Plans to build a road through Split Oak Forest moved forward Monday.
The Osceola County Commission approved a resolution that paves the way for extending Osceola Parkway through the publicly owned conservation land.
Commissioner Peggy Choudhry was the lone dissenting vote at Monday’s meeting, where protestors spoke out and picketed outside of the meeting before it started.
The next decision regarding the fate of Split Oak rests with the board of the Florida Communities Trust, an arm of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The Central Florida Expressway Authority last week approved a final alignment for the road, which would impact about 160 acres of the 1,700-acre forest.
The project would extend Osceola Parkway by nine miles, connecting State Road 417 to new and planned developments, including Tavistock’s massive Sunbridge development.
Officials say the toll road extension is needed to accommodate huge growth expected in that area that is already booming. They say it would alleviate traffic on interior roads in the Lake Nona/Narcoossee area and is needed for regional connectivity.
Tavistock, which developed Lake Nona, has been leading the effort to get the toll road built.
The Osceola County Commission in April 2018 agreed to help Tavistock and signed an agreement that said the commission would “lead a public process (both local and state) to get the associated land in the Split Oak Forest released for right-of-way.”
In exchange, Tavistock agreed to move a proposed wastewater treatment plant away from Split Oak and donate land to compensate what will be impacted by the road.
Osceola’s approval is key because the conservation land is owned by the county and was supposed to remain undeveloped in perpetuity.
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 Florida Communities Trust, which could take up the issue as early as January, awarded $5 million in loans to Osceola and Orange counties through a grant program in 1992 that helped the local governments purchase Split Oak.
The deal stipulated that the land would forever remain a conservation area open to the public. The counties essentially borrowed funds from the trust to buy Split Oak and then repaid it with money collected from various developers through environmental mitigation credits.
Split Oak also was established in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and designed to mitigate the environmental impacts of the once-rural area southeast of Orlando International Airport.
Improvements to the land, including prescribed burns, have allowed populations of gopher tortoises, Florida scrub jays and Florida panthers to thrive in Split Oak amidst the development in the area. Hiking and equestrian trails criss-cross the forest.
The trust ultimately will decide whether to amend the grant agreement between the trust and the counties.
It will also address the process for amending the interagency agreement between the two counties and the FWC, as well as the conservation easement between the counties and FWC.