.. an editorial which appeared in a recent issue of the LAKELAND LEDGER ..

by Robert Connors

Those who are currently suffering from the devastation caused by the heavy rains of the winter have our sympathies. Most are the unfortunate victims, not of Mother Nature, but of greed.

Despite the tragic photos, long-time residents of Polk County will tell you what we are seeing today is not flooding, but a return to normal water levels.

Newcomers to Florida have no way of knowing the history of a piece of land, or whether it is flood-prone. They trust local government to regulate development to protect them. That trust has been misplaced.

During the 1920's land boom, Florida established a reputation as the home of fast-talking land salesmen, eager to fleece the unsuspecting Northerner by selling him a tract of land, sigh unseen, at a great price. Like the classic story of the man who sold a wealthy immigrant the Brooklyn Bridge, they talked a great line.

Only later, after the flimflam was consummated, would the shill find that his bargain property was located under inches, or feet, of water. Local government officials looked the other way.

Northern newspapers finally began to trumpet the news to their readers, and buyers began to shy away. Eager to avoid a permanent black eye, the state of Florida eventually cracked down on the scam, just as the boom collapsed.

Today's Polk County has quietly suffered under a plague of the same sort. The bad news is, it's not going to be easy or cheap to solve.

Early settlers in Polk picked the ridges and high ground to settle and farm. They knew that heavy rains flood most of the rest of the county. That's why all the older towns and cities are located on high ground. Flat lands were used only for truck farms or cattle grazing. Take a good look around.

From the 1920's through the 1970's, a proliferation of unplanned, random ditches provided drainage to some areas. Most were dug without an engineer. Some ran uphill and worsened the problem. Most simply moved the water to a neighbor's land.

In 1958 , water levels in Polk were about where they stand today. Then, 1959 was sharply above normal in rainfall and 1960 followed suit, topped by the passage of Hurricane Donna. When the wind died down, people found water levels that were not a little, but a lot higher than today. Despite recent rain, lakes along the Ridge are still several feet below where they were in the early 1960's. Similar peaks were reached in the 1930's as well. When the l970s and 1980s proved to be dry times, lake levels dropped. Some disappeared. A few people saw an opportunity to make money, selling land in the Green Swamp and other low areas. County zoning and development regulations were ineffective. Commissioners looked the other way.

Now the rains have returned. Things are getting back to normal. Now, taxpayers will be burdened with the costs to engineer, permit, pipe, pump, dike, ditch, and swale, all to get rid of natural water bodies. When we do, more houses will be built in the floodplain. In California, developers build homes on precarious cliffs, and residents watch as they slide into the sea. In Florida, we seem to play the same games of denial.

Whatever Polk County does in response to the present situation, residents should realize that the situation is not temporary, and could easily get a lot worse. Tom Mason, Wes Gunn, Ken Richardson, Roger Hood and others quoted in Bill Bair's March 29 story had their facts straight.

The only permanent solution to flooded homes is to remove the homes. The lessons are obvious: Don't build on the cliff, don't build in the swamp.

Polk County should apply for federal assistance to buy out the suffering residents left without water and surrounded by overflowing septic tanks. Replacement homes can then be built in suitable areas. It would be fair to make the original developers and commissioners pay for their folly. Fair, but impossible. At the very least, taxpayers should insist, no, demand, that the present commissioners change these useless regulations.

The situation calls for a Polk County "Buyers' Bill of Rights." County codes should prohibit building in areas below the 100-year floodplain, regardless of the finished-floor elevation. The elevations should be certified and guaranteed by the county.

Mounded septic tanks, a dead give away of flood-prone land, should be prohibited as a health hazard. If accurate floor levels are not available, they should be required.

Some may complain that these measures would increase housing costs, and encourage development only in areas with high ground or existing utilities, and they would be right. Some rightly point out that the race for the cheapest-possible "affordable" housing is a race for the bottom.

Requiring that Polk's housing be safe and solid is only good business sense, and raises the standard of living for everyone. The alternative to quality housing is a never-ending series of flooded homes, wasted taxes, and a Polk County that slips slowly into a mire of its own creation.


Robert Connors of Lake Wales served on the Polk County Commission from 1990- 1994

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LAST UPDATED: Wednesday, 14-Sep-2005 13:24:36 EDT