By: Brandon N. Kneeld, Guest Columnist
Unprecedented - that’s typically the word of choice for describing the population growth in the Four Corners region. Various estimates put the greater Davenport area among the fastest growing in the state, if not the nation. In just four years here, I’ve watched multiple developments, mostly neighborhoods, spring up all along our corridors. Imagine how shocking that must be for longtime residents that have been here for forty years, growing up on rural boulevards where everybody knew everybody, work was local, and citrus was king.
Many of these lifelong residents have come to me with their frustrations asking how we can allow such unchecked growth and the plowing under of orange groves that were once synonymous with this part of Florida? The truth, for better or worse, is that we have neither the power to allow nor to prohibit the sale and development of land. It’s the individuals and companies that own the land and cultivated it that get to decide what to do with it next. When greening, canker, and other diseases took their toll on the industry, many companies began closing doors and abandoning groves well before the developers showed up. Now, as the region becomes the affordable housing market for Orlando, landowners find their property is far more valuable to developers than it could ever again be for agriculture.
What we can do, however, is modernize our zoning laws and land use regulations, actions recently taken by the City of Davenport, to better manage the growth, get out ahead of it, and provide for the needs of current and future residents. Polk County recently restored impact fees to 100% of their levels before the last economic downturn, allowing funding for future planning and construction of new infrastructures like roads, schools, and other services.
Although these are great, necessary steps, admittedly we’ve been slow to react and now find ourselves behind the proverbial 8-ball, playing catch-up to remediate impacts from the growth that’s already occurred and funding opportunities that were
One major reason for the slow response to growth is distance. Polk County is one of Florida’s largest counties and many NE Polk residents find themselves an hour away from their representatives in Bartow. Historically, public officials and staff had little reason to venture to this portion of the county, and even now there are few facilities, events, or organizations to attract their attention. Municipalities like Davenport and Haines City provide some local voice, but their influence is limited to the small segments of the overall population that live within their city limits on the southern edge of the region. In fact, a rough estimate suggests as few as 15% of residents with a Davenport address live within the city limits; while homes and businesses all the way to the county line and US-192 have a Davenport address, the city limits stop over four miles south of I-4.
Even the population numbers are questionable as there is no formal designation for the area and regional numbers get mixed into countywide or other metropolitan estimates. Even in the municipalities like Davenport, where official annual estimates are conducted, the official population stands at over 5,600 with 13+% year-over-year growth, but internal estimates suggest that number could be closer to 9,000. Applying these estimates to the entire region, it may be conservative to suggest the area’s population is in the neighborhood of 60,000-90,000, a figure only surpassed by Lakeland in Polk County. Unfortunately, we won’t know the actual numbers until next year’s official count in the decennial census.
These numbers are a staggering change from the sleepy NE Polk County of yesteryear, and there are no signs that the growth will subside anytime soon. Our residents must take the initiative to be involved in the political process and insist on leadership in the areas of infrastructure and services to meet the demands of the region. We can’t afford to have leaders that will be complacent when it comes to growth and change. That means staying informed and being active on local and regional boards. It also means voting and supporting candidates that reflect our new reality, including our changing values. We have an opportunity to build a dynamic community based both on our history and our diversity, but if we fail to make our voices heard, we will find ourselves falling further behind in the race to keep up with growth and change.
About the Author: Brandon N. Kneeld is a City Commissioner for Davenport and works as a Systems Engineer for Disney. He serves on several local boards. He lives in Davenport with his husband, Akihito, and their infant son, Andrew.