said.

In orchestrating the deal with Tavistock, Hawkins worked closely with Charles Lee, advocacy director for Audubon Florida, who gave a formal presentation to commissioners while they pondered the decision before them.

“At the end of the day, things have to be better because of this arrangement. I believe that the breakthrough that Chairman Hawkins was able to attain in his discussions with Tavistock last week is the most important piece of the puzzle,” said Lee, the only member of the public permitted to speak during the discussion.

Lee also recommended that the commission change land-use regulations in the county’s northeast district to prevent high-density development from abutting nearby conservation lands including Split Oak, Moss Park and the Isle of Pine Preserve. Such government regulations are similar to those previously established to protect

Split Oak but which now appear moot.

Along with moving the treatment plant away from Split Oak, Tavistock is expected to donate 478 acres of conservation land with CFX to purchase another 973 acres with public funds, according to Lee. Those land donations were not included in the deal with Tavistock that the commission approved Monday.

Excluding Commissioner Peggy Choudhry, commissioners, up until now, have been reticent to comment on the Split Oak controversy, saying they were waiting for the CFX process to play out before taking a stance. It’s unclear how the privately crafted deal between Hawkins and Tavistock could have changed their earlier positions on the matter. CFX has not moved forward with the Osceola Parkway extension project since approving a feasibility study in early March.

Commissioner Brandon Arrington thanked Hawkins and Lee for bringing a “real option” to the table.

“It’s a great deal…This is better than I even anticipated,” said Commissioner Viviana Janer.

Commissioner Cheryl Grieb: “This is all about trying to make a balance. It’s not the best in the world to anyone that’s involved. But that’s what makes a good compromise. If I had my druthers would we go through Split Oak at all? No. But realistically in trying to move this forward and being able to have that utility site out of the area, I think that’s a tremendous win for all of us.”

Commissioner Choudhry was the one commissioner who expressed concern about the rushed agreement.

“I’m a little bit uncomfortable with it just because I haven’t had a chance to speak to the citizens and the environmentalists about what they feel about this. So that’s my reservation,” she said.

“I would like some more clarification so I can better understand. I have few more questions and would love to speak to some of the citizens about it,” said Choudhry, although she ultimately agreed with the commission to proceed.

“It’s clear that this deal was brokered at the pleasure of the developer and Charles Lee and sounds good enough to fool the commission, with the exception of Peggy Choudhry. This sketchy deal takes very little land out of development in Osceola County and allows Tavistock to get kudos for saving hundreds of acres they were already planning to preserve,” said Friends of Split Oak founder and St. Cloud resident Valerie Anderson.

Commissioners spent only a few minutes considering the deal from Tavistock before agreeing to it.

Though it did not include any official documentation, the commission “would need to act consistently with this,” said County Attorney Andrew Mai. “Should the board choose to go in a different direction there would be some risk.”