GOOD NEWS: Wekiva Protections Still Strong After Interchange Threat
Friends of the Wekiva River members recently worked hard to oppose an additional interchange on the Wekiva Parkway being proposed by Lake County that would threaten the compromises made to conserve the Wekiva basin when the road was planned. The Wekiva Parkway Protection Act, which was approved by the Florida Legislature in 2004, is helping to safeguard our basin lands, waters, aquifer recharge, wildlife corridors and rural communities. The interchange proposed by Lake County threatened all of this.
A huge thank you to all of our members and friends who wrote emails and letters and made calls to help our efforts!
For those not familiar with the controversy or the history of the Wekiva Parkway, local and regional planning agencies began considering construction of a toll-road expressway surrounding metropolitan Orlando more than 40 years ago. A plan formulated in the mid-80’s proposed a segment that would travel through portions of the Wekiva basin (which consists of the Wekiva and portions of the St John’s Rivers along with their tributaries and associated lands) located in northwest Orange County, the City of Apopka, and Lake and Seminole counties. The Wekiva basin is part of a vast wildlife corridor that connects portions of Orange, Seminole and Lake counties with the Ocala National Forest.
Concerns related to expressway-associated development pressure, exacerbation of existing nutrient pollution problems in the springs and river system and potential decline in spring flow led the conservation community to rally for protective legislation related to the section of the expressway proposed to travel through the basin.
In response to these concerns, Governor Jeb Bush created the “Wekiva Basin Area Task Force” which was charged with evaluating and making recommendations concerning the most appropriate location for the portion of the expressway that would travel through the basin (which will connect SR 429 to I-4). In 2004, the Florida Legislature adopted the “Wekiva Parkway Protection Act” implementing the recommendations of the task force. The legislation requires that the 25-mile segment of the expressway to be constructed within the Wekiva basin and to be known as the “Wekiva Parkway” follow the task force design criteria.
The task force design criteria recommends, and the legislation therefore limits, the number of primary interchanges to be constructed on the Wekiva Parkway to the following three locations: Kelly Park Rd in Orange County SR 46 in Lake County I-4 /SR 417 in Seminole County The stated purpose of limited interchanges by the task force is “to assure that any proposed highway route does not result in added growth pressures within or affecting the Wekiva basin.”
Construction of the Wekiva Parkway began in 2015, and the first section completed by the Florida Department of Transportation in 2016 consisted of a 3.14-mile stretch of road located from CR 435 to SR 46. FDOT received a waiver to allow construction of temporary ramps at CR 435 to allow the public an opportunity to access and use the completed segment while the remainder of the road was being constructed. The temporary ramps are slated to be closed in 2018 once additional construction of the Wekiva Parkway is completed because they will no longer be needed at that time. The temporary ramps recently became the subject of debate because Lake County has sought to make their location an additional permanent interchange.
Lake County Commissioner Leslie Campione, who represents the district in which Mount Plymouth is located, recently began advocating that the temporary CR 435 ramp location be made into a permanent interchange because she believes that motorists traveling from Apopka seeking access to the Wekiva Parkway will cut through Mount Plymouth using CR 435 as a shortcut to the SR 46 interchange that is being constructed in Lake County. She is concerned that this potential new traffic pattern will turn the local roads of the 4,000-resident Mount Plymouth community into a “superhighway.” In response to these concerns, the Lake County Board of County Commissioners adopted a resolution on October 24, 2017 asking that the Florida Legislature authorize an additional permanent interchange at CR 435.
Because the temporary ramps were not designed to highway interchange standards, construction of a permanent interchange at the CR 435 location would not only require approval by the Florida Legislature, it would necessitate the acquisition of additional right-ofway, resulting in delay in completion of the Wekiva Parkway, and the accrual of additional construction costs that could exceed $20 million.
When news of Lake County’s plans became public, the City of Apopka passed a resolution on October 14, 2017 opposing the additional permanent interchange and urging any governmental entity that might consider the idea to firmly reject it. The Orange County Board of County Commissioners also discussed the topic at its November 14, 2017 meeting and declined to support a resolution making the CR 435 ramp location a permanent interchange. Although the Seminole County Board of County Commissioners has not formally considered the matter at one of its meetings, Commissioner and former State Senator Lee Constantine has vowed to fight against the additional interchange on the basis that any such construction would violate the public trust.
The area in question is located in Orange County and sits on the edge of the Wekiva River watershed that feeds dozens of lakes, springs and the Wekiva River. Charles Lee of the Florida Audubon Society has informed various governmental boards considering Lake County’s proposal that the task force specifically determined that an interchange at CR 435 would not be viable from an environmental standpoint. Historically, interchanges are magnets for development, and no community over time is capable of preventing the impact of traffic and land values from causing increases to denser land uses.
Commissioner Campione made a presentation requesting support for the CR 435 permanent interchange at the Central Florida Expressway Authority meeting conducted on December 14, 2017, and the proposal was soundly rejected. As part of the discussion by members of the Authority, the Lake County Commission representative who sits on the Authority made a public announcement that Lake County has decided to pursue funding for traffic calming measures on CR 435 instead of the additional permanent interchange. The traffic calming measures will consist of a series of round-abouts costing in excess of $1 million.
Lake County’s newly-announced plans to pursue an alternative to the additional permanent interchange at CR 435 is good news, but we must remain vigilant to ensure that the protections afforded by the Wekiva River Protection Act always remain in place. These protections underpin the very foundation of our community – the land and water that we rely on and hope to leave in pristine condition for generations to come.