Orange County leaders reverse decision on plan to build toll road through protected forest

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission will meet next week to discuss giving up some conservation land to allow a toll road to go through the protected Split Oak Forest.


About a mile-and-a half of the 9-mile toll road would cut through the southwest corner of the forest, connecting state route 417 with Osceola Parkway.

Split Oak Forest’s over 1600 acres has been protected through the state since the early 1990s. It’s home to endangered species like gopher tortoises.

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Tuesday, FWC will discuss lifting its conservation easement on 160 acres in order for a toll road to go through part of the forest.

Ahead of that meeting, Mayor Jerry Demings and most Orange County commissioners voted, saying they are no longer in support of this toll road project.

It’s a complete 180 from what the commission previously decided in 2019.

The question is— can the project actually move forward without Orange County’s approval? Some Orange County commissioners hope this is the end of the project.

“I believe what’s going to happen is that the state is just going to stop altogether because they cannot move forward without an agreement with Orange County,” said Commissioner Emily Bonilla who asked for the county commission to discuss the topic Tuesday.

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Central Florida Expressway Authority, Osceola County, and initially, also Orange County were all on board for years since the project was proposed. But then in 2020, 86% of Orange County voters overwhelmingly approved to protect Split Oak Forest from the proposed toll road, amending the charter.

“At this point, I don’t see what FWC has to discuss, because our charter is very clear that we should not enter into any agreements that’s going to harm the preservation of Split Oak Forest in its current form,” Bonilla said. Bonilla says all parties have to be in agreement to move forward with the project.

Valerie Anderson, president of the Friends of Split Oak, has been fighting to keep the whole forest protected from this project. Anderson says the FWC’s upcoming decision could set a precedent for the state.

“If Split Oak is forced to be violated for a toll road… than any place, any conservation land, any park in Florida is under threat from development, even more so than it already is,” Anderson said.

Channel 9 asked agencies like the Central Florida Expressway Authority whether Orange County’s decision or a decision by FWC could end the toll road project. They didn’t know.

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The Authority and Osceola County are still in support for this toll road project.

The Authority plans to expand the forest by 1550 acres and commit at least $13 million for preservation and restoration of the forest. Friends of Split Oak say the authority’s offer is not a good deal. Anderson says the proposed donated land is of “inferior ecological quality” land compared to Split Oak Forests’ land.

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