Contact Jerry Blank

“Jerry’s Journeys” Blog — 2020

During my travels, I’ve been fortunate to see and experience much that is worth sharing.

My hope is that these images touch your hearts, much as the USA’s natural beauty has touched mine.

May the adventurous among you benefit from the travel information I share on these pages!

December 1, 2020
The Hills of Minneola: A Cautionary Tale

Late in 2019, I wanted to get myself back into a regimen of taking long hikes up steep, hilly trails. Up till that time, I assumed Florida was simply a huge, flat sandbar — until I recalled an earlier time when I lived in Clermont, in Lake County, which sits on a ridge high enough to view the entire Orlando metro area to the east. And remembering that, I thought it would be fortunate if I could find similar hills in the rural areas of the county.

After doing a little “virtual exploring” with Google Earth and consulting Wikipedia, I discovered that Clermont straddles the north end of the Lake Wales Ridge, a narrow but prominent line of hills which continues north past Clermont to Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugarloaf, at 312 feet, offers an excellent view over Lake Apopka, and was a popular destination for Florida cyclists long before I lived in Clermont.

Between Sugarloaf Mountain and Clermont, property investors purchased a couple of dozen square miles of forested, hilly land after the turn of the century. More recently, one developer purchased about half of that property from a previous investor, and requested that their planned community, the “Hills of Minneola”, be annexed by the town of Minneola. As part of that arrangement, 283 acres of hilltop land, on a ridge overlooking Lake Apopka, was set aside to be a future regional park.

That deal was sealed in early 2019. The property had been occupied by pine plantations and citrus groves until 2005. Market conditions being unfavorable, the developers left the land untouched before selling out to the current corporate developer. By the time I arrived on the scene to begin exploring, both native and non-native trees, shrubs, and vines had re-populated themselves in the Hills.

During my first few exploratory hikes, I observed land-clearing operations happening a half-mile away. I had no clue the site contractor was just getting started... until suddenly, I would find myself returning to a homemade trailhead to discover the site had been bulldozed to the ground — with every shrub, tree, and vine stacked neatly in huge burn piles. I can laugh about it now; at the time, I was not amused!
But the experience served a purpose: After the second occasion, I made the effort to find the property developer’s map of the site online, and learned where the “regional park” was to be located. The new developers succeeded in reducing the preserve from its original 283 acres. It was a legal move—sanctioned by the Minneola city council—though certainly not an ethical one. To “look at the glass half full”, 65 acres of the original preserve remain — and I was finally able to determine exactly where those 65 acres were.

On my next visit to the Hills, aided by Google Maps and my cell phone, I found the borders of the preserve. They were inconspicuously marked with wood stakes labeled “Veg. Buffer”. Once I knew the boundaries of the “safe zone”, I could relax. It was a relief to no longer be playing tag with bulldozers! I spent the remainder of the winter visiting the Hills of Minneola as often as possible, to get the lay of the land and explore old trails that hadn’t been overgrown by invasive vines, or blocked by fallen trees.

The highest elevation of the preserve is along its north and west boundary. From there, I could observe how the other 218 acres of trees and wildlife habitat were scrubbed off the ridge overlooking Ferndale with mechanical efficiency—and to see it being replaced with a deep 218-acre retention pit that could have been located away from the forest.

On a lighter note: I’ve no doubt the park will be nicely finished in the future. At present, the preserve has been virtually unchanged, even as new homes and streets are being built up to the boundary line. Its existence is largely unknown, except to the local folks west of Ferndale. I didn’t see other hikers using the place in 2020, but I did meet a few horseback riders late in the summer.

Soon afterward, the weather turned hot, wet, and rainy. Tall clumps of grass and red clover shot up quickly along my walking routes. Wild grape vines and briers awakened from dormancy, and reclaimed their lost territory with a vengeance. In the Rocky Mountains, Forest Service trails must be cleared of fallen rocks and trees yearly, or be lost for good. So it is in Florida: There are no fallen rocks to contend with, but any trail that isn't cleared and mowed monthly during the warm season will be reclaimed by Mother Nature!

Eventually, I learned the process by which these public spaces are made usable for the public. It may take several years for the developers to deed the acreage to Lake County, and several more years for the county to implement a master plan for turning the land into a regional recreational area.

At that point, I decided to explore more developed areas closer to home, such as Horizon West Regional Park. Horizon West has similar terrain, but it already has a master plan in place—and its trails are mowed regularly.

My time in the Hills was rewarding while it lasted, however. During the first half of the year, I experienced a renewed interest in taking nature photos. Up till that point, I had little interest in Florida as a place to hike or to take in the scenery. Wildlife photographers will find better prospects on established trails in the Ferndale Preserve or the Green Mountain Scenic Byway, both of which border Lake Apopka. However, there are many songbirds, wildflowers, and butterflies to be found in the Hills of Minneola. I’ve also spotted hawks and bald eagles patrolling the skies over the Hills. Less often, I’ve spotted raccoons, wild turkeys, and gopher tortoises.

I have shared some of the images from my Florida image gallery here, to share with you what I have seen. It turns out the young people I count as family and friends have never seen the yellow flowers of the prickly pear cactus in April and May, even though prickly pear is found in most open fields and pastures “out of town”. And many local grownups have never seen a passionflower; to most of us, “passion flower” is a metaphor for something quite different!

I have yet to see a monarch butterfly in Lake County, but the Hills of Minneola have plenty of queen butterflies, which are just as beautiful, and nearly as large. If you like big yellow butterflies, there are lots of Eastern tiger swallowtails around in early summer. If you like seeing butterflies which are “trippy”, watching a zebra longwing flit around qualifies. Its distinctive yellow/black striping looks just like hazard tape — it is, in fact, a signal to birds that it’s dangerous to eat! The longwing caterpillar produces toxins from the plants it eats. When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, those toxins are powerful enough to kill a bird.

The northwest corner of the preserve has a decent east view of Lake Apopka; its west shoreline is less than three miles away. In fact, the only better view of the lake is the one seen from Sugarloaf Mountain. Lake Apopka is finally beginning to recover from the environmental damage caused by nurseries and agricultural businesses in the 1900s. The government’s first step in that process was to buy out those businesses.

The pine plantations and orchards between the Lake Wales Ridge and Lake Apopka ought to have been bought out as well. The Ridge, narrow as it is, is still the the only real “upland” terrain south of the Florida panhandle. It hosts plant and animal species found nowhere else. It doesn’t take a biologist to understand why those species are now threatened. On a positive note, parts of the Ridge further south have been set aside, including the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest and the Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge.

After living in Florida for well over a decade, I’m convinced that state laws governing development should be reformed. Central Florida still has much wildlife, but it’s being displaced too rapidly. In new real estate developments, “green space” acreage minimums can—and should—be tripled to mitigate those impacts. There’s plenty of land for everyone, and no need for greed.

Along with green buffers, residential lot sizes can be tripled as well. Like most “baby boomers” growing up in the suburbs, I lived in homes with “normal” yards, like the residential lots platted in Orange County fifty years ago — as opposed to the miniature yards of the 21st century, which a younger generation has accepted as the “new normal”.

Developers haven’t just stepped over the line; they’ve stepped right over it and stomped it flat (only as far their legal teams recommend, of course). And yet, they’re not the villians in this melodrama: We are responsible for that. Too few of us have demanded that the Florida legislature make “the line” sustainable and well-defined. Florida achieved its goal of attracting families and businesses into the state long ago. “Giving away the store” to developers now does more harm than good (as if it ever didn’t!)

I am, obviously, a nature lover, but environmentalism is not my religion. I do believe in good stewardship of our natural resources. Floridians cannot afford to indulge in poor stewardship. I speak as one who was born in northern California. 60 years ago, it was a state that was the envy of all others in the Lower 48. In the 20th century, it seemed that everybody wanted to move there. But common sense dictates that not everybody can.

Poor stewardship of California’s resources has destroyed much of what I once cherished as a young kid. Now, few middle-class Americans consider it a desirable place to live, economically or socially. Although I wouldn’t mind living in rural northern California again, that’s no more feasible for me than it is for anyone else.

Florida, it seems, is the 21st century’s “California” — so Floridians will do well to learn by California’s example, and make better use of our water and land.

Currrently, residential developers in Florida encourage new homeowners to plant large native trees, even on 40-foot lots with tiny yards, where smaller native trees would suffice. Their motive is to make their plans seem environmentally sound on paper. But, inside of 20 years, their customers (the new homeowners) discover that their Southern live oaks must be cut down or trimmed back at great cost — or face the alternative: Tree damage to houses, driveways, sidewalks, and streets. The latter, unfortunately, happens more often than not. In fact, millions of dollars’ worth of tree damage is caused yearly.

Jerry Blank identifies a wild black cherry tree (Prunus serotina) in the woodlands of Lake County, Florida. Photo courtesy of Mike Blank.

The author attempts to identify a black cherry tree. Photo courtesy of Mike Blank.

We can’t have a healthy economy without private investment and free enterprise, but we also can’t have healthy cities without creating and enforcing common-sense guidelines for new development. Developers are well-educated, and are adept in the business of buying and selling real estate, but they’re less adept at social responsibility. Sustainable development is not learned in business colleges. Happily, common sense can be learned: Short-sighted developers would gain some sense by having to live a few decades in one of their own planned communities! 😆As they age and become grandparents, they may squirm anxiously if/when their grandkids attempt to find starter homes that haven’t become “money pits” because of decisions their grandfathers made.

In Florida, most residential developers pay lip service to environmental concerns. But deeds are louder than words! By the time the developments are “built out”, very few prove to be sustainable or environmentally sound. Worse, if the location is chosen unwisely, they can become slums in as little as 30 years. But by then, the original developers and builders have long gone, leaving the homeowners and their HOAs “on the hook” financially. Special assessment costs spiral out of control. The original homeowners, in particular, get angry.

Most folks know the old saying: “Let the buyer beware”, especially as it applies to home appliances and used cars. A house is often a lifetime investment, so buyers need to exercise even more caution. Not paranoid, like “Trust no one”. More like common sense: “Trust, but verify”. Take the time to learn how sellers do business.

No good is accomplished by cramming large homes and large trees into small spaces. “Sustainable” development is better for local infrastructure, the environment, and the families who will eventually buy homes — while allowing honest businessmen to earn what they deserve for their investments.

Despite the views I’ve expressed, I accept that it is what it is. If developers had not purchased this land years ago, there would have been no “Hills of Minneola” — and no incentive for Lake County to create a park or trail system there in the future. I’m grateful this glass, at least, is half full. And regarding the future of Florida, my hope is not so much that you’ll adopt my opinion. I’d much rather you gather your own facts, and act on your own beliefs.