Looking from atop the ridge at U.S. Highway 27 as it follows the sandy central spine of the state, you can see brand-new red roofs roll in waves down the hills to Interstate 4.
Downtown Orlando stands in the hazy distance, beyond Epcot’s geodesic dome and the massive Champion’s Gate development.
Cars are everywhere.
This is Four Corners — where Orange, Osceola, Polk and Lake counties meet at the center of the state. This is also home to Interstate 4, Florida’s busiest cross-state highway, and to Walt Disney World, the most popular tourist attraction on the planet.
This area of unbridled growth and development offers a possible glimpse at Florida’s future.
Fifty years ago, only scrub pines and palmettos were here. That’s when Walt Disney started scouting out locations for his new theme park. In those days, visitors looked from atop the Florida Citrus Tower in Clermont, just to the north, as citrus groves carpeted the hills along U.S. 27. Aerial photographs taken before Interstate 4 was built show a patchwork of groves and farms on the uplands, dotted with lakes and wetlands — then derisively called a “swamp,” just ready for the backhoe and the drainage ditch.
“It was basically just palmettos and cow pastures and open area,” said Mike Terrico, who worked in a variety of technical jobs at Disney World when the park first opened in 1971.
Fast forward 50 years to today, and Four Corners has become one of Florida’s traffic chokepoints — for both humans and wildlife. The area sits not only astride the main thoroughfare between the Tampa Bay area and Orlando — the state’s second- and third-most populous regions — but also in the middle of one of the remaining so-called green corridors used by wildlife migrating between the Everglades and the Kissimmee River, just to the south, as well as to the largely preserved Green Swamp to the northwest.
Additional development in Four Corners could soon choke off the remaining narrow ribbon of green space. Environmentalists fear that wildlife migration could be cut off — possibly forever — if local governments in the area do not coordinate growth to protect the natural corridor.
Wildlife photographer Carlton Ward Jr. of Tampa describes this corridor as a kind of final frontier where Florida’s wild and developed worlds collide.
“It’s going to be the anti-wildlife corridor if we don’t put steps in place to protect it,” Ward said. “Interstate 4 is quickly becoming a dividing line that could cut the Everglades system off from the rest of our state and the rest of our country.”
Four Corners has long been an area to which local officials paid little attention. Since the area is effectively an amalgamation of the far-flung regions of four different counties, none of the local governments has taken ownership of regulating growth. The population centers and seats for each of the four counties are far away. In the case of Polk County, for example, Four Corners is 40 miles, or a one-hour drive, from Bartow, the county seat.
These problems are exacerbated by the challenges of even defining Four Corners. How many people live here? No one really knows. A census tract that includes only a portion of Four Corners counts about 34,000 people, and that’s only about half of the population since vacation rentals account for more than 50 percent of all rooftops here. Nearby, Southwest Orange County has a burgeoning population of about 200,000. And with the most-visited theme parks in the world nearby — Disney’s four parks average a combined 56 million visitors per year — the number of people traveling through or staying in Four Corners every year is likely massive.
The situation in Four Corners has become so problematic that civic and business leaders are pushing for what they call a “One Vision” plan. On Halloween, officials from the four counties met to see how they can coordinate services.
“Four Corners is kind of like the red-headed stepchild politically,” said Tom Kohler, a planning and public policy consultant who lives in the area.
Terrico agrees, saying it’s about time people here started to prepare for problems before they happen.
“For years and years, through the ’70s and ’80s, we’ve always been reactive. Through the ’90s, reactive,” he said. “And I think we’ve always found ourselves as a community — or as several communities — not liking the results of being reactive.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened in Four Corners.
“About 10 years ago, there was a regional planning committee that did a study of Four Corners,” Terrico said. “They put together a couple of elements, put them out, put them on paper, and they became dusty on a shelf.”
A Glimpse of the Future
The rest of Florida may one day look a lot like Four Corners does today.
A 2016 report by 1,000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, outlined what the state will look like in 50 years if we continue to devour “empty” land.
By 2060, another 15 million people — nearly the population of the state today — are expected to move to the Sunshine State. Central Florida alone stands to more than double in population, from about 7 million in 2010 to an estimated 16 million people in 2060. A 1,000 Friends of Florida report includes maps that plot every development already approved or zoned. On paper, these crimson-colored blotches spread out to include huge tracts of land that today are undeveloped but soon won’t be. These lands stretch north and south of Tampa Bay, along the outskirts of Orlando and Orange County, and through vacant stretches of the Atlantic coastline. Agriculture areas and timberlands will be gobbled up by these future developments.
“I think it’s going to reduce the quality of life, because you’re talking about more sprawling developments, spending more time in cars, having water crises, which some parts of the state are already having,” said Vivian Young, a certified planner and communications director for 1,000 Friends of Florida. “Some local governments and some citizens are using these documents as a clarion call to say we need to do things differently. I don’t think at the state level it’s gotten the attention that it needs or deserves.”
That attention could come from Amendment One, which was passed by three-quarters of the voters in 2014. The constitutional amendment mandated that the state use one-third of money collected from real estate transactions to fund land conservation as part of a program called Florida Forever.
But Florida Forever has been mired in lawsuits and allegations that state lawmakers have flouted the will of voters by starving the program for money. Much of the controversy has to do with how the money is allocated. In the 2018-19 state budget, the Florida Legislature set aside $101 million for Florida Forever — but earmarked only $5.8 million of that for purchasing undeveloped lands for conversation.
Four Corners sits where the upper Kissimmee River and its tributaries — which flow south into the Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico — meet the Green Swamp. On satellite images, the Green Swamp looks like a big green blob shouldering up against the urban grayness expanding from Orlando to the east and the Tampa Bay area to the southwest.
In some areas, wildlife migrating between the two regions must squeeze through a ribbon of land less than a mile wide, with development encroaching from both sides.
In April, Ward, the nature photographer from Tampa, took part in an expedition through the wildlife corridor that runs through Four Corners. When he was about 10 miles north of Four Corners, Ward expressed concern that it may be too late to prevent development from choking off the important wildlife corridor.
“You can almost watch the orange groves turning into houses up and down this stretch,” he said. “We don’t have much time to make serious investments in land conservation, because it’s either now or never for some parts of the corridor.”
Ward’s expedition took a group in kayaks along Reedy Creek as it winds under Interstate 4. Cars thundered above in a symphony of speed, vibration and noise.
“All of these places — the Everglades, the national forests — they’re hidden in plain sight of our cities and our suburbs,” he said. “Here, they’re hidden in plain sight of the communities and the amusement parks that are sometimes less than a mile away. These are literally in the back yard of so much growth and development, but they’re faceless, anonymous landscapes that we’re hoping we can shed some light on.
There is some hope for conservationists. Disney World, which has already preserved much of the Reedy Creek corridor the expedition traveled, has also committed to leaving undeveloped a large swath of land south of Kissimmee, called the Disney Wilderness Preserve. Ward spoke there at the start of his expedition. In addition, Osceola County — one of the four counties in Four Corners — has taken steps to preserve some of its land.
“Here in Osceola County, we have an urban growth boundary,” said U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee), who spoke at the start of the wildlife corridor expedition in April. “Our local government has stepped up, and literally three-quarters of the county is now only for agriculture or preservation. So while there’s a lot of density in some of these areas, in the rest we’re preserving it for future generations. And I believe this will serve as a model to other counties across the state.”
For people like Young, of 1,000 Friends of Florida, that’s only a beginning.
“One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that protecting natural lands is essential to protecting the water supply,” she said. “Because it’s the natural lands that the rains fall on, the water gets cleansed, it goes into the aquifer and that’s our drinking water. So the more lands you develop, the less natural lands you have to cleanse and protect our water supply.”
The takeaway, she said, is that growth can’t be stopped. It can only be managed. Florida’s economy depends on tourism, which in turn depends on Florida being a beautiful place. Overdevelopment could ultimately threaten Florida’s economy.
“Is it going to reach a tipping point where people say the downside of all the congestion and sprawl is something that they don’t want to deal with anymore?” Young asked.
That’s the question Four Corners — and the rest of Florida — will have to answer.
WUSF News produced this report in partnership with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, as part of its ongoing series on climate change.
Thanks to USF Libraries, Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections for the land use images.