Orange County’s new Democratic Mayor and County Commission declined Tuesday to take up any of three environmental projects being pushed by one of the few holdovers and Democrats from the previous board, giving short shrift to Commissioner Emily Bonilla‘s pitches on solar energy and two land preservation measures.
The rejections by Mayor Jerry Demings and the Orange County Commission offered few and only subtle glimpses as to whether Bonilla, elected in 2016 on a platform heavily weighted by environmental and land conservation interests, can expect philosophical allies in the new board’s members. Demings and several of the other commissioners indicated they liked some of what she offered. But they told her essentially what former Mayor Teresa Jacobs often told her during her first two years in office despite sometimes agreeing with her philosophically: not now, they’re not ready.
Bonilla asked the commission Tuesday to pursue resolutions that would have opposed a proposed highway through the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area in southeast Orange County; purchase about 30 acres of pristine and historic land for a preserve or park in northeast Orange County; and to allocate seed money for a solar energy microloan program for low-income residents.
Each of the issues brought numerous speakers to Tuesday’s Orange County Commission meeting, as they have individually done in previous discussions of Split Oak, the Wayne Harrod property, and solar energy, under the commission that had a different mayor, Jacobs, four other commissioners, and a Republican majority.
Bonilla has been pursuing the projects for most of the past two years, but found only limited support among the past commissioners.
Bonilla’s proposal to stop the road plan through Split Oak, first established as a permanent nature preserve in 1994, would set Orange County at odds with neighboring Osceola County. Osceola wants the road to help support a large area of development being planned in east Orange and Osceola. The road alignment through the Split Oak preserve is being considered along with other alignment options by the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which controls toll road development and management in both counties.
“That area was supposed to be a rural area anyway, with low traffic, and this [road proposal] isn’t in agreement with the future plans for that area,” Bonilla argued, referring to far-east Orange and Osceola counties. “And putting a road through Split Oak Forest just goes against the principles that environmentalists everywhere have stood for purchasing property for conservation.”
Demings and several commissioners, including the new commissioner for that district, Maribel Gomez Cordero, said they wanted to see the expressway authority finish its studies before weighing in.
A few minutes earlier, Demings shot down Bonilla’s proposal for $100,000, which she proposed could be transferred from unspent 2018 county money, to start a seed a microloan program proposed in Orange County by the Solar Energy Loan Fund.
Demings said he wants to bring his own, comprehensive sustainable energy plan to the commission first, before considering any piecemeal programs.
The proposed new preserve, on land held and managed by developer Wayne Harrod for 30 years, was tabled as no one was certain yet what it might cost. Bonilla proposed transferring $2.5 million that had been allocated for a still-unstarted east Orange County park by her predecessor, and to pursue matching preservation land purchase money from the state. But appraisals of the property ranged from $5.3 million to $7 million.
Of the three, that proposal seemed to draw the most interest from other commissioners, who marveled at the property’s pristine woods along the Little Econlochkatchee River, its ruins of a 300-plus-year-old bridge, and the likely high development pressures surrounding it.
“I think it’s a beautiful piece of property. I’m quite the history buff and I’m really excited to hear about it,” said Commissioner Christine Moore.
But not now; it’s not ready, Moore, Demings and the commission told Bonilla.
“I don’t believe we have sufficient information to make a decision,” Demings said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to look for preservation lands. Because I think that’s a priority we all want our county to be the type of county that preserves our lands and makes certain we have a high quality of life here, but.”