City Denies Request to Expand Subdivision Near Airport

Neighbors convinced city commissioners to deny a developer’s request Monday evening to build out 35 more acres of the Morgan Creek Preserve housing subdivision southwest of Lakeland Linder International Airport.

The proposal before the City Commission involved building 56 single-family homes on 10,000-square-foot lots while leaving 10 acres for open space and wooded buffers.

But 10 neighbors from nearby Hamilton, Medulla and West Pipkin roads and an attorney spoke against the project, saying the city needs to solve flooding problems and traffic issues before allowing the development to proceed. And, they argued, the proposed density was not compatible with their neighborhood of homes on five-acre and 10-acre lots.

The parcel is part of a 223-acre planned community that was approved in 2004. Since then, 355 homes have been built or have permits pulled, and a 30-acre acre conservation easement has been set aside. But the heavily wooded, 35-acre parcel has remained undeveloped with no detailed plans, other than future residential development, because of access issues.

An engineer and a lawyer representing the owners, English Creek LLC, told commissioners that the access issue was solved. In late 2020, the developer won approval from the Polk County Commission to build a local road that will connect from the county-owned Medulla Road to the parcel. The Medulla Road intersection would be approximately 175 east of two-lane Hamilton Road.

“This is multi-jurisdictional concept,” Bart Allen of Peterson & Myers law firm said. “On the north side, 9.4 acres been approved through the county at about three dwelling units per acre.” The 29 homes being built on the land in the county along with the 56 homes proposed in the city would create a contiguous area of 85 homes.

A. Bert Geohagan, a lawyer representing neighbors, said the county’s approval of the project is being challenged in court.

Dennis Wood, an engineer working for English Creek, detailed the assortment of development near the airport and west to County Line Road, including industrial, warehousing, commercial and multi-family along with several single-family subdivisions. The 1.6 homes per acre, averaged across the 35 acres, is low density, he said.

But, Geohagan said, the developer’s presentation ignored the current uses of the property immediately surrounding the parcel: vacant to the south and east and rural residential to the north and west. Neighboring homes are on five-acre to 10-acre lots, which is not compatible with houses clustered on 10,000-square-foot lots, he said.

Neighbor Ryan Gillespie showed a series of photos taken by different neighbors of flooding during the last several months, including in the area of the planned intersection of the new county road connecting into Medulla Road. He said vehicles often hydroplane in the area during afternoon storms. And, he said, development over the past 10 years, especially the solar field built at the airport, has forced more stormwater into the area, where it puddles and floods roadways and private property.

Wood said that the development plans address drainage, including improving drainage along roadways that currently flood.

“We are not developing any property that may be within a 100-year flood zone.” And, Wood said, all retention ponds will be built to be substantially above required capacity and will be outside the 100-year-flood area for adjacent Morgan Creek.

Allen, the developer’s attorney, said that the flooding in the area “is not a problem we can fix. We can oversize the ponds, we can ensure we do not add to the problem, and we can maybe fix some of existing problems.“

Neighbor John Joiner, who farmed property along Hamilton and Medulla Roads in the 1980s, said, “I know how that property drains. Airport expansion and the solar field there has changed storm water drainage. When you live in an area your entire life, you notice these changes.”

Joiner said he recognizes there is going to be growth but “before we do things, we have to take care of infrastructure and not put undue strain or water on other people and their property.”

Before voting against the proposal, Commissioner Don Selvage said, “This is the antithesis of compatibility. I am against this because of traffic, flooding and density. And the timing is wrong. The project is not yet ready.”

Both city staff and the Lakeland Planning and Zoning Board had recommended approval.

Staff reports and the developer’s representatives acknowledged there are serious flooding issues in the area, but added English Creek’s plans went beyond requirements to ensure the development would not exacerbate the issue.

Charles Barmby, the city’s transportation and development review manager, said analysis showed there is sufficient road capacity to handle the additional traffic, acknowledging that such studies do not take into account the impact of special events such as activities held at nearby Sun ’N’ Fun.

While some neighbors said they enjoy and support the airport and Sun ’N’ Fun, others said that event activities clog rural two-lane Hamilton Road and Medulla Roads, sometimes preventing them from getting out of their driveways. And during hurricane season, FEMA and other vehicles have used their neighborhood streets for access to their operations center at the airport.

Barmby acknowledged that Hamilton Road, which is 15 to 16 feet wide is substandard, but both the city and the county have plans to bring it up to standards and improve drainage.

“Improving Hamilton Road is now an unfunded project but it is on our list and we want to apply to the Florida Department of Transportation to make that happen,” Barmby said.

Before voting to deny approval, Commissioner Bill Read said, “I think the county made a big mistake” in approving the new road and plans for 29 homes. “I don’t think it is compatible.”

And, although the developer said it would bring in city water and sewer from County Line Road, Read said, “We don’t even have the right of way to utilities to the site or the whole area.”

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley, who chaired the meeting, said that stormwater issues, especially in areas where the city abuts county agricultural areas, present some challenging problems.

“If we get $1.9 million in (federal) stimulus money, I would like to see how can we use this money to leverage infrastructure issues like this,” McCarley said. “We want to be cautious with the money and invest in things that make our residents’ lives better.”

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