"I can put out all the signs, and I can hand out all these cards, but it does no good at all unless people go and vote."
As soon as you cross Avalon Road and Plant Street becomes Oakland Avenue, that’s when you start seeing the yard signs dotting the lawns: Keep Rick Polland Oakland Town Commissioner.
The signs are designed in bright yellow and royal blue. They’re happy colors. If you’re a fan of Big Ten football, they’re University of Michigan colors. They are decidedly not the flag-waving red, white and blue colors most politicians opt for come election season.
“I don’t feel like a politician, Rick Polland tells me as we chat at Prairie House Coffee. I’d just taken his picture by the gigantic tree in the lot next to the big white house that the coffee place shares with Farm 9, an organic flower shop. Polland is a “nature boy,” says his wife Tammy, so snapping him tree-side seemed appropriate — but more on that in a bit.
[Full disclosure: The Pollands are financial supporters of VoxPopuli.]
Although Polland, 65, has lived in Oakland since 2000 and has held Seat 1 on Oakland’s town commission since 2012, this is the first time he’s had to campaign for it. A longtime member of the Parks and Recreation Committee and the Zoning Appeals and Adjustments Board, Polland was tapped by the commission to fill out Ramona Phipps term in 2012 when she — citing “too many projects'' as reason for her resignation per the town’s Dec. 11 minutes — stepped down midterm. Polland then ran unopposed in 2014 and 2018.
Now, thanks to a literal coin toss that spurred challenger Matthew Bunevich to run for Seat 1 rather than Commissioner Joseph McMullen’s Seat 4, Polland is the one making history as one of the participants in Oakland’s first election in 16 years.
One way you can tell Polland is not really a politician is that he does not relish this part of the job at all. Campaigning isn’t his thing. Neither is doing interviews. He’s a reserved man, a modest man, not given to talking about himself. Sipping my Taste of Autumn coffee as we sit out on Prairie House’s patio, I am wondering if this will be the shortest interview ever. Then I ask him how he got involved with the Oakland Nature Preserve (ONP) and he just lights up. Nature is the sweet spot. He’s the ONP board vice president and will most likely be president next year. He’s on the board for Friends of Lake Apopka. But if you’ve ever taken a stroll on the ONP boardwalk, you’ve got Polland to thank.
“Even before there was any trail, Jack Amon, Jim Thomas and I were out with our machetes, hacking down the weeds and trying to figure out what the best path would be for the boardwalk down to the lake,” says Polland, referring to the ONP founders.
Um … a machete?
“Oh yeah. I grow bananas in my backyard, and the machete comes in handy when I chop down the bananas.”
Polland takes out his phone to show me pictures, and sure enough, there is a monkey’s buffet of bananas hanging in his garage to protect the fruit from the freezing temperatures we’ve had.
He tells me about the Blue Java or “ice cream bananas” he’s got growing — so named because they taste like vanilla ice cream. Once upon a time, he even grew African violets.
“I love growing stuff,” Polland says. “I have an avocado tree, a mango tree. We have a fig tree. I even like to try to graft other varieties on the same tree or start one from seed and then graft a part from an existing tree so it can produce [fruit] right away.”
“WE'VE LEARNED FROM THAT”
It’s exactly this kind of careful growth that Polland wants to continue cultivating for Oakland.
It’s a tricky balancing act: maintaining the area’s laidback Mayberry charm — now attracting a steady stream of newcomers — while managing population growth. The town grew by nearly 11 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research, with an estimated 3,895 people now calling Oakland home.
Polland’s pretty sanguine about it. He knows the town’s growth is inevitable. It’s how you control it, he tells me.
For instance, he’s heard the clamor for restaurants and retail, and he’s familiar with the Oakland conundrum of wanting restaurants but not wanting the density it takes to attract them. His solution seems simple: set the table, as it were, for entrepreneurial chefs.
“I’ll drive 10 miles to go to a good restaurant. Can’t we have a unique restaurant that people could drive to?” Polland points to Winter Garden’s Chef’s Table and Market to Table. “I’d love to see that kind of stuff here.”
It’s certainly one way to have your restaurants and keep the town cozy too.
“The past four years have been very challenging and the next four years are going to be even more challenging as the growth really starts coming down [Hwy] 50,” Polland says in earnest. “I would think you’d want someone experienced in there to help form what we’re going to have coming in. I can’t say everything has come out exactly the way we want it, but we’ve learned from that.”
No doubt the hardest lesson came from what Polland candidly, and somewhat bitterly, calls “the mistake.” He’s referring to The Avenue on Oakland, a hulking apartment complex, across from his beloved Oakland Nature Preserve, with 342 studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom rentals that opened at the end of 2021.
That is not what the town commission thought they were getting. Polland describes the complex as a “bait and switch.” After the commission agreed to rezone the property from commercial to residential to allow a developer to build an assisted living facility with a 55+ community, the developer sold the property to yet another developer that decided not to follow through with the original plans and to erect luxury apartments instead.
“They came to the commission and said We did a feasibility study, and we found it’s not going to support an assisted living facility and 55+ community. I was very upset. I think everyone on the commission was. I said You’re a big developer. What kind of developer does a feasibility study after the fact? After you bought the property? Without saying these exact words, I said It’s BS. I kinda lashed out at them at the meeting, and the rest of the commissioners followed my suit. They weren’t happy with how it turned out.”
Polland consulted with the town attorney about voiding the deal altogether, but the risk that that would leave Oakland vulnerable to a lawsuit made it a nonstarter. The best the commission could do was to scale back the number of rental units by 158.
“I would think you’d want someone experienced in there to help form what we’re going to have coming in."
The experience hasn’t made Polland anti-apartment per se, but he voted with the rest of the commissioners for the 180-day moratorium on multi-family projects. (A second reading on that moratorium is scheduled for Feb. 22.)
His fellow town commissioner Sal Ramos (Seat 3) describes him as having the “true grit and fortitude to stand up against the developers who have tried to come to Oakland to take advantage of our great location.” Ramos points to the Oakland RaceTrac gas station on Colonial Drive that took something like 10 years to build because of facade changes to make it look like it belonged in Oakland.
“He stood his ground for years with the RaceTrac station until we got a unique store unlike any other RaceTrac for the town of Oakland,” Ramos says.
“I’m tougher on other developers because I don’t want a mistake like what we have now,” Polland says. “We don’t want anything like that to happen to us again.”
“IT REALLY SHAPED HIM”
Polland was 14 when he went to survivalist school in Wyoming. For four weeks he learned how to live off the land, climb mountains and rappel down rocks. The last five days, he was grouped together with three people he didn’t know, given a map and a fly rod for fishing trout and told they had five days to reach their destination 60 miles away. Polland’s group made it in three.
“I loved it!” Polland recalls. “My adventure in Wyoming had a lifelong impact on my respect for nature.”
“It really shaped him,” says Tammy. “He was a leader in that experience with other boys his age. When you tell people he got dropped in the middle of the mountains in Wyoming when he was 14 and he came back, it really had a lot to do with shaping him. It really did.”
She sees his service on the boards of the Oakland Nature Preserve and the Friends of Lake Apopka together with being a commissioner as three parts of a whole — stewarding the land and the water and working to pass ordinances to protect and conserve both.
One ordinance that Polland is most proud of (perhaps even more than voting to lower the millage or property tax rate to 6.4000 mills) is leading the effort to get the town’s dark sky lighting ordinance passed last year. It mandates that all new construction have lighting that curbs light pollution. Lights must point down to light only the area necessary, shut off when not needed and use warm rather than cool light bulbs.
“We already created a lot of lighting across the street [from the Oakland Nature Preserve] with the apartments. I was able to get that through so any future development is going to have to comply with dark-sky lighting,” Polland says.
“We are surrounded by water and we’ve got a lot of night bird life that goes on. It’s just incredible how much stuff goes on in the sky at night. We don’t want to disturb that.”
THE BANE OF HIS EXISTENCE
“I have a pretty high opinion of Rick.”
I’m talking with Joe Dunn. He’s president of the Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA), a nonprofit working to restore the lake and, with a coalition of cities that border the lake, build it into a hub for eco-tourism. He lives in Winter Garden, so he won’t vote in the election, but he’s worked with Polland for years on the FOLA board, and he keeps a close eye on Oakland government operations.
“He’s really passionate about the lake. He lives on the lake. He cares about the hydrilla.”
Hydrilla is the proverbial bane of Polland’s existence. The way some gardeners are fanatical about removing weeds from their gardens, he is driven to reduce hydrilla in Lake Apopka. In September he told me that about half of Lake Apopka’s 30,000 acres were covered with hydrilla. The invasive weed could kill the lake, choking off oxygen to the fish and making it impossible to maneuver a boat.
Polland says he’s heard that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a plan to treat the hydrilla “before the warm weather gets here. But we don’t know the exact timing or the extent or the area they plan to attack first. But I am hoping they aggressively attack this hydrilla, or this lake could be unusable in a year.”
That could put a crimp in FOLA’s angling competitions, not to mention the eco-tourism dreams. There’s not a lot that Oakland can do beyond throwing its support behind aggressive treatment. The town doesn’t have the authority to do more, Polland says. Though not adding to the problem would certainly be helpful. Polland gets annoyed with the boaters, hunters and fishermen who cut up hydrilla.
“They drive through it and they chop up thousands and thousands of pieces that float around and go someplace else and root and start growing too. Hydrilla has the capability of doubling in size every two weeks. That’s how fast this stuff grows.”
The re-elect Rick Polland campaign is rolling along. Apart from the signs mushrooming up on lawns, Polland’s been passing out “Keep Rick Polland” postcards that detail his bio along with his top priorities: fiscally responsible budgeting and low taxes; protecting Oakland’s small-town charm and opposing out-of-scale development; safeguarding parks, natural resources and promoting Florida-friendly landscaping; and building community through arts, culture and community events.
[Rick Polland will join Matthew Bunevich to discuss Oakland issues at the EMPIRE FINISH SYSTEMS VOXPOPULI CANDIDATES FORUM at the Oakland Meeting Hall on Feb. 28, 7-8 p.m.]
Voters who requested mail-in ballots also received a signed “Dear Oakland Neighbor” letter in which Polland stated his case for re-election, asked for their vote and — here’s the incredible part — included his personal cell phone number, personal email and home address.
“It really is important to him to be able to get this right,” Tammy says. “Believe me, we hear. Look at the Facebook pages. There's people that aren't happy. But we can't have growth and keep everything natural. A lot of people want to keep Oakland as it is. But then they want to have restaurants and things on Highway 50. He wants the town to get it right so that we’re going to be happy to stay here for a long time, and residents will be happy to stay here for a long time.”
Resident Scott Welch had a “Rick Polland” sign in his yard, so I knocked on his door to ask why he was voting for him.
“He’s fiscally conservative, as am I,” Welch says. “He cares about paying fair rates and negotiating and avoiding waste at all costs, and that’s right up my alley. I think he’s a terrific representative of Oakland was a whole.” Welch noted that he’s known Polland from the day he and his wife moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago.
“He and his wife Tammy were the only neighbors that came over and greeted us, as the moving truck was in the driveway, They made us feel really welcome. The few times I’ve needed something quickly, needed some help and my wife was out of the country, Rick was Johnny-on-the-spot. They’re terrific neighbors.”
On Tubb Street, I find Casey Fabiano, another of Polland’s neighbors, out for an afternoon walk. “Rick is a good guy,” he tells me. “I’d like to see him win. I think we need him to continue.”
As we’re chatting, a woman walks up with her small dog on a leash. She volunteers that she’s only been in Oakland a few years and doesn’t really feel like she can comment. She doesn’t want to give her name.
“I like Rick. He’s a nice guy, so that’s who I’m going to vote for. It seems like he’s done a good job.” Then she stops. “I don’t know this new person. I’m going to the debate. You never know.”
Back at Prairie House, Polland knows there’s still one more hurdle. It’s something the people of Oakland haven’t done in 16 years.
“My cards say Vote March 8 on both sides,” he says, giving me one. “Look, I can put out all the signs, and I can hand out all these cards, but it does no good at all unless people go and vote. You need to go to the polls. Either way, just go vote.”
Important Voting Dates
Feb. 26: Last day to request a vote-by mail ballot to be sent to you
Feb. 28 to March 4: Early voting at the Supervisor of Elections Office, 119 Kaley St., Orlando (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
March 8: ELECTION DAY, Oakland Presbyterian Church 218, E. Oakland Ave. (7a.m. to 7 p.m.)