At this week’s Commission Meeting in Daytona Beach, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of an agreement with the Central Florida Expressway Authority and Osceola County to release 60 acres of Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area’s conservation easements in exchange for 1,550 acres of abutting conservation land, part of a total package estimated at $66 million. The decision makes it possible for CFX to construct the Osceola Parkway Extension, part of a regional expressway that would connect State Road 417 near Boggy Creek in Orange County to Cyrils Drive in Osceola County.

The Osceola Parkway Extension is proposed as a strategic response to the rapid population and economic growth in the area. It aims to enhance mobility, improve connectivity to Orlando International Airport, and potentially alleviate congestion on local roads, thereby boosting the overall transportation efficiency in the region.

The FWC will receive $23.9 million for management of the 1,550 acres and $1.25 million for access improvements and amenities at Split Oak Forest WEA. The Central Florida Expressway Authority has also pledged $18 million for the identification and acquisition of lands within FWC-identified optimum boundaries in support of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act. The 1,550 acres are valued at approximately $23 million, according to the property appraisal market value.

The lands received by the FWC in this exchange for the 60-acres represent a 25:1 offset within Split Oak Forest WEA’s conservation easement, a 17:1 return on upland habitat, and 6:1 gains in gopher tortoise habitat. The Split Oak Forest was named for a spectacular 200 year-old live oak tree that split down the middle and survived.

“This agreement is the best available path forward for Split Oak Forest,” said Rodney Barreto, FWC Chairman. “While it is never simple to consider releasing conservation land, I am proud of the major conservation gains we’ve secured in exchange. This level of return is where the conversation starts going forward.”

The construction of the Osceola Parkway Extension would result in direct and indirect impacts to the southern portion of Split Oak Forest WEA. FWC staff worked with CFX, Orange and Osceola counties, and Executive Director Roger Young to identify alternatives that would minimize and mitigate the anticipated impacts as part of the proposed agreement.

“Staff carefully examined this issue over many years in order to provide a thorough understanding of this subject to Commissioners for their decision,” said Melissa Tucker, Director of the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. “We feel this agreement delivers on the responsibility to provide a net benefit.”

Split Oak Forest WEA is comprised of 1,689 acres jointly owned by Orange and Osceola counties. It was acquired in 1992 with a grant award from the Florida Communities Trust and funding from the FWC Gopher Tortoise Mitigation Park Program, to be used as a mitigation area to offset impacts to gopher tortoise habitat from development. The FWC holds conservation easements over the area and staff manage Split Oak Forest WEA through an interagency agreement.

The decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will not only restore and maintain over 1,500 acres of land donated by developers but will also ensure the long-term preservation of these properties and nearly 1,700 acres of Split Oak Forest. Additionally, the funds will be used to acquire more conservation land, furthering efforts to protect Florida’s natural habitats, according to FWC.

SOURCE: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Photo Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission