Leader of Orange County’s Split Oak election to Osceola County’s opponents: ‘Get ready’
Photo by David Moynahan

Split Oak Forest
An Orange County ballot initiative is setting up a political battle.

The man who drove efforts to place a proposal for Split Oak Forest protections onto the Orange County ballot in November issued a political warning Wednesday to the Osceola County Commissioners who voted Monday to sue to block that initiative.

“Get ready,” Orlando lawyer James Auffant said Wednesday.

A political war between the counties might be brewing over the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Conservation Area that straddles the two counties over the road Osceola wants to extend through that preserve, the countywide election now planned in Orange County to block it, and the elections of Osceola County commissioners.

Auffant suggested environmental activists who have been fighting to stop the road could join the battle. He said until now they’ve left Osceola County alone in the battles over the Split Oak road. But not anymore.

“We are going to go to Osceola and some of these commissioners might have a problem,” Auffant said. “Before, people thought that, ‘well, you can’t do that. You’re not going to be able to.’ That’s what they told us about Betsy.”

That was a reference to Betsy VanderLey. The Orange County Commissioner suffered a stunning defeat August 18 in her reelection bid. VanderLey supported the proposed road extension through Split Oak Forest. Her District 1 seat was supposed to be safe for her. She had other issues. But she also had a challenger, Nicole Wilson, who was a staunch opponent of the Split Oak road who made it an issue in the primary. Environmental activists poured support into Wilson’s surprisingly-victorious campaign.

The issue is about a proposal to extend the Osceola Parkway through Split Oak Forest. The plan, developed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which owns and operates the parkway, would have the extension curve north into Orange County, then head south again to run through a corner of Split Oak.

Developers to the east of the preserve and planners in both counties say the extension is needed. Developers have pledged to contribute other natural areas to expand the preserve to the north. The road proposal is highly controversial because it rejects pledges made decades ago that the 1,669-acre Split Oak conservation area would be preserved in perpetuity.

Both counties’ commissions have approved plans for the road, Osceola in 2018, and Orange in 2019.

But in May the Orange County Charter Review Commission adopted a proposed charter amendment that would put the question to countywide voters. If approved, the proposed charter amendment would prohibit Orange County actions that would degrade Split Oak Forest.

On Monday the Osceola County Commission took an emergency action on an item that was not publicly noticed or placed on the agenda. It calls for Osceola to sue Orange County to stop the issue from being placed on the November ballot. Those ballots will be printed soon. In lieu of stopping the matter from getting onto the ballot, the Osceola commission wants the lawsuit to seek to invalidate the election, should Orange County voters approve the measure.

Osceola Commissioners Viviana Janer, Branden Arrington, and Cheryl Grieb voted yes. Of those, only Arrington is up for reelection this year. Commissioner Peggy Choudhry voted no.

They argued that the Orange County election could violate interagency agreements both counties signed.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings declined to comment on Osceola County’s threat to sue his county to stop a ballot initiative.

By close of business Wednesday, Osceola County still had not filed its lawsuit.

Auffant drafted the Orange County ballot measure and chaired numerous subcommittee public hearings on it. He then shepherded it through the full Charter Review Commission to a final approval in May, which automatically placed the initiative on the Orange County ballot.

Auffant said what concerns him most about Osceola’s latest move is the precedent that could be set by one county suing another over something the second county was doing that affects the first county’s plans.

“That opens a Pandora’s box because that happens every other week,” Auffant said.

He also expressed incredulity that Osceola officials saw a need to do so. The Central Florida Expressway Authority announced this summer it no longer sees the money available to build the road, because of revenue lost in the coronavirus. So it would not be able build the road extension until 2034.

The road also has not yet received necessary state approval through the Florida Community Trust Board.

“Between now and ’34, with all due respect, a lot of things might happen, and the road might not be necessary,” Auffant said.

But if Osceola wants a fight over it, Auffant said he’s willing to give it. Also on board is the environmental group Friends of Split Oak Forest, which is preparing its legal documents.

Auffant said the campaign to support the ballot initiative’s passage has seen a surge in donations and volunteers since Monday’s vote in Osceola County.

“I’m not going to go down quietly on this one,” he said.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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