About 100 people, including city officials and residents, attended a Smart Growth Summit at The Well on Parker Street Tuesday evening to discuss Lakeland’s increasing population and building boom in recent years and ways to handle it in the future.

Moderator Andrea Oliver asked the seven panelists questions about roads, power, permitting, affordable housing and the controversial road diet on South Florida Avenue.

Panelists in the forum, which was presented by LkldNow and Lakeland Vision, included:

  • Scott Bishop, Lakeland Electric manager of emerging technology
  • Brad Lunz, president, The Lunz Group architects
  • Rick Maxey, CEO, Maxey Inc, and former assistant vice president for diversity and inclusion at Florida Polytechnic University
  • Carole Phillipson, chairperson, Lakeland Vision and retired hospital executive
  • Gary Ralston, managing partner at SVN Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate and adjunct professor at Florida Southern College
  • Brian Rewis, director of Community & Economic Development, City of Lakeland
  • Sara Roberts McCarley, city commissioner

Video: View the entire forum

Ralston brought up some significant statistics. “Sixty-four people a day are moving to Polk County,” he said. “According to the latest U.S. Census statistics, it is the fourth-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States.”

The numbers show 28,474 people moved to Polk in the last year alone. Last year, Polk County issued 13,071 building permits.

Ralston described an affordability gap in housing that keeps home ownership out of reach for many families and accelerating the building of apartments.

The median price for a single-family house in Polk County was $340,000, he said. At current interest rates and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac underwriting, “that means in order to qualify for the median price home in Polk County, you gotta make $67,000 a year. Well, the problem at the moment is that in Polk County, the median household income is only about 51,000,” he said. “ I think there should be increased sensitivity on how to do things to make it more affordable. That’s lower interest rates. And … that may mean smaller lots.”

That all adds up to an area struggling to meet the needs of its poorest residents, but also to maintain and add infrastructure to support everyone.

Click on any image for a larger view. Photos by Amy Dobson

“I think one of the issues that people don’t address, but could change things a lot for our quality of life, is the difference between where people live and where they work,” Ralston said, noting that nearly half of the Polk County residents who are employed work in surrounding counties. In addition, 96,000 people who work in Polk County don’t live here, he said.

“I think that’s the biggest impact we have on quality of life — that’s why the roads are congested, people driving to and from work,” Ralston said. “The ramifications are terrible. If you have to drive an hour each day to work or more, you probably don’t have time to go in and visit with your children at school and you’re maybe too tired to help them with their homework when they get home.  And you’re not involved in service organizations to help make this a better place to live.  So my suggestion is we all think about how we get more jobs here so that people who live here can work here.”

Commissioner Roberts McCarley pointed out that education is a factor in people choosing where to live.

“Our public school system, for all of its strengths, we still have a lot of weaknesses,” Roberts McCarley said, adding that people working in high-skill, high-wage jobs don’t want to be out on a waiting list for a charter or magnet school. She said part of the formula for improving schools is having a strong team of volunteers at schools, along with community leadership investing donation dollars to schools.

She pointed to Lakeland Regional’s new internship program for people in the medical field.

“Where are they going to raise their families, where are they going to put their children, when they have children, in schools?” she asked.  “Are they going to be one of the 190,000 people who travel I-4 every single day?”

The city of Lakeland’s Rewis used the old adage that a rising tide floats all ships.

“We don’t just attack affordable housing in terms of housing costs,” Rewis said. “Housing becomes more affordable as people make more income.  We raise incomes, we increase affordability. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a place for incentivized affordable housing, but there is not a state or local government in our nation that has the resources to manipulate the market to get the rents low enough for the very poorest among us to find safe affordable housing.  We continue to chip away it in income and costs.”

He added that he wants a free market economy and that housing affordability is a sign of prosperity.

Some residents are concerned about the number of developments getting the green light when the roads and utilities can’t support it.

Roberts McCarley said some of those projects were approved years ago and developers have finally gone through the permitting process.

“We are in the fastest-growing state in the union — we have a lot of people who want to come here, who love our beaches, who love our weather, who love being near theme parks and they love having a great quality of life,” Roberts McCarley said.  “One of the struggles balancing from a commission standpoint is how do we continue to approve varying land uses when what our community wants and thinks is most precious about our environment here and what we all love about Lakeland. So it’s a constant battle between choosing working with developers along with our residents to figure out what that’s worth.”

She also said that they have to deal with the rights of property owners, who do have the right to sell their land for development.

“If a property had a pasture that was historically used for cows and citrus groves and it no longer can bear that, it can’t be used for that anymore, and the family can’t afford to pay taxes on that property, they are allowed to sell it to whom they chose,” she said. “And if they sell it to a client of Mr. Ralston and that person who is buying it wants to build 100 houses there, that’s when it comes to the planning and zoning board.  It’s a volume effect.”

She pointed out that the city planning and zoning board is made up of volunteers who meet to determine what is allowable under the law.

She said she often tells people that building new roads is expensive and pointed to the congested crossroad of Interstate-4 and State Road 33.  Heading north takes residents to Polk City and Lake County, while heading south leads to Lakeland. And everyone knows it needs to be expanded.

“That takes money and it takes a Legislature to approve it. We’re trying to apply common sense to government and that’s an oxymoron,” Roberts McCarley said. “You need a road to work. A lot goes into building roads … Do we ask our developers to pitch in and build new roads for us? We are constantly battling funding.”

One woman asked why, in her neighborhood near Carlton Arms North, the power goes out during storms on her street, but stays on one street over.  She said she has been told they are on a different grid and asked if her street could be put on the other grid.

Lakeland Electric’s Bishop said it doesn’t work that way, but asked if she had overhead powerlines.  She said they did, but then wanted to know why the lines couldn’t be buried.

“Open your checkbook,” Bishop said, adding that it costs taxpayers money for the city-owned utility to bury lines.

Bishop said that having reliable energy leads to wealth and prosperity. “We can transport things, we can transfer things, we can produce goods and service,” Bishop said. “That in turn leads to prosperity.”

He said electric vehicles are becoming more prevalent, pointing to the parking lot and saying there was a Tesla and Chevrolet Volt.

“You’re going to see more and more manufacturers putting those things out,” he said. “As you continue to have a prosperous life, the technology is there. I want a more carbon-free world. I want a better environment for my grandchildren.”

As for the road diet, which narrowed South Florida Avenue to two lanes, with a turn lane in the middle, the testing period has finished and the Florida Department of Transportation is scheduled to meet with city officials in a workshop that will be televised on Dec. 2.

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


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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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  1. I don’t even bother to comment on the unmanaged growth we allow to happen here without any concern for the infrastructure to support it. It’s simple. Tear down a residence then, and only then, can a new building permit be issued Mayor Mutz! That’s growth control which will collect more impacts to pay for catchup without adding the infrastructure necessary because we keep adding more population.

  2. I didn’t get to watch the live program, hopefully I can find time to dig it up online. The jobs component makes sense, so continue making Lakeland attractive to businesses & entrepreneurs. We need better intercity transport options to minimize traffic. Roads need to be safer for pedestrians and bicycle riders.

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