By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Regional transportation officials hiked Split Oak Forest last weekend to get a closer look at the publicly owned conservation land that developers want to use for a road to their new communities.
Whether they will spare it remains to be seen.
Arranged by Friends of Split Oak Forest, the tour was geared for Central Florida businesswoman Andria Herr –
one of 10 members of the governing board of the Central Florida Expressway Authority, or CFX – who had never been to the 1,700-acre nature preserve.
“Andria is moderately sympathetic,” said land analyst and Friends of Split Oak founder Valerie Anderson.
For nearly a year, the grassroots organization has been lobbying CFX to build the Osceola Parkway extension around the forest, which straddles Osceola and Orange counties near Lake Nona.
The counties jointly purchased the conservation land 20 years ago with nearly $9 million in taxpayer funds to protect it from the very issue now at hand: whether to build a road through it that would benefit new residential development planned in the area.
Millions more in taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to restore the forest, which is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Gopher tortoises, Florida scrub jays and Florida panthers now thrive there – once a sleepy corner of Central Florida – now booming with residential and commercial development. Hiking and equestrian trails also crisscross the pristine habitat, enjoyed by locals and visitors year round.
The land was to remain untouched forever.
CFX, led by Osceola County Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins, will discuss possible routes for the Osceola Parkway extension at its March 8 meeting in Orlando. Osceola County has final say in whether the conservation land can be used for the road.
“The only reason CFX can plan a road through Split Oak is because Osceola County isn’t standing up,” Anderson said.
While residents have been fighting to save the forest from the road, developers have been doing just the opposite and spending millions hoping to get their way.
Farmland Reserves, which owns the 300,000-acre Deseret Ranch, and All Aboard Florida, a private rail company, recently contributed $37 million to the toll road design and construction.
Deseret and Lake Nona developer Tavistock Development Company are building a massive new community in the area known as Sunbridge. The residential and commercial development would be one of Central Florida’s biggest, set to cover some 37 square-miles. It will usher in tens of thousands of new residents to the area in the next decade as Osceola County struggles to manage growth. Roads are congested, schools are overcrowded and officials say new growth must pay for itself though little has been done to keep it in check.
The companies have also told CFX they would set aside about 1,300 acres in conservation area in exchange for the estimated 250-plus acres that would be destroyed to build the road.
Advocates and environmentalists contend the public’s investment would be squandered if the road cuts through Split Oak and that it would have devastating effects on the ecosystem.