Happy New Year Osceola County!

As we welcome in 2020, we can’t help but recognize what made our headlines in 2010. Some of the most notable news stories had to do with you, Osceola County, and the voice you had with taxes and environmental issues. Let’s take a look back.

•1 percent sales tax proposal defeated in Osceola County

Nearly two out of three voters soundly rejected the measure in May (67.2 percent against and 32.7 percent in favor), which would have raised the sales tax rates in Osceola County from 7.5 to 8.5 percent – tying it with Hillsbourgh County for highest in the state.

Many residents voted early and cast mail-in-ballots. County officials estimated that the proposed surtax would have generated $60 million in revenue per year.

Fierce public opposition followed the penny proposal since Osceola County commissioners unanimously agreed to host the special election.

General concerns about money management and transparency in local government spurred some residents to display red and white “One Penny Too Many” yard signs and join “Vote No” Facebook pages.

•Coal ash backlash

Arguably, the biggest story in Osceola County of 2019 – coal ash – that was introduced by former News-Gazette staff writer Rachel Christian.

A steady barrage of individuals at Osceola County Commission meetings spoke out against the importation of thousands of tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico, demanding answers from elected officials and voicing worries about toxins in waste headed to JED Solid Waste Facility east of St. Cloud.

Coal ash had dominated conversations in Osceola County for months. Residents and protesters began speaking out in early May after news broke that JED Solid Waste Facility, a private landfill in rural Osceola County, would become the new home for hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the material is safe and non-hazardous but doubts lingered for some residents.

Coal ash is the burnt residue left behind by coal energy power plants. Although the Environmental Protection agency classified the material as non-hazardous in 2014, the agency’s website notes that coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that - without proper management – can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air.

It even prompted the St. Cloud City
Council to terminate a landfill contract with JED because of coal ash concerns even at the risk of being sued.

The JED finally agreed to stop importing coal ash from Puerto Rico in August after he County Commission had approved a contract that allowed the privately owned company to charge $2 for each ton of coal ash it receives at its landfill, which it imports from Puerto Rico.

•Ongoing Split Oak Forest controversy

Plans to build a road through Split Oak Forest moved forward last month. The Osceola County Commission approved a resolution that paves the way for extending Osceola Parkway through the publicly owned conservation land.

But it has constantly been a hot-button issue. The issue has been met with protestors speaking out at Osceola County Commission meetings and picketing outside of the meeting. It was also met with a lawsuit that was filed against the county. Although a judge dismissed a civil lawsuit alleging Osceola County violated Florida Sunshine laws, she did without prejudice, meaning the case can be re-filed. 

The Central Florida Expressway Authority 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.

But Friends of Split Oak Forest, a group of local residents and environmentalist from around Central Florida, and other residents, have expressed opposition to any road alignment that would cut through Split Oak Forest for two years. Osceola and Orange counties with taxpayer dollars jointly purchased the 17,89-acre conservation area off Narcoossee Road more than 20 years ago.

The year 2020 is an election year. Don’t stop making your voice heard Osceola County. Make sure you get out and vote.

Here’s to a prosperous New Year.