POINCIANA – Imagine, Keith Laytham said, that you loaned someone a good sum of money. You have every right to expect it will be paid back in full.
The same would be true, Laytham said, if an individual happened to loan a large sum of money to their county commission. There’s no reason to think the commissioners shouldn’t be expected to repay that loan, he added.
That’s why Laytham, who lives at Solivita and is the president of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, is pushing Osceola County to repay not him personally, but the entire community of Poinciana, for what he sees as a long overdue loan. And that money, he added, should be used for a specific purpose: the construction of a long-awaited new toll road highway called the Poinciana Parkway, which would connect the residents of this growing community more quickly and efficiently to Interstate 4.
“Transportation is the hot issue in Poinciana right now,” Laytham said. “And the big issue is the Poinciana Parkway.”
That road project — which would connect Poinciana residents to Ronald Reagan Boulevard in Davenport in Polk County, right near the I-4 exit near ChampionsGate — has been stalled for the past several years, mainly because of funding concerns. A joint project between Avatar, the main developer in Poinciana, and the Polk and Osceola county governments, the project still needs an injection of funding – mainly from Osceola County – to jump start it. But so far, Osceola County commissioners have faced some major challenges in recent years, including the fact that transportation projects in the past decade were funded almost entirely by impact fees. Those are fees that were imposed on the construction of new homes to pay for infrastructure improvements that rapid growth requires. It was easy to collect those fees between 2004 and 2006, when Osceola County was the second fastest growing county in the nation, and homes were being built in Poinciana every 90 days.
But when the housing market crashed in 2008, leaving in its wake a sky-high home foreclosure rate and a huge supply of unsold homes, the impact fees dried up. To fund the Poinciana Parkway, Osceola County commissioners asked voters to approve a sales tax hike, but it was soundly rejected.
That’s left the Poinciana Parkway on hold as the county looks for new funding options.
“There’s got to be a solution that is a partnership at best,” Laytham said, and he thinks he knows exactly what that solution should be: overdue impact fees.
Laytham noted that when Poinciana was growing by leaps and bounds – the community’s population was just 25,000 in 2000, but today stands at more than 84,000 – Osceola County officials were collecting impact fees there at a rapid pace. But the county didn’t spend it in Poinciana, but elsewhere, Laytham added. And now the county owes Poinciana its due, he said.
“Yes, you’re not collecting impact fees today,” Laytham said, “but there’s a bunch of issues here. There are a ton of impact fees that got collected when Poinciana was being built. Those funds were loaned to other transportation districts in Osceola County, and it needs to be repaid sometime.”
Now, he said, would be perfect timing, since the roads in Poinciana are getting more congested every day, and the community desperately needs better ways of getting in and out of the 10 villages in Poinciana that cross both Polk and Osceola counties.
“The Poinciana Parkway is something that has been promised to the residents of Poinciana for the last 15 years,” Laytham said.
In January, Osceola County will begin work on the widening of Poinciana Boulevard, one of the most heavily used roadways in the community – and one of the most congested during rush hour. This is a good start, Laytham said.
“Poinciana Boulevard is on the eastern side of Reedy Creek, and the bulk of the people in Poinciana live in Villages 1 and 2 in Osceola County, and on the Polk side, Villages 3 and 7,” he said. “There are about 64,000 people who live in those villages. When they commute to work in the morning, the only way they can commute in is through Cypress Parkway and onto Poinciana Boulevard. The real issue there is the bottleneck on Cypress Parkway.”
But while widening that roadway is a decent first step, Laytham said it doesn’t mean the community can live without the Poinciana Parkway.
“It turns out the only solution is something that had long been talked about by Avatar, and that’s the Poinciana Parkway,” he said.
Doug Guetzloe, chairman of the grass roots organization Ax the Tax, which opposes tax hikes, said Laytham has a strong argument.
“The people of Poinciana have been ripped off by the Osceola County commission,” he said. “That money should have been held in trust, it should have been in a lock box. The government is always robbing Peter to pay Paul, but at the end of the day, the only person who is happy is Paul, who gets the money. These folks have every right to get that money. It should be a dedicated source of funding. It’s bad stewardship, and I think it’s a loss of faith in the commission. The people of Poinciana have every right to get that money.”
Nick Murdock is chairman of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, which is working to bring more jobs to the community – including construction jobs for road projects like the Poinciana Parkway. He said the question of borrowed impact fees is a smart bargaining tool.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I don’t know what the impact fee amount is, but I know it’s in the millions. It’s a good argument to have the commissioners make their commitment to assist with the parkway. “
But this bargaining tool may not be needed, Murdock said, because Polk and Osceola County commissioners will be holding a public meeting in Bartow on Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 2 p.m. at the Polk County commission chambers, with officials from Avatar to discuss the Poinciana Parkway and its funding needs.
“Those discussions are going to be made, but I don’t know if we need that trump card or not,” Murdock said. “I believe Osceola County is going to help with it, and I believe it’s going to happen. A lot of it will depend on the discussions at that meeting and what kind of agreement they come to.”
Laytham said the community can’t rely on the county governments to do all of the funding.
“A large part of the funding still needs to be funding that as stands would go for a private road,” he said. “Osceola county cannot fund a private road with taxpayer dollars. Either Avatar needs to come up with the money via some kind of bond, grant or ‘white knight’ partnership, or Avatar needs to turn their part into a public project so it might qualify for county, state or federal funding assistance. The problem is partly Osceola’s, but also is partly Avatar’s.”
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