A proposed Orange County charter amendment aimed at protecting the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area will go before county voters in November.
The Orange County Charter Review Commission on Wednesday voted to place a proposed county charter amendment on the ballot that would prohibit the Orange County Commission from doing again what it did in December: voting to roll back any protections of the nature preserve.
With the issue moving onto the November general election ballot, Orange County elections may be dominated by the issue, which also has been a driving force in at least two of the three Orange County Commission races to be decided in that election.
The charter proposal would be an explicit limitation on the Orange County Commission’s powers, specifically forbidding it from doing anything to compromise Split Oak Forest.
“This is the people, the citizens of Orange County, telling their commissioners what they can and cannot do,” said Charter Review Commissioner James Auffant, who sponsored the proposal. “This is an issue where they’re saying, “OK, we own this property. And we’re telling you, we’re forbidding the county commissioners'” from taking actions to compromise it.
The overriding immediate issue involves whether and how an extension of a highway might be routed through or around the nature preserve, a matter that’s been hotly debated in Orange and Osceola counties for more than two years.
The Central Florida Expressway Authority wants to extend the Osceola Parkway eastward, eventually all the way to Brevard County, to open up a new east-west thoroughfare, to take pressure off the increasingly congested existing highways. The areas in far southeastern and far northeastern Osceola counties are expected to boom with growth in a generation or two, and the highway would further link metro-Orlando with the Space Coast.
But the clusters of housing developments, nature preserves, and parks in the path of proposed highway extension through southern Orange and northern Osceola provide only choices of bad or worse. The debate has been over which was which.
Consultants and the expressway authority settled on a path that would clip a 160-acre corner of the 1,669-acre Split Oak Forest park.
In efforts to work with conservationists, a key developer in the region, the Tavistock Development Co., offered to donate 1,550 additional acres of natural forests and wetlands in the region, to expand and connect the cluster of parks and preserves in the area. The deal calls for the clipped-corner route, which is considered to be a far less disruptive alternative to a proposal going straight through the park, and far less destruction of existing developments than a third plan, which avoids the park altogether.
Audubon Florida‘s Central Florida Policy Office has endorsed the clipped-corner proposal, praising the significant natural buffers and expanded nature preserve that the Tavistock donations could create.
In December the Orange County Commission approved that route, and in February the commission voted again to support it.
But opposition has remained fierce, largely organized by Friends of Split Oak Forest, partly because of the unique and vulnerable nature of the existing Split Oak Forest, and partly because the land was assembled with assurances that it would never be touched.
The opposition has turned into election-year politics in Central Florida.
At least two strong opponents of the proposal have entered the 2020 Orange County Commission election contests, for seats held by commissioners who voted yes on the Split Oak route. Former Commissioner Pete Clarke jumped into the District 3 race to take on Commissioner Mayra Uribe, and environmental lawyer Nicole Wilson entered the District 1 race to take on Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, who’d been the Commission’s chief proponent of the route.
Those elections now will share the ballot with a Live Oak protection amendment question.
It’s possible that the November ballot amendment, should it be approved by voters, might not affect the proposed road’s future.
Auffant said the proposed charter amendment is not retroactive, and if the road is fully permitted by November, it certainly would be untouched by the amendment. But Auffant said the rest of the park, and potentially the 1,550 acres that Tavistock has proposed donating, should be protected from future Commission actions.
This is not the only dramatic environmental proposal that the Charter Review Commission is putting on the November ballot.
“As a matter of fact, we’re known as the environmental CRC,” Auffant said.
In March the Charter Review Commission placed a proposal known as the “Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers Bill of Rights” on the November ballot. That proposed charter amendment would declare that those rivers have the rights to not be polluted. The amendment would authorize citizens or the county government to sue anyone, including corporations, for polluting them.