SEBRING — Local residents, when asked about the situation between the United States and Iran, said they don’t know yet what will happen. Like the rest of the nation, they are watching and waiting for what happens next, but they do have opinions on what they think may happen.
Last Thursday, Dec. 2, a U.S. drone strike attacked the vehicle of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who according to national news reports had been tracked by the Pentagon for years because he oversaw a network of paramilitaries, militias and terrorist groups across the Middle East and other regions that furthered Iranian interests by undermining those of the United States and its allies.
Despite being linked to sophisticated roadside bombs that killed hundreds of U.S. troops and wounded thousands more during the peak of fighting in Iraq, the Pentagon did not attack, seeking other means to halt violence against U.S. interests.
However, national news reports state that months of rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, including the Dec. 27 death of an American contractor, led to the fatal U.S. drone strike Thursday on Soleimani’s vehicle as it left Baghdad International Airport.
It was done without Congressional approval or debate, news reports state, but officials from the Pentagon and President Donald Trump made clear the strike was meant to head off an imminent attack on Americans.
That would make it legal under U.S. law.
Trump has also said he was motivated by retribution after the death of an American contractor at an Iraqi military base, possibly by Iranian-backed militias, and violent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
On Tuesday night, Iran responded with force, launching more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi bases that hold U.S. troops in what appeared to be retaliation. The events have gotten local residents thinking.
“I really do think there’s going to be a war,” said Janelle Blazing of Sebring. “It will probably be a long one. Iran’s not going to back off.”
Betsy Velez of Avon Park said she’s seen a lot of people concerned, especially on social media where people have talked about preparing for a worst-case scenario.
“It seems [there’s] a lot of scary things people are saying,” Velez said, “... to be careful of your surroundings.”
Faith Blount of Sebring said her 15-year-old daughter, out of the blue, asked her if she thought there would be a “World War III.”
“I [didn’t] know how to answer her,” Blount said. “I asked her why she would ask a question like that. I literally have not had time to watch the news.”
Her daughter told her, “Because everyone is posting about it,” Blount said.
Max Sherwood of Sebring, not a big fan of war, said there are obvious times when people and a nation have to defend themselves.
Usually, he said, there is a precursor event, like Pearl Harbor, involving a surprise attack and hundreds or thousands of people killed.
“For American lives to be on the line, there has to be a reason,” Sherwood said.
Howard Waggoner, a 25-year U.S. Navy veteran, now retired, said he’d served on five different ships and at least three aircraft crews in that time, but reserved his comments.
“I prefer to leave that up to the people that have control over it,” Waggoner said. “We’ve got a good president. He’ll handle it.”
Christina of Avon Park, who declined to give her last name because of a relation to a local law enforcement officer, said she thought the killing of Soleimani was justified.
“He killed a lot of Americans,” she said.
As for what will happen next, she, like Waggoner, has put her trust in people who are overseeing the American response.
“They’re handling it,” Christina said. “I’m waiting to see what happens.”
LAKE PLACID — When Janan Campbell had his choice from Make-A-Wish Southern Florida, there were plenty of options available for him to choose from. But instead of asking to meet a movie star or an athlete, Janan settled on asking for a tree house so his entire family could spend time in it together.
“It really describes the family nature of what we do,” said Richard Kelly, chief operating officer for Make-A-Wish Southern Florida. “A lot of wishes involve the family whether they’re traveling or having a tree house. The fact that he wanted this because he has such a large family is really heart-warming for us.”
His parents, Dawn and Keith Campbell, said that exemplifies the type of person Janan, 7, is perfectly.
“We adopted Janan from China and he was critically ill, obviously he’s critically ill, so he came from an orphanage where he didn’t have a family,” Keith said. “He wanted all of the family to be able to sleep in the tree house, so it’s pretty special to us that he’s grabbed onto us as a family.”
The term “tree house” doesn’t really describe what the folks from Lake Placid’s GSF Enterprises built for Janan, who has cardiac issues.
“We contacted GSF and they had a vision for it,” Kelly said. “The family had a vision of what they wanted, but GSF went above and beyond and it’s a palace.”
Janan’s tree house has a zip-line area, a climbing rock, a crossing bridge and plenty more, ranging from his initial on the walkway to flooring on the inside of the actual tree house.
“It’s amazing,” Keith said. “It’s more than we ever dreamed of. He started saying he wanted a zip-line and all this stuff, but I couldn’t imagine it would be like this.”
Along with the tree house and the extras came a fence for the yard, along with a porch swing so Janan’s wheelchair-bound siblings could also enjoy some outside time.
“We’ve never had this fenced in,” Dawn said. “It’s been awesome that we can really get out.”
Kelly said he wanted to thank the volunteers, supporters, donors and especially GSF Enterprises, who was on hand for the “grand opening.”
“You can tell this means something to them,” Kelly said. “We really appreciate them.”
Keith said he wanted to thank Make-A-Wish and GSF Enterprises, along with his church.
“All the people who came here today have been praying for Janan back when he was in China and praying that he’d be healthy enough to live through the flight,” he said.
Dawn echoed her husband’s sentiments.
“I have to thank Make-A-Wish, especially Miss Fran, our wish granter,” she said. “She makes Cinderella’s godmother look kind of wimpy. She went over the top for us.”
Dawn also had plenty of good things to say about GSF.
“Gregg Foster and his daughter Brooke and Kyle (Clement) — what they did was amazing,” she said. “They did a lot on their own time – a big ‘thank you’ to them.”
And there was one additional party Dawn was grateful for — somebody who made everything possible many years ago.
“The Smoaks donated this lot to us when we first got the house about 10 years ago,” Dawn said. “We had no idea that one day we would get Janan, who wasn’t even supposed to survive, and then one day grant his wish because the Smoaks donated a lot. God has a hand in all of us and we’re very thankful for all He’s done.”
LAKE PLACID — Flames engulfed and consumed the maintenance building at the 4-H Camp Cloverleaf at 126 Cloverleaf Road on Wednesday afternoon. The wind blew embers across a service road and into the nearby orange groves directly to the south of the camp. No injuries were reported.
Cloverleaf Road was shut down to traffic while firefighters battled the blaze.
Units from nearby fire stations arrived at the scene to flames shooting skyward and black smoke billowing from the structure. The burning sections of the groves gave off a much whiter smoke.
“The wind wasn’t that bad,” Highlands County Fire Rescue Chief Marc Bashoor said. “But it was enough to push the embers into the groves and start a fire.”
Bashoor ruled the fire an accident after speaking with a maintenance person.
“He was working on a lawn mower engine and the combustion backfired starting a fire,” Bashoor explained. “The man tried to put the fire out with an extinguisher but it ran out. He went to get another one but by the time he got back, it was too late.”
According to Karen Clogston, Highlands County assistant public information officer, there was a vehicle inside the maintenance building that was burned. Concerns over the fuel in the vehicle initially raised the danger level.
Bashoor said the maintenance building had everything one would expect to find.
One brush truck’s four-wheel capability went out and the truck got stuck in the sugar sand on the grove side of the property. Another brush truck was called in its place.
At the scene, fire officials were unsure who owned the groves immediately to the south of the camp and the extent of the monetary damage done there. Bashoor estimated the damage to the contents of the building were $60,000 and $50,000 in damage to the building.
The fire was fought by several different departments including Leisure Lakes, Highlands Park, Sun n Lakes and Lake Placid. Highlands County EMS was on the scene as a precaution. Highlands County Sheriff’s Office helped with traffic control due to Cloverleaf Road being closed.
SEBRING — County commissioners gave final approval Tuesday for a parcel at the corner of Sebring Parkway and Scenic Highway to go from residential to commercial.
The zoning and land-use change now makes it possible for Bernie Little Distributors Inc. to build a larger facility on the backside of the parcel, and move out of a facility the company has outgrown on U.S. 98.
Tuesday’s hearing had residents speaking for and against the proposal, as well as a “no” vote from Commissioner Arlene Tuck, who went with the recommendation originally given by the Planning and Zoning Commission. It was the same vote she made in October, during the Board of County Commission’s first hearing, based on the P&Z Commission’s 5-1 vote against the project at its September meeting.
Planning Supervisor Joedene Thayer told the Highlands News-Sun after the hearing that the reason P&Z members voted it down included concerns about the warehouse and semi-truck loading/unloading center being near to and sharing Scenic Highway with residential areas.
Some said they would have preferred the site stay as high-density residential and have affordable housing go there. Others considered the prospect of a distribution center as “not aesthetically pleasing,” despite Bernie Little officials providing an architect’s rendering of the façade, Thayer said. Objecting P&Z members didn’t want to be known for approving a “warehouse” at the site.
Residents spoke against the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting, but others spoke for it.
While Michelle Gresham said the truck traffic would not be good for people living in the area, Richard Szoke, who had spoken against the proposal at the P&Z meeting, had been for it ever since.
“I’m 100% for it. We need tax-base property,” Szoke said. “Possibly a shopping center or medical building, which will bring money to the county.”
Later in the commission meeting, Tuck asked why the county hadn’t done a traffic study of the area before approving rezoning and land-use changes.
“They could sell out to a Sam’s Club and have a lot more trucks [in and out],” Tuck said. She expressed concern for the capacity of Scenic Highway, a two-lane collector road that empties onto Sebring Parkway and Panther Parkway to the north, just recently built.
County Administrator Randy Vosburg said a traffic study is usually done after the county receives a site plan, which includes all locations of entrances and exits.
Commissioner Jim Brooks, who previously served on the P&Z Commission, said any developer would have to do a traffic study as part of the site plan and permitting.
“It’s premature at this point,” Brooks said.
He said most land owners in that area had their land rezoned from agricultural use in 2004 when a ballot initiative was gaining momentum to force land-use changes to go to popular vote. That initiative didn’t pass the ballot, but the land-use and new zoning remained, Brooks said, along with traffic studies done at the time — which would now be out of date.
County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. told the Highlands News-Sun on Wednesday that to do any development on the site, a company or developer will have to perform a traffic study, including number of vehicle trips per day and how many need to stack up in nearby turn lanes.
“This is required as part of the development plan review process,” Howerton said via text. “Any issues indicated at that time will be addressed as part of the permit.”