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LAKELAND — Six trucks can be seen transporting sand and dirt across the future site of Bonnet Springs Park as it undergoes a rapid transformation.
Bonnet Springs Park officials said construction of the roughly 170-acre private park is on an “aggressive schedule” to open in 2020. Bill Tinsley, one of the park’s developers and Lakeland’s former parks director, said over the next six to seven weeks more than 365,000 cubic yards of soil will be moved to terraform the former Lakeland Rail Yard into a rolling Great Lawn.
“We are resculpting the site to take it from a flat field into two 45-foot mountains and carving out a children’s play area,” David Bunch, Tinsley’s co-developer, told The Ledger. “A flat field does nothing for anybody.”
Bunch said contractors are removing buried concrete foundations, railroad ties, metal scraps and other items out of the former train yard to remediate the former brownfield site, once contaminated by hazardous waste. There has already been 37 tons of garbage carted out of the woods, according to Bunch, after a homeless camp was moved to more appropriate shelters.
“You couldn’t see the ground in some places, literally,” he said.
Bunch pointed out how the trees have each been marked with bright pink X’s, a circle of orange tape and, in the case of the 225-year-old oak tree, encircled by a protective barrier.
“Every tree on this site over 6 inches in diameter has a name, number, a picture and given a condition,” he said.
The park’s developers had a meeting with Southwest Florida Waste Management Thursday afternoon to seek permits for a key modification to the park’s original design. Instead of offering water-based activities on an inlet connected to Lake Bonnet, the park’s developers are seeking authorization to excavate the neighboring wetlands to form a roughly 7-acre lagoon.
“We don’t feel comfortable putting people out on the lake,” Tinsley said. “There’s a big difference in the liability of putting people out in a canoe on an 80-acre lake as opposed to a 7-acre, self-contained experience.”
Lake Bonnet’s environmental condition has also played a key deciding factor. The two developers took a small boat out on the lake nearly two years ago with a 10-foot pole, according to Bunch, and quickly realized most of the lake is filled with thick sludge.
“We looked at records that showed water tests had been done on all of Lakeland’s 17 lakes,” he said. “All of them are contaminated. This one is the worst.”
The issue, Bunch said, stems from stormwater that streams off Kathleen Road. The runoff is funneled into a drainage pipe that runs under the old train yard into a concrete container in the woods. Bunch has several videos showing how heavy rains can create a tidal wave of stormwater that carries soda cans, cups and other roadside trash over the walls of the concrete container. It jets into the air, spraying into a natural spring in the woods. Bunch pointed out where the water has washed away the land, carving a deep gully where the spring flows and regularly leaves new piles of debris on its banks.
“We can’t introduce that type of water into the park,” Bunch said.
The developers are working on a plan to intercept the stormwater runoff and install a machine that will sort litter from the water. The flow will then be directed into one of three retention ponds to be naturally filtered before emptying into the proposed lagoon, that will be fed by the natural spring.
“This park will be cleaning up the water here for the first time,” Bunch said. “It will be the cleanest lake in Lakeland when its finished.”
The developers are expecting to receive a decision by June 7 on whether they will be allowed to excavate the soil that’s been washed downhill by stormwater out of the wetlands to form a lagoon. Bunch said if permitted, the rich soil will be filtered and used for potting in the park’s planned gardens.
“I feel pretty confident we’re going to get the permits,” Tinsley said.
In the next two to three weeks, the developers also anticipate having the architectural renderings for a multitude of buildings 100 percent complete and ready to go out to bid.
“I think you will see walls going up by the spring,” Tinsley said.