Plans to push the Osceola Parkway extension eastward and public debate over what that could do the the Forest Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area are set for the Central Florida Expressway Authority Thursday morning.

The expressway authority and its predecessor agency the Osceola County Expressway Authority have been pushing to develop a new road network linking through southeast Orange County and northeast Osceola County, in part connecting Kissimmee, Orlando International Airport and the Lake Nona Medical City with huge, planned multi-use developments to the east.

But the plans include the prospect of pushing Osceola Parkway eastward and southward, cutting through the Split Oak nature preserve that was established in the mid-1990s. That has raised controversy over whether those lands should be made available for roads, and whether other alternatives exist for either the road route or for the preserve.

At a meeting Thursday at 9 a.m. the expressway authority board is considering authorizing a Project Development and Environment Study on a route, known as Alternative 1A that would extend through the southwestern portion of the Split Oak preserve.

That route would connect traffic from Kissimmee, the airport, and Lake Nona to Sunbridge Parkway, a new road being developed to serve a major housing and multi-use development planned for farther east. The extension also is envisioned to connect to future development expected as the Deseret Ranch plans to develop over the next 50 years. That proposal also would connect with a loop expressway envisioned around the south of Kissimmee, connecting in with Interstate 4 near Walt Disney World.

The expressway authority’s Concept, Feasibility and Mobility Study found the Alternative 1A route most economically feasible, including lands that would be purchased and swapped for conservation lands destroyed at the Split Oak preserve, and the expressway authority staff is recommending the board go forward with the PD&E study of that route.

However, a number of environmental groups, including Friends of Split Oak Forest, Inc. and Speak Up Wekiva, Inc. are protesting the idea. They contend that the proposed land swap would be insufficient, and destruction of portions of the preserve not only would be a blow against nature but against the trust that established it in the 1990s, Florida’s Preservation 2000 program. They will be at the meeting Thursday to urge the board to consider an alternative that spares Split Oak.

The alternative, said Speak Up Wekiva President Chuck O’Neal, is the perfect route to us, but to the expressway authority, that’s land they would have to buy, and I suppose they’re looking at the park land as basically free land. But that’s not what Preservation 2000 was about; it was not about creating a land bank for local governments to use for a couple decaes as conservation land, rand then turn into an expressway.”

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