More than a year after it produced overflow, angry crowds at county commission meetings, the controversial east Orange County development proposal The Grow continues to divide and define the county’s growth policies, yet it moves forward.

Eleven days ago an administrative judge recommended the county’s July 2016 approval of plans for the 1,190-acre, 2,000-home development be ruled inconsistent with the county’s comprehensive plans.

That reopened flows of opponents, led by now-Commissioner Emily Bonilla, who believe the development east of the Econlockhatchee River violates the longstanding policy of no sprawl east of that waterway and could disrupt the lifestyle of the eastern county residents.

The Grow, which also has been known as the “Lake Pickett South” plan, or, with the subsequent demise of the unrelated “Lake Pickett North” plan, simply as the “Lake Pickett Plan,” is headed toward the Florida Cabinet for potential final approval in about 90 days, even though the current Orange County Commission board make-up probably vote it down if given the chance, and on Aug. 11 Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyke recommended the project be ruled inconsistent with the county’s governing comprehensive plan.

On Tuesday Bonilla wanted answer by her fellow commissioners is, “Will Orange County do anything about it?”

And Mayor Teresa Jacobs inquired whether the county might take a no-support, no-opposition stand.

Yet despite Wan Wyk’s recommendation, a new wave of opposition speakers at the Orange County Commission meeting Tuesday, a likely change of balance in the sentiment on the commission itself, and a renewed pitch by Bonilla, Orange County remains committed to The Grow, and the Orange County Attorney’s Office will challenge Van Wyk’s concerns.

After all, in July 2016 the Orange County Commission voted to approve the plan, and in September the rezoning to make it happen, after years of contention with residents of the largely-rural eastern part of Orange County.

Bonilla was one of the original citizen opponents of The Grow, and her leadership of that opposition turned into her candidacy for the commission. Last fall she handily defeated incumbent Commissioner Ted Edwards, who had voted for the development.

Jacobs, too, has expressed opposition last year, and even did so again Tuesday, though she was not present for the Sept. 20, 2016, commission vote. With Bonilla’s and Jacobs’ sentiments in the no column, and Edwards gone, the commission conceivably stands opposed to The Grow by at least a 4-3 count.

Yet Bonilla’s attempt last January to rescind the 2016 vote was not just denied but rebuked by Jacobs, who insists the commission follow its written and stated rules and procedures. The same thing essentially happened again Tuesday when Bonilla’s requests were again rejected by Jacobs for being out of order.

Bonilla began by summarizing what she said was the plea of people in east Orange, in her District 5, who have filled the commission’s chambers on several occasions.

“They have begged. They have cried. They have prayed. So have I. They have come very close to losing faith in their local political leaders in county…. We now have the recommendation of a judge that the Lake Pickett Plan amendments are not internally consistent with the comprehensive plan. I have to ask the question, when is enough enough?” Bonilla asked.

Specifically she asked that the commission put out public notice that it would consider withdrawing support for the Lake Pickett Plan at its next meeting, Aug. 29, and then to possibly alert the Cabinet of that opposition.

Jacobs and Bonilla have butted heads since Bonilla joined the board last December. Even in this case, where Jacobs appeared to be an ally for Bonilla’s greater cause, the Orange County mayor was not conceding an inch to the commissioner over who calls the shots for setting the agenda – the mayor does – or whether the commission had any authority to do anything Bonilla asked.

One thing is certain, Jacobs said, the issues are too complex to assume anyone has had any time to reach any new conclusion based on Van Wyk’s recommendation.

“I have read every word of this recommended order twice. I have pored through our comp plan. I’ve had numerous meetings with our legal counsel and the planning department. I am not sure every commissioner has been afforded that same opportunity,” Jacobs said. “And I would still find myself in a position of wanting to contemplate whether or not I know enough… I’m not there.”

With Jacobs’ clear frustration with Bonilla evident, no one seconded Bonilla’s motion. Later Commissioners Victoria Siplin, who voted in favor of The Grow last year, and Betsy VanderLey, who also is new this year, objected to anyone telling the Florida Cabinet that Orange County’s position had changed, when there has been no such vote.

“For me, and I know for you, one of the frustrating things has been that sometimes we can’t even get to the meat of the issues because we’re struggling with, I mean, you understand the process,” Jacobs told Bonilla.

About The Author

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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