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Board to staff: Plan to reopen Vaughn Road

SEBRING — Rather than close Vaughn Road and turn it over to Highlands Hammock State Park, county commissioners are leaning toward reopening it.

Commissioners asked County Administrator Randy Vosburg to bring an item to that effect to them for a vote on March 17.

The consensus on Tuesday came out of discussion with County Attorney Joy Carmichael and Road and Bridge Director Kyle Green.

Carmichael said officials with the Florida Park Service and Highlands Hammock State Park previously wanted to have the county reopen the road to traffic to their equestrian park, just east of Charlie Creek, while still bearing the cost of maintaining it.

However, based on the last written communication from park officials, she said they would prefer to have the road open completely, which would mean open to the general public to cross the recently-repaired, one-lane, wood-deck Charlie Creek bridge into Hardee County.

She said state park officials also didn’t say they would then not pay their half of repairs to the bridge — $36,772 — but they also didn’t mention paying it. The current memorandum of understanding between the park and county would have the park service pay its share and the county vacate the road.

Green said he heard from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Park Service’s parent agency, that if the county accepts money from FDEP for its half of the bridge repairs, and those funds turn out to be part of a federal account, it could disqualify the bridge for future federal funding.

In essence, Green said, if the county takes funds from the park and ever needed to upgrade the bridge, federal funds might not be available.

“Well, we’re having a hard time getting it anyway, no matter where it comes from, so why are we worried about it?” Commission Chair Ron Handley asked. “And if we’re protected by not taking the funds and they said open the road, I say, ‘Open the road.’”

Handley then referred to County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr., who has attended M-CORES road planning meetings with him, on Vaughn Road being one of the few east-west access roads to Hardee County.

State officials may send the “Southwest-Central Florida Connector,” a proposed 140-mile toll road connecting Collier County with the rest of the Florida Turnpike system, through DeSoto, Hardee and Polk Counties.

Green said Highlands County would still have to spend money to reopen the road: Between $15,000-$20,000 to trim back trees and refill the road base with marl to get the road back to how it was when it closed, but that’s from the pavement to the bridge.

To reopen the road from the bridge to the Hardee County line, Green estimated, would be another $20,000, for a $40,000 total.

That’s just a marl road, not shell, he said, and certainly not paved.

Green said the federal funds he wants to keep available could provide as much as $5 million for future work on the bridge, which could include an upgrade to a two-lane concrete span.

Vosburg said commissioners could either continue forward with the memorandum of understanding as it is; amend the ordinance that closed the road to reopen it only to park traffic, cover the maintenance of the road and accept payment for the bridge, or just reopen the road to everyone.

“They want us to maintain it either way,” Handley said, leaning toward reopening the road to all.

Carmichael pointed out that Commissioner Jim Brooks, who was in her meetings with state park officials, was not present at Tuesday’s meeting to give input. Commissioner Don Elwell agreed that waiting to vote on March 17 would be better, with all five commissioners present.

M-CORES talk focuses on broadband along with transport

SEBRING — “If you build it, they will come” found new use Wednesday during the fifth meeting for the M-CORES Southwest-Central Florida Connector.

This time, the phrase got used in reference to utilities and broadband, one of the multiple uses planned for the future route of the proposed Polk-to-Collier County toll road — which still has no set route.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) Task Force in Sebring, stakeholders in the project led their conversation with ruminations about how to improve rural access to the internet.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” said Mark Addison, community investment program manager for the Polk County Utilities Division and member of Wednesday’s presentation panel.

He urged stakeholders to view the proposed road not just as a transportation route but also a utility and recreation corridor.

One such utility that rural areas struggle to have is broadband internet. Bill Lambert, fellow panelist and director of the Hardee County Economic Development Council, said one hurdle his county had to overcome was the “last-mile provider” — the company or entity that would connect customers to the service.

Hardee County’s population density precludes installation of cable, Lambert said, so they used a fixed wireless system coupled with radio signals.

If the road goes through his county, Lambert said, they could have fiber optic cable in the corridor with connections to wireless routers that then relay the signal to towers downrange throughout the county.

Eric Labbe, fellow panelist and director of Economic Opportunity and Community Investment for Winter Haven, said it’s difficult to get small, local internet service providers to buy into such systems, because they don’t have funds to put their part of the system in place.

David Terry Brigman, panelist and former chief information officer and director of information technology for the city of Lakeland, suggested that the corridor study might provide a venue to build partnerships between state and local government to get broadband into extreme rural areas.

Glenn Little, vice president of Administrative Services for South Florida State College, told the panel the college’s campuses in Highlands and Hardee regularly struggle with internet access.

“We doubled the WiFi access on the Highlands campus. Within a day, it was all consumed,” Little said.

While broadband is essential to business, Little said, it’s crucial to training workers.

Bill Ferry of the Florida Internet and Television Association, asked the panel how they could get an internet provider to connect customers on that “last mile” given the advantages and disadvantages of using government lines and having to navigate regulations for installing their own equipment.

Lambert said he would prefer the service be provided and managed by private sector companies’ equipment, but suggested the toll road could provide the corridor to do it.

Elizabeth Fleming with Defenders of Wildlife suggested, since internet service depends on subscribers, that the roads might bring in the numbers of residents needed to secure the service.

Brigman said Lakeland offered to lease fiber optic lines in order to bring in internet providers, but even then the task was too “capital-intensive” for small providers to bring in the internet.

Labbe said Winter Haven, though not a large city, has transformed in the last 10-15 years into a “hub” for internet service in central Florida, which helped bring in providers.

“We’re fortunate that way,” Labbe said.

Task Force members also talked about water resources. Robert Ryall, associate vice president of Financial Services Practice Lead and a nationally-recognized consultant in financial and strategic planning for water and wastewater utilities, said the corridor could help some communities connect to nearby communities with larger water utilities.

It would provide efficiency of scale, he said.

If the smaller community wanted to divest of their water system and tap another community’s lines, they could redirect funds toward other expensive services such as public safety.

Highlands County Commission Chair Ron Handley remarked Wednesday that he and his fellow commissioners are eager to see how this corridor takes shape.

“We’re anxious to get to the day when we do have a route to discuss,” Handley said, according to an M-CORES social media post. “We have some ideas and preferences that would suit us well to the road. [FDOT] assures us it’s coming and we’re holding our breath waiting.”

Several future open house and workshop events are posted online at floridamcores.com/calendar-of-events.

The next local event for the Southwest-Central Florida Connector is March 26, an open house set for 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center Auditorium at 4509 George Blvd. in Sebring, the same place as Wednesday’s meeting.

Know where your donations are going

LAKE PLACID — Spring is nearly upon us, therefore, spring cleaning is on the radar of many. Deep cleaning the house, chasing dust bunnies away and cleaning out closets are in the near future. Piles and piles of unused and ill-fitting clothes will be formed. What do you do with them?

Donating used clothes to charities is a great way to recycle and also get a little tax write off at the same time. However, don’t trust just any donation drop box you come across. They are not all equal, as alert Highlands News-Sun reader Ricardo Gonsalves found out the hard way when he tried to make a recent clothing donation.

Gonsalves was helping with a clothing drive for a local church. When it was over, he took the clothes to the yellow clothing drop box behind Dunkin’ Donuts in Lake Placid.

“I noticed the bin was too full to put any more clothes in it,” Gonsalves said. “I called the 800 number on the sign to tell them it was full and was told it was a scam.”

There is a white box in the parking lot of the Winn Dixie south of town. Gonsalves said it has the identical sticker on the front and sides and looks official. It was also full and had clothes strewn all over the ground and broken furniture around it too.

The sticker on the boxes say “Clothing, Shoes, & Toys Recycle Center.” The next line reads “Giving Back to the Community & Recycling Goods.” In smaller print, the sticker gives donors statistics on landfills that are choked with clothing, etc. There is nothing that identifies an organization or an owner.

The 800 number belongs to the Florida Department of Agriculture Consumer Services, or FDACS.

Max Fulgrath, press secretary for Office of Commissioner Nikki Fried, replied in an email regarding the boxes: “FDACS is the state regulating agency for charities, we do not have collection boxes,” he said.

“They said they get calls like that all the time because their number is on the box,” Gonsalves said, who said someone at FDACS told him the person who owns it, probably takes the items and sells it at the flea market.

“That’s a shame because a lot of those items had tags still on them,” Gaonsalves said. “You think you’re doing something good.”

The collection bins are required to have disclosure statements that include the FDACS Division of Consumer Services phone number (similar to other types of solicitations).

“If the bin shouldn’t be there, you can let the property owner know to reach out to us and we’ll be happy to send an investigator over to see if we can get the bin owner to move it,” Fulgrath replied in a separate email. “We have seen the owners of bins like these sometimes randomly drop them in places without any identifying information. Then people call us because our number is printed on the side.”

The Highlands News-Sun reached out to Lake Placid Code Enforcement Officer Mostyn Mullins and Highlands County Code Enforcement Officer John Owens. FDACS told Mullins the boxes were legitimate and since they were not overflowing, it was fine.

Highlands Counthy Supervisor of Zoning and Planning Linda Conrad said her office called the Winn Dixie corporate office and asked them to make sure the drop box owners had permission. The Highlands News-Sun also asked the corporation and was redirected to the county Code Enforcement.

Conrad said the box south of town in the Winn Dixie Plaza has violations from the clothing accumulated around it. She said Code Enforcement has put an impound sticker on the box and is working with FDACS to have it removed.

There is also a particle board donation box in the parking lot near Cangs Restaurant in the Tower Plaza. This box is painted white and has a stencil that reads “Clothes & Shoes Donation Center Army Wife.” That box does not have an FDACS number or anything that identifies the owner or organization. Mullins said he will be investigating the white box.

To be sure your donations are going where you want them, officials suggest handing them to a person at a thrift store might be the best idea.

Man arrested for failing to remit taxes

SEBRING — A Highlands News-Sun employee was picked up on a warrant Tuesday evening by the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office.

The warrant was for failing to remit sales tax on a previously owned commercial entity.

According to Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin, Kenneth Brannen Anderson, 60, of Sebring has been making payments.

Anderson bonded out of jail. His court case is pending. Anderson has been an account representative at the Highlands News-Sun since January 2020.