Two environmental groups opposed to plans to run a road through the Split Oak Forest conservation area sued Osceola County Tuesday claiming the board of county commissioners violated Sunshine Meeting laws when deciding to back the road.

Friends of Split Oak Forest, Speak up Wekiva, and Valerie Anderson, founder of Friends of Split Oak, filed a complaint in Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit in Osceola County late Tuesday, asking a judge to invalidate the commission’s decision to back the extension alignment of the Osceola Parkway through the nature preserve area.

Anderson and the groups contend that the commission denied them the right to speak at an April 16 workshop on the road plan, while allowing proponents to speak.

The Osceola commission then decided to back a plan that includes an alignment of Osceola Parkway’s extension through the  Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area, the suit contends.

The plan has been highly-controversial, also debated at the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which voted to go forward on an study of the alignment and would build the road, and the Orange County Commission, which also has discussed but not taken a position on the road. The road and the area are in both counties. At stake are huge future developments, an ambitious new roads network, and the fate and health of one of Central Florida’s most environmentally-sensitive areas.

On May 2, Osceola Commission Chair Fred Hawkins Jr. wrote to Linda Reeves, land and recreation grants section manager at the Florida Communities Trust, expressing the commission’s support for the plan. The lawsuit contends the letter came from a commission consensus that was reached without a vote following the April 16 workshop.

“This position supporting this particular highway alignment (1A) was taken without first affording Plaintiffs and other members of the public the opportunity to comment on the decision to support the alignment (1A), or other alternative alignments, before the BOCC choose which alignment to support,” the suit claims.

Osceola County officials said Wednesday morning they were aware of the lawsuit but had not yet been served, and would not comment pending the litigation, except to note there had been ample public comment during board meetings.

The suit would have little impact on the expressway authority’s approval, but the groups are trying to thwart the project at the next level, at the Florida Communities Trust, which must sign off on any breach of the state preserve.

The meetings drew hundreds of people, on both sides.

They highlighted the needs and drawbacks of a road that one day is likely to be key to a huge new transportation network serving tens or even hundreds of thousands of future homes – and the prospect that a beloved and highly sensitive environmental area might be breached, and the state’s preservation pledge broken, to build that first road.

East Osceola and Orange counties are being targeted for huge, long-term development plans, led by the Mormon Church’s plans for a 70-year development of its Deseret Ranch, transforming the region into a new city-sized community. Other projects in the area, such as Sunbridge, already are underway. The Osceola Parkway extension also is a critical part of a highways network that would better connect Central Florida and Florida’s Space Coast.

The Split Oak nature preserve was created under Florida’s Preservation 2000 program of the 1990s. The environmental community is united in its love of Split Oak but not united in its opposition to the road extension plan. Charles Lee, director of advocacy for the Audubon Florida’s Central Florida Policy Office, helped negotiate the plan, arguing that the deal won large and important environmental and conservation concessions.

Hawkins’ letter touts one of those concessions, noting “The alignment will allow approximately 1,400+/- acres of additional land including scrub jay habitat to be placed into perpetual conservation in conjunction with Split Oak as well as the adjoining areas of Moss Park and the Isle of Pines,” calling it a “win-win result.”

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