Split Oak For­est road con­tro­versy to be set­tled

Meet­ing on pro­posed ex­press­way is Thurs­day

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Spear

Whether a pro­posed ex­press­way crosses Split Oak For­est or veers along homes south of the revered na­ture tract will be de­cided this week by the re­gion’s toll-road agency.

The Cen­tral Florida Ex­press­way Author­ity is pur­su­ing a nearly 9-mile ex­ten­sion of the Osce­ola Park­way, from the author­ity’s State Road 417 at the south end of Or­lando In­ter­na­tional Air­port into ru­ral east Orange and north­east Osce­ola coun­ties. The de­ci­sive meet­ing is 9 a.m. Thurs­day at author­ity head­quar­ters.

Back­ers of the park­way ex­ten­sion say it would solve even­tual traf­fic woes, help pro­vide Cen­tral Florida with an­other link to the east coast’s In­ter­state 95 and be­gin to es­tab­lish a new evac­u­a­tion route.

But the road more im­me­di­ately would serve mega-de­vel­op­ments of Tavistock De­vel­op­ment Co., maker of Or­lando’s Lake Nona com­mu­nity, and Sub­ur­ban Land

Re­serve, part of the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints cor­po­rate fam­ily that is Florida’s big­gest pri­vate landowner, with hold­ings that in­clude the gi­ant De­seret Ranches in Cen­tral Florida.

That the park­way is an im­mi­nent threat to ei­ther Split Oak For­est, which strad­dles the OrangeOsce­ola line, or ad­join­ing neigh­bor­hoods is blamed widely on Florida’s growth mis­man­age­ment.

The ex­ten­sion has faced back­lash for per­ceived ar­ro­gance in road plan­ning by Osce­ola of­fi­cials, a law­suit over al­le­ga­tions of back­room de­ci­sions and warn­ings that paving across the pro­tected for­est would set a ru­inous prece­dent.

Those are over­shad­owed by the deal of­fered by Tavistock and Sub­ur­ban Land Re­serve: As com­pen­sa­tion for rout­ing the park­way across Split Oak, the de­vel­op­ment part­ners would do­nate 1,550 acres of for­est, wet­lands and aban­doned farm­land.

The route would con­vert 60 of Split Oak’s 1,800 acres into road­way and sep­a­rate 100 acres from the rest of the for­est. In ex­change, Tavistock and SLR are of­fer­ing to do­nate 582 acres in Osce­ola and 968 acres in Orange coun­ties. Those two parcels hug Split Oak and other con­ser­va­tion prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing Orange County’s Moss Park and Isle of Pine Pre­serve.

Split Oak and ad­join­ing, pro­tected parcels now take in a com­bined 3,985 acres; that fig­ure would rise to 5,375 acres with the de­vel­op­ment part­ners’ do­na­tion.

The catch to the deal is that con­ser­va­tion lands need care­tak­ing to keep them healthy, and those in Florida have be­come chron­i­cally un­der­funded. The two tracts of­fered by the de­vel­op­ment part­ners would re­quire costly restora­tion and on­go­ing man­age­ment.

Split Oak For­est was born a quar­ter-cen­tury ago from the re­gion’s ris­ing alarm that de­vel­op­ment was de­stroy­ing Cen­tral Florida’s nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments. Es­tab­lish­ing the con­ser­va­tion prop­erty – pro­tect­ing it for­ever, many thought then – was a com­plex ef­fort among lo­cal and state par­tic­i­pants.

If the ex­press­way author­ity opts to pave across Split Oak, it would need var­i­ous ap­provals from Orange and Osce­ola coun­ties, as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion, the Florida Com­mu­ni­ties

Trust and the Florida De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion. Those stake­hold­ers po­ten­tially will have lever­age to ne­go­ti­ate for restora­tion and man­age­ment fund­ing from the Cen­tral Florida Ex­press­way Author­ity, Tavistock and Sub­ur­ban Land Re­serve.

Here are po­si­tions of many par­tic­i­pants, stake­hold­ers and in­ter­ested par­ties on the pro­posed ex­ten­sion of the Osce­ola Park­way:

Friends of Split Oak: Co-founded and pub­licly rep­re­sented by con­ser­va­tion con­sul­tant Va­lerie An­der­son, this grass­roots group op­poses any ex­ten­sion of the toll road into or near the for­est as too costly, serv­ing only de­vel­op­ers’ in­ter­ests and as an over­all as­sault on an area that should re­main ru­ral.

Cen­tral Florida Ex­press­way Author­ity: The agency’s staff and con­sul­tants are rec­om­mend­ing the route through Split Oak as less costly fi­nan­cially and so­cially – largely for not im­pact­ing pri­vate homes and prop­erty – than the al­ter­na­tive just south of the for­est.

Tavistock: “Im­prov­ing mo­bil­ity within our rapidly ex­pand­ing re­gion is a rare op­por­tu­nity with more and more peo­ple mov­ing to Cen­tral Florida ev­ery day,” the de­vel­oper said in a state­ment. “… [S]tate and lo­cal gov­ern­ments have been work­ing to de­velop this much-needed cor­ri­dor. The [route through Split Oak] im­pacts fewer homes and pro­vides a mean­ing­ful ex­pan­sion of con­served lands.”

Sub­ur­ban Land Re­serve: The route through Split Oak “re­flects years of study, dis­cus­sion, and plan­ning among state, re­gional, and lo­cal stake­hold­ers to in­crease con­nec­tiv­ity while also pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and min­i­miz­ing im­pacts to home­own­ers. This so­lu­tion strikes an ef­fec­tive bal­ance to en­hance mo­bil­ity, ex­pand con­ser­va­tion and pre­serve what we all love about liv­ing in Cen­tral Florida.”

Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion: As Split Oak’s care­taker, the state agency said in a state­ment it op­poses paving the road in Split Oak but rec­og­nizes the threat to homes south of the for­est. With the de­vel­op­ers’ of­fer of 1,550 acres, “we agree it is ben­e­fi­cial to con­tinue dis­cussing the mit­i­ga­tion, per­mit­ting, restora­tion, and man­age­ment op­tions.”

Osce­ola County: The county board of com­mis­sion­ers, ac­cord­ing to its spokesman, has no po­si­tion.

Lake Ajay Vil­lage: This com­mu­nity of nearly 100 homes just south of Split Oak was founded 30 years ago. Res­i­dents sup­port the park­way cross­ing Split Oak, putting the ex­press­way far­ther from homes. “Ei­ther route will dra­mat­i­cally change the char­ac­ter of our neigh­bor­hood,” res­i­dent Stacy Ford said. “None of us bar­gained for this when we pur­chased our homes.”

Or­lando Mayor Buddy Dyer: The mayor is also a mem­ber of the ex­press­way author­ity and will vote on the mat­ter Thurs­day. He prefers the Split Oak route. “I think it’s the most rea­son­able plan and bal­ances a lot of the com­pet­ing in­ter­ests.”

Orange County Mayor Jerry

Dem­ings: Also a mem­ber of ex­press­way author­ity, Dem­ings sup­ports the Split Oak route as hav­ing “the least en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact.”

For­mer Orange County Mayor

Linda Chapin: Chapin led in ap­prov­ing the pur­chase of the re­mote Split Oak prop­erty in 1991 so that, she said then, it would be “pro­tected for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.” She now backs the route cross­ing the for­est. “No one in­volved is happy to find them­selves in this sit­u­a­tion,” Chapin said. “But a lot of peo­ple have worked very hard to come up with a com­pro­mise that I can ac­cept, given all the fac­tors that must be con­sid­ered.”

Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida

ad­vo­cacy direc­tor: Choos­ing the route across Split Oak, Lee said, would re­sult in a nearly 10-to-1 gain in con­ser­va­tion land, elim­i­nate the threat of enor­mous in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment on the east side and dou­ble the area’s rare scrub habi­tat un­der pro­tec­tion.

League of Women Vot­ers of Orange County: Co-pres­i­dent Gloria Pickar said her group con­tends that paving through Split Oak would vi­o­late state con­sti­tu­tion pro­tec­tions and lo­cal com­mit­ments. Also, she said, “the road through Split Oak would set a prece­dent en­dan­ger­ing con­ser­va­tion lands through­out the state, mak­ing them tar­gets for road­way ex­pan­sions.”

Lake Mary Jane Al­liance: This group of Lake Mary Jane Ru­ral Set­tle­ment neigh­bor­hoods north of Split Oak sup­ports the route across the for­est. Spokes­woman Suzanne Arnold said it’s hard to get con­ser­va­tion land – and even harder to get the fund­ing to re­store and main­tain it. “The ar­gu­ment of the road not be­ing needed yet just leaves us with a more im­pact­ful route in the fu­ture that may need to cut far­ther into Split Oak,” Arnold said.

Florida Na­tive Plant So­ci­ety:

This group, an ad­vo­cate of pro­tect­ing nat­u­ral lands, rec­om­mends not build­ing ei­ther al­ter­na­tive for a park­way ex­ten­sion. “We en­cour­age CFX to part­ner with Orange County and Tavistock to in­clude pub­lic tran­sit… avoid­ing im­pacts to homes and Split Oak For­est,” ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Juliet Ryn­ear said.

Florida Trail As­so­ci­a­tion: The as­so­ci­a­tion is re­spon­si­ble for ex­pand­ing and main­tain­ing the Florida Na­tional Scenic Trail along the length of the state. The group, which learned re­cently that the op­tion of paving through Split Oak in­cludes an over­pass and ac­cess­park for the hik­ing trail, has not taken a po­si­tion.

Sierra Club Cen­tral Florida

Group: Mar­jorie Holt, the group’s con­ser­va­tion chair­per­son, also as­serts that paving across Split Oak would vi­o­late the state’s con­sti­tu­tion. Her group op­poses any ex­ten­sion of the park­way. “But if the ex­press­way author­ity is go­ing to vote to put a road through that area, it should be to the south to avoid Split Oak,” Holt said.

East Or­lando Cham­ber of Com­merce: The cham­ber’s pres­i­dent An­drew Cole said in a let­ter to the ex­press­way author­ity that his board voted over­whelm­ingly to “sup­port this route with the hope that it will be ex­tended to I-95 or ap­pro­pri­ate thor­ough­fare.” Cole said the park­way ex­ten­sion would en­cour­age growth of busi­nesses and homes in east Orange County.

KEVIN SPEAR/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Va­lerie An­der­son, a land-use an­a­lyst and con­ser­va­tion con­sul­tant, co-founded Friends of Split Oak to op­pose the ex­ten­sion.

KEVIN SPEAR/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

At Split Oak for­est, an as­sas­sin bug perches on a lupine plant. Whether a pro­posed ex­press­way crosses the for­est or veers along homes south of the revered na­ture tract will be de­cided this week by the re­gion’s toll-road agency.

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