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Three more meetings before officials decide on fate of Split Oak Forest

Posted on Monday, February 12, 2018 at 2:46 pm

By Charlie Reed

For the News-Gazette

There are three more chances for the public to comment before Central Florida’s toll-road authority decides where to extend Osceola Parkway.

Osceola County Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins is also now the chairman of the Central Florida Expressway Authority, or CFX, which is set to decide the matter next month.

For months, local residents and environmentalists have been lobbying Hawkins and CFX to build the road around Split Oak Forest instead of through it.

Osceola and Orange county officials spent $8.2 in taxpayer dollars to purchase the Split Oak Forest Wildlife Management Area some 20 years ago. The 1,700-acre parcel, which straddles both counties near Lake Nona in eastern Osceola County, was to remain undeveloped in perpetuity, or forever.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have spent years and even more money restoring Split Oak to its natural state, free of invasive plant species and managed through prescribed burns.

Publicly funded improvements to the land have allowed populations of gopher tortoises, Florida scrub jays and Florida panthers to thrive there alongside the booming residential and commercial development in the area. Hiking and equestrian trails now crisscross the pristine habitat, visited by locals and visitors year round.

Friends of Split Oak Forest, a nonprofit with a growing Facebook following now topping 5,000, has been in full-court press mode for months trying to steer CFX toward other options. They say the public’s investment would be squandered if the road cuts through Split Oak and that it would have devastating effects on the ecosystem.

The grassroots organization is up against two major developers. The toll road stands to be a major entrance for the proposed, 24,000-acre Sunbridge community that Tavistock Development Co. and Deseret Ranches are planning in the area.

Tavistock developed Lake Nona and Deseret Ranches is a corporate entity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the state’s largest private landowners. Much of the church’s 300,000 contiguous acres of agricultural land near Lake Nona is slated for residential development.

The companies 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.

Upcoming hearings on Osceola Parkway Extension

Tuesday, Feb. 13, at St. Cloud High School, 2000 Bulldog Lane, St. Cloud. The meeting will be in the cafeteria from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, Feb. 15,at Lake Nona Middle School, 13700 Narcoossee Road. The meeting will be in the cafeteria from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Association of Poinciana Villages. The meeting will be in the Poinciana Community Center, 445 Marigold Ave., Poinciana, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Residents can also send their thoughts to the CFX by emailing