On Wednesday, April 20, the Florida Communities Trust Governing Board broke its promise to the people of Florida and set a dangerous precedent for conservation. It unanimously voted to move forward with a controversial proposal to allow for the construction of a linear facility (aka toll road) through a treasured conservation property. Despite overwhelming public opposition, the board sided with developers and approved the request by Orange and Osceola counties to amend the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area (Split Oak) management plan to allow 160 acres of the property to be used for a toll road.
More than 50 speakers attended the in-person meeting held in Tallahassee at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, many traveling from central Florida to speak on behalf of their beloved local preserve. Dozens more participated virtually, with the vast majority pleading with the board to protect the integrity of the cherished conservation area. They cited the need to uphold the conservation covenant made decades ago, protection of habitat for gopher tortoises and other wildlife species, and maintaining the public trust.
Floridians across the state support conservation, even if it means paying additional taxes to fund conservation programs. In the last election (2020), voters in four counties passed conservation ballot initiatives, and in Orange County, 86% of voters specifically voted to keep Split Oak protections intact and prevent the toll road. And of course, in 2014, 75% of voters throughout the state-supported the Water and Land Conservation Amendment (Amendment 1), which sets aside nearly $1 billion in documentary tax revenues for programs like Florida Forever and the Florida Communities Trust.
Following more than four hours of public comments, the board members swiftly voted in favor of modifying the management plan, removing protections for Split Oak. The decision is a devastating result for central Florida residents and conservation advocates around the state. Allowing a toll road to be constructed through a conservation area sets a dangerous precedent for future land protections, signaling that the word “perpetuity” doesn’t always mean forever. While this is not the first time publicly-owned conservation land has been sliced and diced by a new highway or toll road, this particular move by the FCT board violates the trust of the voters who have invested, through their tax dollars, in conservation of water and land.
“What happens to Split Oak is going to set a dangerous precedent. The vote from the Florida Communities Trust basically authorizes the idea that when it comes to building a road, our public lands are a path of least resistance” Executive Director of Florida Conservation Voters Aliki Moncrief said.
In this particular case, developers have offered a land swap of 1,550 acres nearby that are zoned for residential or industrial use. However, there were scant details on how or if the land would be restored and managed or whether those areas could be subject to the same uncertain and temporary conservation status as the existing Split Oak property.
Split Oak, a 1,689-acre preserve located in Orange and Osceola counties, was purchased in 1994 to offset impacts from future development. The funding, topping, $8.3 million, came from a combination of county and state funding. The bulk ($3.6 million-plus a $2.7 million loan to Osceola County that has still not been repaid) was from the Florida Communities Trust (FCT). FCT is a conservation program managed under the FDEP that provides matching grants to cities and counties and non-profit land trusts to protect land for people and wildlife. The funding was provided through the Preservation 2000 program which was the precursor to the Florida Forever program, our state’s premiere conservation funding program.
The FCT Governing Board contains five members, with two that benefit financially from development:
Gregory Jones, Tampa Division Manager for ICI Homes
Frank Mingo, real estate broker at All Out Realty
Noah Valenstein, former Secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Deborah Denys, former member of the Volusia County Council
Mara Gambineri, Deputy Secretary for Land and Recreation