Ru­ral res­i­dents vig­i­lant as growth looms east of Econ

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Martin E. Co­mas and Steven Le­mon­gello

Res­i­dents in the eastern out­skirts of Semi­nole and Or­ange coun­ties breathed a sigh of re­lief re­cently after a con­tro­ver­sial bill died in the Leg­is­la­ture that could have paved the way for thou­sands of new homes in a ru­ral area near the en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive Econ­lock­hatchee River.

But op­po­nents of the mea­sure didn’t cel­e­brate long. They said they must re­main vig­i­lant, fear­ing that bound­aries es­tab­lished years ago that pro­tect their ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties from high-den­sity de­vel­op­ments even­tu­ally will be re­moved and a flood of new houses will in­vade their quiet re­gion filled wild pas­tures, pine sa­vanna and horse farms.

“We have to be con­stantly on the watch of what they [de­vel­op­ers and state leg­is­la­tors] are do­ing,” said Deb­o­rah Shafer, a Chu­lu­ota res­i­dent for more than two decades. “And it’s not just here, but I think it’s across the en­tire state that we’re los­ing our agri­cul­tural lands — our ru­ral ar­eas — to de­vel­op­ment.”

This week, she was among dozens of res­i­dents on hand as Semi­nole com­mis­sion­ers reaf­firmed their com­mit­ment to the county’s voter-ap­proved ru­ral-pro­tec­tion bound­ary es­tab­lished in 2004.

The same day, Or­ange County Com­mis­sioner Emily Bonilla sought to take a page from Semi­nole by propos­ing a ref­er­en­dum to ask vot­ers to es­tab­lish a strict ru­ral bound­ary along the Econ to guard against high­den­sity growth on the east side.

“It’s al­ready been vet­ted for over 14 years,” she said, re­fer­ring to the Semi­nole bound­ary that des­ig­nates most land east of the Econ, Oviedo and Lake Je­sup — roughly a third of Semi­nole’s eastern side — as ru­ral. Den­si­ties are lim­ited to be­tween one home per 3 acres and one home per 10 acres.

The ap­pre­hen­sion among res­i­dents in the ru­ral ar­eas was sparked after an 11th-hour mea­sure was ap­proved by the Florida House in March that would have done away with many of the ru­ral pro­tec­tions on land within three miles of a state univer­sity, in­clud­ing the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida.

The bill, how­ever, died after the Se­nate didn’t sched­ule a vote on it. Res­i­dents said the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion would have stripped away many of the pro­tec­tions put in place by lo­cal gov­ern­ments guard­ing against high-den­sity de­vel­op­ments in their area.

“That got peo­ple re­ally ner­vous,” said Jay Zem­bower, who has lived on his wooded 6 acres in east Semi­nole since the early 1990s. “The ru­ral ar­eas have his­tor­i­cally been the ar­eas, or the bet­ter grounds, tar­geted for [large-scale res­i­den­tial] de­vel­op­ments.”

Other res­i­dents said it would have bla­tantly stripped away land-de­vel­op­ment reg­u­la­tions set up by lo­cal gov­ern­ments at the be­hest of their res­i­dents.

“We thought we only had to worry about lo­cal politi­cians, but now we re­al­ize that we have to worry about politi­cians at the state level tak­ing away lo­cal con­trol,” said Richard Cree­don, an east Semi­nole res­i­dent for 20 years. “If that bill passed, what would be the point of hav­ing land use and zon­ing codes adopted at the lo­cal lev­els? We’d be at the whims of the state politi­cians. The real is­sue is lo­cal con­trol of lo­cal gov­ern­ments. Oth­er­wise, the state can come in and dic­tate ex­actly how we can do ev­ery­thing.”

Ac­cord­ing to sev­eral sources, the bill was pushed by for­mer state Rep. Chris Dor­worth, now a real-es­tate de­vel­oper from Lake Mary, who has a con­tract to pur­chase about 688 acres of pas­ture­land within Semi­nole’s ru­ral pro­tec­tion zone and bor­dered by the Econ River, County Road 419, the Or­ange County line and River­woods Trail.

In Or­ange, Bonilla’s pro­posal came after east Or­ange res­i­dents’ own bat­tles with de­vel­op­ers re­gard­ing the Lake Pick­ett North and South de­vel­op­ments, just south of the Semi­nole bor­der.

The North project, also known as Sus­tany, was voted down by the County Com­mis­sion in 2016 after Bonilla’s up­set vic­tory — spurred in part by her op­po­si­tion to the projects. But the South project, also known as The Grow, was re­vived last month when the state Cab­i­net over­turned an ad­min­is­tra­tive judge’s rul­ing that Or­ange vi­o­lated its own growth rules in ap­prov­ing it.

Bonilla’s plan to get the ru­ral bound­ary amend­ment on the bal­lot this year was op­posed by Mayor Teresa Ja­cobs and other com­mis­sion­ers, who ob­jected to lan­guage re­quir­ing a unan­i­mous vote by the com­mis­sion to re­move prop­erty from ru­ral pro­tec­tions if they were to win voter ap­proval.

In Semi­nole, a ma­jor­ity — or three — com­mis­sion­ers would have to ap­prove re­mov­ing a prop­erty from within the ru­ral bound­ary. If a nearby city, such as Oviedo or Win­ter Springs, an­nexes a prop­erty from within the ru­ral bound­ary, any land-use changes would still have to be ap­proved by a ma­jor­ity of com­mis­sion­ers.

Bonilla said she changed the lan­guage to re­quire a unan­i­mous vote be­cause Or­ange com­mis­sion­ers are elected via dis­trict, while Semi­nole’s are elected coun­ty­wide.

Ja­cobs also wor­ried about the short time frame to get a ref­er­en­dum on the bal­lot this year. Bonilla, how­ever, said she waited un­til the end of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion so the state wouldn’t try to in­ter­fere.

Or­ange Com­mis­sioner Pete Clarke pro­posed that, in­stead, the county could cre­ate a “sec­tor plan” for long-term plan­ning, like it did with Hori­zon West in the western part of the county. Bonilla was skep­ti­cal if that could work, how­ever.

“A ref­er­en­dum would al­low us to do it our­selves rather than leave it up to a third party,” she said. In the end, she said, “It de­pends on who’s elected to the next Board of County Com­mis­sion­ers.”

Semi­nole com­mis­sion­ers, mean­while, stood firm in de­fense of the county’s ru­ral bound­ary.

“I be­lieve in up­hold­ing the ru­ral bound­ary line and the ru­ral area,” Com­mis­sioner Bob Dal­lari said. “There’s plenty of land in the ur­ban ar­eas that is va­cant.”

Al­low­ing high-den­sity de­vel­op­ments in ru­ral ar­eas, he said, would end up cost­ing tax­pay­ers money in ex­tend­ing util­ity lines, widen­ing roads, build­ing fire sta­tions, con­struct­ing new schools and hir­ing more law en­force­ment.

“Some­one will have to pay for all of that,” he said.

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

The own­ers are try­ing to sell High Oaks Ranch, one of a group of ru­ral prop­er­ties in Semi­nole County, just north of the Or­ange County line and east of the Econ­lock­hatchee River.

PHO­TOS BY RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Res­i­dents in the eastern out­skirts of Semi­nole and Or­ange coun­ties op­pose ef­forts to build thou­sands of new homes in a ru­ral area near the en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive Econ­lock­hatchee River.

High Oaks Ranch is in the Semi­nole County zone that des­ig­nates most land east of the Econ, Oviedo and Lake Je­sup — roughly a third of Semi­nole’s eastern side — as ru­ral.

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