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Citizens Protest Decision for Toll Road Through Split Oak Forest Park

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. (FNN) – Conservation groups and local residents held a press conference to protest the recent approval of the Osceola Parkway extension through Split Oak Forest Park by the Florida Communities Trust Board (FCTB) last week.

“Citizens have strongly expressed their opposition to this project,” said Maria Revelles, director of conservation group Chispa Florida, during the conference held at the park. “In fact, 86% of Orange County voters approved a referendum that restricts the ability of the Board of County Commissioners to amend, modify, revoke or limit the use of Split Oak for conservation.”

“Changing these convictions sets a bad precedent for conservation in our state, that no protected land is truly protected,” she added.

The 1,700-acre forest was originally set aside for conservation projects, bought in 1994 by Orange and Osceola counties for $8.6 million.

But in December 2019, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and four Orange County commissioners approved the $800 million road project, which, according to Friends of Split Oak Forest president Valerie Anderson, would sever 77 acres off the park and cut off the movement of vulnerable species that live there, like gopher tortoises and Florida panthers.

“We still have several options. We can challenge it administratively…and there is a constitutional issue here, from the Florida constitution. There’s a provision called Article 10, Section 18 [called the Everglades Trust Fund] that says that conservation lands can not be disposed of without a determination that it is no longer needed for conservation,” Anderson explained.

The FCTB decision now has to go back to both Orange and Osceola county commissions for final approval.

Frank Rivera, a 21-year resident of Osceola and Chispa volunteer, called on the leaders of Orange and Osceola to uphold what “perpetuity” means.

“Words have meaning. We teach children to pledge alliance to the flag. When you go into the service, you pledge an oath to defend the Constitution. Now it seems that ‘perpetuity’ doesn’t mean ‘forever’. We know what is behind this decision. It says that this park is hardly visited, that if we have a new road more visitors will come. But what it will really mean is more cars, more houses, more businesses.”

“Just remember, four of the five districts in Osceola are Latino communities, so this is a Latino issue,” he added. “We won’t forget.”

Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said the FCTB does not represent the people of Orange or Osceola but rather “their political appointees” and “probably have never even set foot here” in Split Oaks, so should never have been allowed to vote on the project.

“The decision they made, even with all the protections, even with all the Constitutional amendments, was not surprising to me. We knew it had to stay here where the voters could speak on this. So right now, what is going to happen next, from inside at least, is we have to listen to the voters,” she added.

José Javier Pérez, community organizer for Chispa Florida, reminded everyone that Florida was the seventh state in the United States with the most highways, over 275,000 miles. “Do we really need another highway at the expense of losing natural areas that provide invaluable natural services and improve our quality of life?” he asked.

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Juan Carlo Rodriguez is a politics and entertainment reporter for Florida National News and Assistant Editor for FNN News en Español. | info@floridanationalnews.com

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