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Lake Wales
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

“Racehorses and Mules”


By Jack Hilligoss

Mayor of Lake Wales Florida

    I appreciate The Daily Ridge giving me this opportunity to respond to questions and concerns of Lake Wales citizens directly.  Many questions were asked about several topics of importance. I don’t think they can all be adequately addressed in one article. So, I have asked permission to write a series of responses each focused upon one or two of the top concerns. I’ll begin with…


     Not surprisingly, the issue that received the most questions and concerns was the rapid growth we are experiencing and how the City Commission is handling it.

   When Norman Schwarzkopf was commanding US military forces during “Operation Desert Storm” he wrote, “Commanding an army is like driving a stagecoach which is being pulled by racehorses and mules at the same time.”  

     That is also a great metaphor for managing a city. Driving a stagecoach with that mixed team is always awkward, it can become nearly impossible if someone fires a starter pistol. In Polk County, the starter pistol is growth, and it has been fired! 

    Polk is the fastest growing county in Florida and in the top five nationally. An average of one hundred new residents have moved to our county every single day in recent years. 

     This growth has been caused by a host of political, cultural, environmental, and economic factors that local municipal governments do not and cannot control. This reality doesn’t look like it will change any time soon and it presents us with enormous challenges. However, it also brings wonderful opportunities.  

    How we try to meet the challenges and maximize the opportunities are the decisions we have control over. I am happy to share with you steps we have taken to do both, but I think it is important to begin with some facts about the building and growth in Lake Wales.

Growth Facts

    Local news sources have published several stories in the last few years speaking of the population “boom” coming to Lake Wales and which will create “Trafficgeddon” and overwhelm our water supply. It is undeniable our streets, highways, schools, stores, and restaurants have gotten crowded.

    However, in the last five years, the City of Lake Wales has only issued 532 building permits for single or multi-family homes to be built in the city limits. There have only been 453 Certificates of Occupancy granted for homes. That is an averageof less than 100 new homes built and occupied in Lake Wales per year for the last five years. The overwhelming amount of traffic and crowding we are dealing with is from new housing being built in nearby communities or in unincorporated Polk County. 

    This is one reason why proactive annexation and land use planning is important for  our city. If we do not take these actions, the growth still happens, we absorb the impact, but reap none of the benefits needed to maintain infrastructure or provide adequate services. Now, I want to address…

Future Growth

   While we have not permitted or seen many homes built in Lake Wales in the past five years, the fact remains there is a great deal of potential growth in the future. I emphasize“potential growth”. 

    In the last few years, we have approved 40 development plans (I combine multi-phase plans in that count) that could result in 15,884 new single and multi-family residents being built in city limits. Those numbers can be frightening and conjure images of an overnight population explosion. That will not happen.  

   The majority of those developments, well over 50%, were approved before I was elected Mayor of Lake Wales in 2022. So, they have been “approved” for some time and, yet, we have only issued 532 permits and 453 C.O.’s. That is less than 3% of the homes approved.

    Getting a development from “approved” to “built” is a long, demanding process. It begins with a great deal of work to produce a Site plan and secure a PDP (Planned Development Project) with the City Planning department.  That can take months and even years. After this, the proposed PDP must go before the Planning and Zoning Board for recommendation to the Commission. These presentations often result in requests for further adjustments to the developer’s plan. If the P&Z Board recommends approval, the PDP then comes before the City Commission for “Site Plan Approval”. When you include the annexation, land use, and zoning votes that must occur, each development is voted on seven times over three meetings before this happens.

    Once the developer receives this “Site Plan Approval”, they must produce engineered plans. This can take over a year and cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those plans are then sent to County and State officials for “concurrency” studies. These “Concurrency studies” consider the developments impact on traffic, school capacity, water capacity. They can take up to one year and often result in further adjustments to the developer’s plan. The development cannot get approval for construction if there is not sufficient capacity in any of the areas studied. 

    Many developments which are initially approved by the City Commission never get through this process and come to fruition.With these facts in mind, understand that of the 40 developments “approved” by the City Commission in the last several years, only 13 have gotten to the point of “Site Plan Permit”. 

    After this, the developer must go through the process of developing all the infrastructure before they can begin securing building permits.  Currently, only 9 of the approved developments have reached this point. Those are permitted to build less than 700 residences. Now, some of those developments are permitted in stages and will likely receive building permits for further residences soon, but that is the present reality. 

    Over 6000 of the 15888 “approved” residences are in a single development. The Peace Crossing Development on Hwy 27 between Thompson Nursery and Mountain Lake Cut-Off Road. This development hasn’t even begun the planning process, it likely will not turn the first shovel of dirt for years, and it will take over a decade for the entire site to be developed. 

     Often, a developer will attain the Site Plan Permit and stilltake years to do the infrastructure work and pull building permits. Leoma’s Landing, a fairly large development on Chalet Suzanne Road, had “Site Plan Permit” for several years before it received its first building permit. 

     None of this is a denial that growth is coming. However, I do hope that it brings some perspective to the reality and pace of that growth. The population of Lake Wales is certainly going to increase, but it is not going to double or triple in the next decade. Probably not in the next two or three decades based upon current realities.

Planning for Growth

    We are at times accused of “ripping up the orange groves” and “killing off the wildlife”. The decisions about what is done with privately owned land is not in the hands of a City Commission. Any City Commissioner or Commission candidate that promises they can stop growth is either naïve or disingenuous. State laws and existing Comprehensive Plans give landowners the right to sell and develop their land. They can do this with or without the cooperation of the City Commission; and many of them are doing so because of the unfortunate setbacks experienced in the citrus industry over the last decade.

    The only action a City Commission can take is to try to assume some control of the quality of the growth and garner as many benefits for their citizens. If a city does those things well, growth can bring great opportunities and benefits. I feel like we have been very proactive in this.

    In 2022, Lake Wales adopted a 180 Utility Service Area Ordinance which gives us a sort of “first right of refusal” when new development is considered around us. It affords our city a chance to influence the quality of development in an area much larger than our current city limits. It also sets a “footprint” to guide us in trying to do proactive planning of the growth as it comes.

   In 2023, we engaged in an intensive planning process-“Lake Wales Envisioned”. This process took several months and engaged many Lake Wales citizens in discussing land uses, economic development, and environmental preservation priorities. The study produced a set of several recommendations for zoning and building code change to ensure higher quality development while preserving as much natural environment as possible and stimulating economic development. That plan was unanimously adopted by the City Commission in the fall of 2023 and, just this month, the first changes to our land development regulations were adopted to codify the plan and incentivize higher quality development in our city. I would encourage every citizen who is concerned to read the plan at: lakewalesenvisioned.com

    Finally, a big concern related to growth is water usage and availability.  Each municipality in Polk County has a Water Usage Permit issued them by the Southwest Water Management District. Lake Wales has a permit to pump 3.9 million gallons of water per day. We are using only 2.7 million per day. With our current growth projections, we will be at 3.7 million gallons per day by 2032. We spent a great deal of time seeing if we could find our own alternative source of water and realized in mid 2023 we couldn’t. However, we are in good shape until at least 2032 and we can buy into phase #2 of the Polk Regional Water Cooperative’s Southeast Well Field Project.  

    Along with that, the city is always working on Land Use Transfers with grove owners who are developing their land. This will also increase our water pumping capacity.  The city will have a presentation on water supply and usage prior to our July 15 meeting at 5:00 PM. After that, we are considering hosting a Town Hall to get more information to and receive more interaction from citizens.

Future Articles

   Thanks again to Carl and the Daily Ridge for giving me this opportunity. I will write more articles in the coming weeks to answer questions and address concerns about Economic Development, Parks and recreation, care of our lakes, among other issues that were raised in response to Carl’s invitation to me.

    However, I want to invite any reader; please, if you have questions, feel free to email me [email protected]. Orcall City Hall and request an appointment to visit with me. I have an office there and try to dedicate Friday mornings to meeting with our City Manager. I would certainly take the time to meet with a citizen as well.

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