Osceola County teamed up with Orange County more than 20 years ago and spent millions of taxpayer dollars to buy 1,700 acres of land now known as Split Oak Forest and Conservation Area.
The Florida Communities Trust, a state agency that helps preserve Florida’s natural resources, also contributed public funds to make the deal happen.
Split Oak was supposed to remain untouched forever.
But forever has gone out the window now that homebuilders want to extend Osceola Parkway through the forest to make their massive, new community more attractive.
It’s no surprise that developers are willing to cut up public lands for personal gain. But what is shocking, and frankly appalling, is that the Osceola County Commission has done nothing to try and stop them.
Commissioners Peggy Choudhry and Cheryl Grieb last month expressed a willingness to discuss the issue at a public board meeting, but it fell flat.
The decision on whether or not to build through Split Oak is up ultimately up to CFX, the Central Florida Expressway Authority. Osceola County Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins also chairs the CFX board, which meets this week to discuss proposed routes for the toll road.
The Orange County Commission last year sent a letter to regional transportation officials asserting Orange County’s authority over its portion of Split Oak and said they were “concerned on behalf of its citizens about any alignment that might lie wholly or partially within Orange County.”
Why hasn’t the Osceola County Commission followed suit?
Commissioner Choudhry told us this week she supports protecting Split Oak. But her colleagues on the board said they’re not prepared to speak on the matter until CFX makes its determination.
Last month, when the Osceola County Commission accepted $37 million in private funds from the developer for the road, Chairman Hawkins said the money had nothing to do with the road’s alignment. In a Facebook video posted after the meeting, he said the funds would be used for planning and to buy land for the road.
Chairman Hawkins, who was re-elected for a third term in 2016, in our opinion, hasn’t done enough to address concerns from Osceola residents and environmental groups that object to building through Split Oak.
Of all the elected officials connected to the issue, Chairman Hawkins seems to be the most well-positioned considering his dual roles as chairman of both the county commission and the CFX board. He told the News-Gazette he would answer questions about how he plans to balance the environmental concerns with the requirements of new development this week. We’re very interested in what he has to say and will pass his response along to you as soon as we hear back.
The citizens fighting to protect the forest and hold public officials to their promises should be commended. We should all be so concerned.
The controversy boils down to this: Our elected officials spent our money to protect this important wildlife corridor and to preserve our area’s dwindling natural resources. Infringing on even an inch of Split Oak would demonstrate a blatant disregard for the whole idea of mitigation, the government term for offsetting the impact of development by setting aside natural lands.
Building a road through Split Oak would ruin it, squander the public’s investment in conservation and prove that developers can buy just about anything. Even worse, it would show that developers carry more weight with politicians than the residents who elected them.
Let’s show them we’re all paying attention to how they handle this matter. We urge you to call your county commissioner and let them know that, in this case, preserving our natural resources is more important than giving developers exactly what they want.
After all, the Osceola Parkway extension could be built around Split Oak. The choice seems easy.