Polk County mined land…what to do with it?

After mining, it will be the county that tries to figure out what in the heck they will do with their thousands of acres of mined lands. Health studies would be required to assess the toxicity and possible radiation threats left behind by the upheaval of formerly native systems. Is this what Hardee, Desoto and Manatee county can look forward to?

[ 250,000 ACRES IN SOUTHWEST POLK ] What’s Next for Bone Valley? Planners Try to Flesh Out Future For Former Mining Land

Thousands of undeveloped acres,  such as this land south of Mulberry, are one of the focuses of the Bone Valley study.
TOM PALMER | THE LEDGER
By Tom Palmer
THE LEDGER
Published: Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 1:32 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 23, 2015 at 1:32 a.m.
BARTOW | Thousands of acres of real estate in southwest Polk County dominated by phosphate mining for more than a century are nearly ready for their next act.
But efforts by county planners to guide future development decisions for the 250,000 acres, about one-fifth of the county, have stalled for the past three years.
The reasons range from staff turnover to the difficulty in coming up with the right approach to set up a vision for an area this vast.
If all goes as planned, the effort is scheduled to resume by year’s end and eventually will land on the County Commission’s desk for review.
“This is very important; we need to be on the forefront of this,” said County Commissioner Melony Bell, whose district includes the area between the boundaries of Bartow, Fort Meade and Mulberry that’s the focus of what is called the Bone Valley Special Area Study, which was launched in 2009.
The area earned the name Bone Valley because of the large amount of fossils of creatures such as mammoths, camels, horses, turtles and dugongs unearthed during mining.
Bell said what Polk County does there could become a model for other counties such as Hardee and DeSoto where mining is still occurring or just getting underway.
Chanda Bennett, the most recent county planner assigned to the project, said this is a way to include principles in the county’s growth plan that will lay out issues to consider for future development requests in the area.
She said this is more practical than attempting, as county planners have done in smaller study areas, to assign future land-use categories.
The effort is complicated by the area containing a mix of areas whose future uses will probably be industrial and areas where there are more options.
“Streamsong demonstrated there are potential uses other than industrial,” Bennett said, referring to the upscale resort Mosaic developed in a relatively remote area near the Polk-Hardee line.
She said the only limiting factor in future development plans is adequate infrastructure, primarily water and sewer service and roads.
Bennett said another goal of the study is to protect existing residential communities, such as Bradley, from undesirable uses.
NOT FIRST STUDY
The Bone Valley SAS isn’t the first time planners have attempted to figure out what the post-mining future of southwest Polk County should look like.
In 1990, the Central Florida Regional Planning Council met with mining company officials and other interest groups to try to understand the issues ahead for mined land.
The phosphate industry had maintained for decades that its mining operations were only a temporary use.
That raised the question of what would be the subsequent uses for the land. That study, which occurred only 15 years after state law required phosphate companies to reclaim mined land, made no recommendations.
Instead, it was the first attempt by local planners to persuade phosphate company officials to begin thinking about what their land could be used for after mining and reclamation were completed.
In the meantime, Bone Valley was sometimes seen as a “sacrifice zone,” a place where activities ranging from power plants to hazardous waste incinerators opposed in other parts of the state could find a home.
The next attempt to look at the area’s future came in 1999 in an effort launched by Polk County’s planning staff.
However, that study hit a dead end after phosphate company representatives declined to participate, arguing they weren’t ready to discuss the issue.
Since that time, the consolidation of the phosphate industry and the sales of land formerly owned by mining companies have resulted in a situation where a handful of landowners now own most of the land.
The largest landowner is fertilizer giant Mosaic.
Its spokeswoman, Callie Neslund, said the company is interested in working with Polk County.
“Going forward, Mosaic will look at all of our landholdings within the Bone Valley SAS from both an environmental and economic perspective,” she said in an email.
“As we conduct a bit of our own planning, we will work closely with the county to ensure future uses are compatible with the surrounding communities and comprehensive vision for the future of Polk County and existing assets throughout the area are leveraged,” she said.
Another major landowner is the Lakeland-based T Mims Corp. headed by businessman Tom Mims.
Mims, who participated in the study, said the idea was too ambitious and impractical.
“The problem with the study is that it takes a blanket approach to future development,” he said. “No one can predict what’s going to happen there.”
He said Streamsong Resort, which was announced and built while the study was underway, is a good example of that.
“No one saw that coming.”
Mims said these plans are inherently political, explaining people who participate in the process will benefit and people who don’t could end up with future land use designations that put them at a disadvantage for developing their property.
The land around Streamsong may be an example of this.
The resort’s development prompted county planners to develop the Brewster Special Area Plan that imposed some restrictions on land uses in this 16,000-acre portion of the study area.
The purpose was to prevent incompatible land uses from affecting it, Bennett said.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS INTERESTED
Potential developers and major landowners aren’t the only ones watching the progress of the Bone Valley study.
Sierra Club member John Ryan said environmentalists’ main focus is on preserving river and creek corridors that were part of reclamation plans to make sure future development doesn’t interfere with those corridors’ ability to allow water and wildlife to move.
Bone Valley contains tributaries of the Peace, Alafia and Little Manatee rivers, all of which have been affected in some way by mining activities.
Mosaic has announced plans to restore some of the streams and to improve wildlife habitat as part of its reclamation plans.
The concern is what happens after Mosaic, or any other company required to complete reclamation projects, finishes, sells the land and moves on.
“Right now, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen after reclamation,” Ryan said.
[ Tom Palmer can be reached at tom.palmer@theledger.com or 863-802-7535. Follow on Twitter @LedgerTom. ]