The fight to protect Split Oak Forest took a blow this week, and the controversial plan to extend Osceola Parkway through the conservation land is moving forward.
The Osceola County Commission and the Orange County Commission already had approved sending an application to the Florida Communities Trust requesting permission to build the road on the protected land.
On Tuesday, at the request of Vice Mayor Emily Bonilla, the Orange County Commission considered rescinding its December decision to submit the application status quo.
She told the board last month that the application should be filed as a land exchange versus a request to build linear facilities.
But Bonilla and Orange County Commissioner Maribel Gomez Cordero were outnumbered, and the commission voted 5-2 to continue processing the linear facilities application, for which rules are less stringent than for land exchange applications. The Osceola County Commission, excluding Commissioner Peggy Choudhry, voted to move forward with the linear facilities application in December.
The Florida Communities Trust – managed through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection – awarded $5 million in loans to Osceola and Orange counties through a grant program in 1992 that helped the local governments purchase Split Oak.
FCT stipulated that the land would forever remain a conservation area open to the public. The counties borrowed funds from the trust to buy the land and then repaid it with money collected from various developers through environmental mitigation credits.
The 1,700-acre Split Oak Forest was also established in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and designed to mitigate the environmental impacts of anticipated development in the once-rural area southeast of Orlando International Airport. Spanning both counties, the area is now exploding with growth.
Tens of thousands of more homes and commercial buildings are now under construction or slated for construction in the next several years.
Osceola County officials began exploring ways to amend various interagency agreements that protect Split Oak Forest from development in 2018.
When considering modifications to the state agreements such as the one that established Split Oak, the trust is bound by Florida Administrative Code 62-818, known as the Florida Forever Program, Grant Application Procedures.
Osceola County commissioners agreed to work with Tavistock Development Company to “lead a public process (both local and state) to get the associated land in the Split Oak Forest released for right-of-way” to extend Osceola Parkway in May 2018.
Tavistock, the company that developed Lake Nona, is building the massive Sunbridge community in the area, which would benefit from the new toll road.
The company has pledged to donate about 1,550 acres of undeveloped land in exchange for the acreage needed for the road.
Officials say the Osceola Parkway extension would also alleviate traffic on interior roads and is needed for regional connectivity.
Friends of Split Oak Forest founder Valerie Anderson said FCT has never processed a linear facilities application for a road through conservation land before and that if the FCT board accepts one for Split Oak Forest, her group plans to file a lawsuit.