County files last-minute lawsuit to block Orange County voters on Split Oak

  • Split Oak Forest
    Split Oak Forest

Osceola County commissioners filed a last-minute injunction Monday to prevent Orange County residents from voting on a ballot initiative in November focused on stalling a controversial development through Split Oak Forest.

The 3-1 vote was passed during a coronavirus-related State of Emergency extension meeting.

There was no opportunity for public comment and the item did not appear on Monday’s agenda.

Commissioners approved an injunction against Amendment 2 — the Orange County ballot initiative that would protect Split Oak Forest — from appearing on November ballots. 

County Manager Don Fisher told the board that immediate action was needed because ballots are likely to be printed this week.

He said if the Orange County ballot item passes, it may jeopardize the construction of a highway extension through the publicly funded and protected Split Oak nature preserve.

Osceola commissioners already agreed to allow road construction through the area several months ago, after Tavistock — a key developer in the region — offered to donate 1,550 additional acres of natural forests and wetlands.

Debate surrounding the decision dragged out for months in 2018 and 2019, fueled by public backlash.

The project also remained controversial in Orange County.

In May, the Orange County Charter Review Commission voted to place a proposed county charter amendment on the ballot that would prohibit the Orange County Commission from voting to roll back any protections of the nature preserve.

According to Fisher on Monday, this measure — if passed by Orange County voters — would also prohibit Osceola County from interfering with Split Oak, despite previous public hearings and agreements.

Fisher said Osceola County wasn’t concerned about the proposal until Friday. That’s when he learned about vacancies on the Florida Communities Trust board, which ultimately makes decisions regarding certain types of conversation land — including Split Oak.

Without full membership, the Florida Communities Trust can't approve the counties' joint application to build the Osceola Parkway Extension within Split Oak Forest.

Fisher stressed that even calling an emergency meeting and giving Osceola residents 24-hour notice may be “too late” because ballots in Orange County are set to be printed this week.

Osceola County Attorney Andrew Mai recommended prior to approval that the commission give residents an opportunity to comment during a meeting next Monday.

According to outside legal counsel attorney Todd Norman, Osceola can file an immediate injunction then decide next week if they want to pursue the lawsuit.

“It would have to occur quickly for the injunction part to take effect,” Norman said. “It could already be too late, but it also may not be. We just don’t know what side of the line we’re on today.”

Commissioner Peggy Choudhry, the only dissenting vote, raised concerns on approving a controversial decision not listed on the agenda during what is typically a routine meeting to extend the county’s state of emergency order.

“We should tell the citizens first,” Choudhry said. “The way this is happening is not right.”

She was also unhappy that filing an injunction might not do anything anyway.

“Spending tax dollars just to find out that we’re too late to stop something in a different county sounds like improper use of funds,” she said.

Finally, Choudhry worried about preventing voters of a different county from weighing in on the issue.

“I don’t even see how it’s legal for one county to tell another to put things on the ballot,” Choudhry said.

Osceola Commission Chair Viviana Janer sided with the two other commissioners — Cheryl Grieb and Brandon Arrington — to approve the last-minute lawsuit.

“I do believe this is a matter of a vote we’ve already taken with due public comment,” she said. “I would have preferred to have taken public comment before, however, I do believe we’re just defending the vote that we have already taken. And we’re protecting our rights as a county to not let another county’s voters make a decision on our behalf.”

The Osceola County Commission approved the immediate injunction, which may or may not affect the ballot measure from appearing in Orange County in November.