In 1998, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to our Florida Constitution to protect conservation lands like Split Oak Reserve. This constitutional provision protects our Florida Forever conservation lands forever with one exception: the land no longer has conservation value.
Today, the use of our conservation lands for highways threatens to become a developers’ dream. Board members of the Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX), and Orange and Osceola County Commissions were persuaded to ignore our state Constitution and their oaths to uphold it by allowing a major highway to go through Split Oak Forest.
Florida does not have a constitutional provision that states, “protect a conservation land until you want to put a major highway through it.” Rather, the voters’ intent and the letter of the law are clear: preserve Split Oak and other conservation lands.
In an attempt to sidestep our Constitution, our local government officials and developers thought they found a loophole in the provision. No one has suggested that any portion of Split Oak has lost its conservation value. Instead, the plan is to call the transfer of a portion of Split Oak land for the highway an “easement.”
The plan received tentative approval from Orange County commissioners in December, but it will be reconsidered at a Feb. 11 meeting. We support efforts to rescind the approval, so that all issues can be properly addressed.
But whatever they call the agreement that will allow CFX to build a permanent highway, it will require that CFX be given control over the land. Giving away control of conservation lands is disposal – and is prohibited by our Constitution. So what they are calling an “easement” is still a disposal.
Our position is simple. We, the League of Women Voters, are demanding CFX not tread on our conservation lands but go around them.
Our conservation lands are important to all citizens of Florida, to preserve our natural resources that make our state a special destination. These conservation lands should be treated the same as the Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios; no one is talking about putting highways through these attractions.
Our government officials took an oath to uphold the Constitution, yet they are going against the will of the voters and have asserted that the higher value here is the highway. We will do everything we can to protect the Constitution, for all the people of Florida, including developers.
We understand people are moving to our state in large numbers and we must keep up with the state’s transportation needs. However, we must do this according to the law in this state and we must protect the civic rights of Florida voters when they approve amendments to our Constitution.
The author is the Co-president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County.