Polk County naturalist and retired journalist Tom Palmer wandered along a sandy trail of the Lakeland Highlands Scrub nature preserve, spotting a black racer snake weaving through a shrub, various wildflowers blooming a week after Hurricane Ian swept through, and two gopher tortoises, a threatened species in Florida.

“Polk’s going to have a population of about a million in 20 years, so there may not be much land left to acquire,” said Palmer, enduring a small squadron of mosquitoes. “This is a kind of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this land while it’s still available.”

Palmer and others with Polk Forever, a political action committee, are hoping people will turn their ballot over to mark yes on its back side for the “No. 1 County Referendum, Article VII, Section 12 and Article VIII, Section 1 Acquisition and Management of Water Resources and Environmental Lands Bond Referendum.”

The referendum reads: “To acquire, preserve, protect, manage, or restore, water resources, environmental lands and important fish and wildlife habitat, shall Polk County levy an additional 0.20 mill ad valorem tax and issue bonds payable therefrom in one or more series in an aggregate principal amount not exceeding $75 million, excluding previously‐authorized indebtedness, maturing no later than 20 years from date of issuance of such bonds, bearing interest not exceeding the maximum lawful rate?”

What does that mean in English and in dollar amounts?

“That’s 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable value, and we calculated it would cost the average homeowner about 30 to 35 bucks a year,” Palmer said. “And that will go for 20 years.”

A similar tax in 1994 passed that allowed the county to buy environmentally fragile lands. This time, landowners will also be able to sell development rights to the county.

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“Which means land remains in private ownership, but the owner sells development rights so that it keeps it undeveloped and protects it,” Palmer said. “So the guy that does timber operations or runs cattle or whatever he’s been doing forever, he can still keep doing that. He won’t have the pressure to have rooftops.”

Polk Forever’s slogan is “vote water, wildlife and wilderness.”

Polk Forever explains that Polk – and really most of Florida’s – water supplies “have been degraded by the ditching, draining and destruction of wetlands and by the over-pumping of groundwater. Regulations alone will not ensure the protection of our water resources.” 

“This is a kind of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this land while it’s still available.”

Tom Palmer, Polk Forever

By preserving uplands and wetlands, water can be recharged and cleaned cheaply and effectively if the land and wetlands are left in their natural state.

It also will protect rare, threatened and endangered wildlife and plants. Endangered Florida panthers prowl in rural areas of Polk County. In addition, Palmer said about 10 years ago, a scientist in a preserve near Auburndale discovered an entirely new species of beetle, not found anywhere else in the world.

“As far as we know, the entire world’s population is in this 80-acre spot near Auburndale,” Palmer said. “And they’re still discovering stuff.”

A wildflower in the Lakeland Highlands Scrub

Another scientist in the Archibold Biological Station near Lake Placid has found a previously undescribed species of moth.

Polk Forever’s website states that “there are 25 plant and 18 animal species in Polk County in danger of extinction if natural habitats that support them are not protected. Destruction and fragmentation of habitat are the greatest threats to the survival of wildlife.”

There are four areas in Polk County the group is targeting for purchase or the sale of developmental rights:

  • The Green Swamp – its 560,000 acres of land is the second largest aquifer recharge in Florida.  It forms the headwaters of four major rivers: the Withlacoochee, the Ocklawaha, the Peace and the Hillsborough. 
  • Polk County Highlands includes the Lakeland Ridge, the Lake Wales Ridge, the Lake Henry Ridge, the Bombing Range Ridge, and the Winter Haven Ridge. The Lake Wales Ridge in particular contains prehistoric dunes or islands that can rise to more than 300 feet above sea level and contains a large number of rare and endangered species.
  • The Peace River – starting just north of State Road 60, it flows southward for 106 miles to Charlotte Harbor, providing the fresh water that helps balance the salinity of the most productive estuary system in Florida. But there have been significant alterations to the river’s 2,300-square-mile watershed over the past 150 years. The river’s flow has declined dramatically due to excessive water consumption. In fact, between Bartow and Fort Meade, there was even reverse flow through sinkholes as a result of the decline in the surface of the aquifer. The most notable single event was the cessation of flow at Kissengen Spring, a second-magnitude spring south of Bartow, in 1950.
  • The Upper Kissimmee Basin is part of the headwaters of the Florida Everglades, beginning in the cypress swamps of Northeastern Polk County.
Lake Kissimmee

Palmer said the only opposition to the additional millage he could find is from Winter Haven 9-12, a self-described “group of patriots with conservative values (that) condemn the corruption and overspending in all areas of state and federal government.” A sample ballot on its website shows it is encouraging its members to vote against the program.

Land is succumbing to bulldozers quickly in the state’s most recent building boom. 

In January, the Polk County Planning Commission approved three projects that will see 757 new residential units built in Haines City, Lakeland and Dundee.

In July, a 242-home subdivision was being considered for the rural Kathleen area.

In August, the Lakeland City Commission approved developing the parking lots surrounding The Ledger building, which will include 1,500 multi-family units and 900,000 square feet of commercial space.

This month, the Lakeland City Commission approved development of two new apartment communities that will see 288 units built near Harden Boulevard and the Polk Parkway, while 252 units are planned for a complex on nearly 30 acres off Yates Road near Pipkin Road.

“Wilderness is vanishing,” Palmer said. “It is important that we act now if we are to preserve what remains of our natural heritage for generations to come.”

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: newstips@lkldnow.com

Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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