A forest, a lawsuit and an election: Orange County voters could decide future of Split Oak

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  • Orange County voters will decide whether to change the county’s charter to protect the Split Oak Forest from the road and any future development. FILE PHOTO
    Orange County voters will decide whether to change the county’s charter to protect the Split Oak Forest from the road and any future development. FILE PHOTO
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By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
The Osceola and Orange County commissions already have signed off on a controversial plan to run a road through Split Oak Forest, which straddles the two counties.
But voters could interrupt the scheme on Election Day.
Orange County voters will decide whether to change the county’s charter to protect the forest from the road and any future development. Should the referendum be approved by voters, it’s expected to create major delays in a project already hampered by lawsuits, protests and the coronavirus.
Osceola County filed a lawsuit against Orange County  including Mayor Jerry Demmings – in August to suppress the vote. But a judge quickly ruled that the suit cannot move forward unless the two counties first mediate the issue in a public forum.
Whether that will happen before Election Day is anyone’s guess.
Split Oak, a pristine 1,700-acre conservation and recreation area, was purchased with public funds by Osceola and Orange counties 20 years ago to offset the impacts of development in the once rural area now booming with new homes, businesses and traffic.
Parameters of the project stipulated that Split Oak forest would forever remain a conservation area open to the public. However, in voting in favor of the road through the forest late last year, county commissioners have said regional transportation needs are more important than environmental concerns. The road, as planned, would eat up about 160 acres of the forest, has been restored and maintained over the years, mostly by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The companies that own much of the vacant land near Split Oak favor the road going through the forest because it directly benefits the housing developments they’re building in the area.
Plans by Tavistock Development Co. and a Mormon Church-owned development company include building thousands of new homes and commercial buildings to rural pasture lands that are dominated by the church’s 300,000 Deseret Ranch.
Juxtaposing the corporate interests in the matter is Friends of Split Oak Forest, a grassroots environmental advocacy group.
It says the road would disfigure the forest and that elected officials should protect a conservation area purchased by the public and for the public.
The development companies have offered up 1,500 of conservation land adjacent to Split Oak to help assuage environmental concerns about cutting into the forest. Activists have said it’s not a good deal because much of the proposed land donation is wetlands, which limits both wildlife and recreation.
The road in question is an eastward expansion of Osceola Parkway that would run from State Road 417, south of Orlando International Airport, about 9 miles east across the forest’s southern tip.
Officials have said the road is necessary to alleviate current traffic and traffic generated by future development. It would also connect Disney World to the Space Coast.
The ballot initiative in Orange County is a response to the public outcry over approved plans to run the road through Split Oak.
If the referendum is approved by voters, it only technically affects Orange County’s control of the land. But because Split Oak is jointly owned by the two counties, it would interrupt plans for the road. By how much is not clear.