Osceola County plans to sue Orange County over an election initiative involving a controversial road through a nature preserve the two counties share.
Osceola County wants the road. Orange County voters are being asked in November to stop it.
In a virtual meeting Monday the Osceola County Commission voted to approve an unannounced measure, taken up at an emergency meeting, to sue Orange County, and to seek a court injunction to prevent the Orange County election from taking place, or to invalidate the results if voters approve the measure.
Osceola County wants to block Orange County from asking voters if they would like to offer special protective status to the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Conservation Area. That 1,669-acre nature preserve straddles the county line in southeastern Orange and northeaster Osceola. That special protection would essentially block an extension of the Osceola Parkway through a corner of the preserve.
Both counties’ boards of county commissioners voted to support a plan to build a road, Osceola County in 2018 and Orange last December. There were tradeoffs of additional preservation land provided by developers that won some support, including that of at least a couple of Osceola County Commissioners who brought it up Monday. But the proposal was and remains a highly-controversial plan, as it rejects pledges made decades ago that the conservation area would be preserved in perpetuity.
The matter is so controversial that another agent of Orange County government, the Orange County Charter Review Commission, went the other way from the Orange County Commission. In May the charter review panel approved a proposed amendment to the Orange County Charter that would prohibit any Orange County government actions that would impact the natural areas of the preserve.
The charter item now is set for Orange County’s November countywide ballot.
On Monday, Osceola County fired back, adopting an unannounced resolution, at an emergency meeting, authorizing a lawsuit and an attempt to seek a court injunction to block the Orange County charter amendment.
The item came from Osceola County Manager Don Fisher. He told the board there was no time to notify the public of the matter, so he wanted the commission to take it up as an emergency.
Fisher has had since May to seek a reaction from the Osceola Commission. But he told the commissioners Monday he did not think it would be necessary until last Friday. Fisher said he’d been waiting for action from the Florida Community Trust Board. Had that board approved the road project at the state level, it might have been grandfathered in, exempted from the power of the Orange County charter amendment proposal. But the state board never took up the matter. Now, Orange County’s ballots likely will be printed this week, so there is no time to go through proper procedures, Fisher said.
He proposed a two-prong approach: seeking an emergency injunction to stop the charter amendment from appearing on Orange County’s November ballot. Then, if that fails, pursuing a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the authority of Orange County voters. He and lawyer Todd Norman of Nelson Mullins told the Osceola commissioners they believe the Orange County measure could be invalidated because it conflicts with the interagency agreements that Orange County has signed with Osceola County.
The four-member Osceola commission (Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr. has been suspended from the board) voted 3-1 Monday to go forward with the lawsuit and attempt at an injunction. Commissioner Peggy Choudhry voted no.
“I would say this is definitely an irregularity to everyday operations of county government, to have an unelected body [The Orange County Charter Review Commission] try to make a decision that disrupts and further disadvantages our community,” said Commissioner Brandon Arrington.
Commission Chair Viviana Janer supported the emergency measure and voted for Monday’s proposal, but said she would place the matter on the next commission agenda for public comment and possible reconsideration.
“I do believe we are just defending a vote that we have already taken,” Janer said. “And we are protecting our rights as a county to have another county’s voter make a decision on our behalf.”
Choudhry expressed several objections. First, she said the Osceola County Commission has a troubled history of taking up emergency ordinances that were not on the agenda, including measures involving an earlier Split Oak vote and another on coal ash; and for items that have received strong criticism — things the board has vowed to stop doing. Second, she said she has a problem with one county trying to interfere in a popular election of another. Third, she is the only commissioner who voted against the Split Oak road proposal in the first place, and she still believes it is a bad idea.
“They [Orange County officials] are putting this on the ballot because people there want it” on the ballot, Choudhry said. “I don’t think we in Osceola County should try to take away their rights on this.”
Orange County did not respond Monday.
Valerie Anderson, president of Friends of Split Oak Forest, an environmental group that has led the fight against the road extension through the park, expressed astonishment Monday that Osceola County took another emergency action, and this time to sue another county.
“It’s astounding. After I sued them for this. After the coal ash. I couldn’t even believe it, listening to the meeting,” Anderson said.
She vowed to support the Orange County Charter Review Commission and fight to protect the Orange County election vote.
“We’ll be doing something legally tomorrow, I think,” she said.