By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Osceola County Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. gave a nod to environmentalist Valerie Anderson at Monday’s afternoon board meeting.
Hawkins and Anderson became strange bedfellows for a moment while the board discussed a measure that would reduce the population-to park-ratio requirement in Osceola County by more than 63 percent.
Proposed by county staff, the measure would reduce the number of parks required per 1000 residents from 4.0 to 1.5.
“Valerie I’m gonna give you credit,” Hawkins said from the dais to Anderson, who sat in the audience.
The St. Cloud land analyst and founder of the grassroots environmental nonprofit Friends of Split Oak Forest spoke in the time allotted for public comment ahead of the commission’s discussion on the topic.
Hawkins and Anderson have been working on opposite sides of future plans for Split Oak Forest, a public conservation area that officials and developers want to use for the eastward extension of Osceola Parkway. Anderson opposes building the road through the forest while Hawkins, also the chairman of the regional toll-road authority, supports a plan that would sacrifice a part of the public forest for the road that’s needed for future development in the works.
“You’re allowing the population to grow while shrinking the requirements for parks – essentially letting existing parks absorb more and more use,” Anderson told the board.
Friends of Split Oak Forest has filed a lawsuit against the county essentially to protect Split Oak from being used for the toll road expansion.
Osceola County is having difficulty keeping up with the established parks requirement so county staff is trying to make the requirement easier to obtain, she said.
“That’s an affront to the citizens of this county. We rely on you to provide services that the private sector does not and cannot provide. Parks and conservation land is one such amenity. Your job is to provide those amenities and maintain our quality of life as the county grows in population. Natural resource-based recreation is vital to our quality of life,” Anderson said.
County Manager Don Fisher defended the proposed decrease.
The drop is justified because the 4.0 standard that was set by the Osceola County Commission 10-15 years ago was “remarkably ambitious and not logical in terms of post-reflection of what was done,” County Manager Don Fisher told the board Monday.
We’re trying to become more reasonable and more standard with the industry and not have requirements that can’t be maintained and so on,” Fisher said.
County staff told Commissioner Cheryl Grieb that while the requirement was lower it would result in an overall higher percentage of parks per person in Osceola, she said.
Grieb said that if the overall goal of the measure proposed county staff is to increase parks rather than decrease parks then she would support it.
Commissioner Viviana Janer agreed with Grieb but asked for even more clarification on the math.
“I want to see how the 1.5 was calculated,” Janer told Fisher and county staff in the audience. Janer said county staff must confirm that the “end result (of the proposed lower requirement) is increasing recreational opportunities.”
Confusion arose during the discussion when county staff could not confirm the figures they used in calculating the 1.5 parks-per-1000 residents proposal.
Janer suggested tabling the vote until next week’s commission meeting.
“We’ll all feel better if we understood that our people aren’t being short-changed in terms of our parks and our recreational facilities,” Janer said.