The long-running controversial plan for major development in lands once held as off-limits east of the Econlockhachee River received a critical approval Tuesday night from the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
Development and regulating plans for “The Grow,” dubbed “Lake Pickett South” by county planners, calls for a 1,190-acre, 2,078 house plan between Colonial Drive and Lake Pickett Road. They were approved 4-2 as even commissioners voting against the plans conceded they were the best the area was likely to get. The board also voted by the same split to deny an appeal of the changes to the county’s master plan, approved in July, that made the rezoning possible.
In both cases, the voting followed the same pattern as the July vote, with Commissioners Byron Nelson, Ted Edwards, Victoria Siplin, and Scott Boyd voting yes; and Pete Clarke and Jennifer Thompson voting no. Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who had voted no in July, was absent, out of town traveling.
Yet the primary issue, one that has dogged the development for four years now and led to a seven-hour public hearing back in July, is the question of whether Orange County should allow any significant development in the flat, largely swampy, still largely natural eastern part of the county, east of the Econ river.
Since 1998 the county master plan has said no, but all the while development pressures have grown, particularly as the University of Central Florida, the burgeoning simulation research centers, and major employers like Lockheed Martin have grown nearby.
The district’s commissioner, Edwards, and his election opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Emily Bonilla, are running against each other this fall largely on this issue, though Edwards is trying to campaign on other issues. Bonilla leads much of the opposition from the region.
The opposition also includes most environmental organizations, as well as many of Seminole County’s government agencies, who also are concerned about traffic impact on their county.
On Tuesday night, Edwards said he has seen a lot of proposals rightfully denied for the area but that times are changing. He noted that Thompson praised the plan even while voting no, impressed by the improvements and the attention to environmental buffers.
“This has been going on for years. The projects have definitely gotten better over time,” Edwards said. “I keep hearing ‘it’s a good project but now is not the time.’ My question is, if now is not the time, when?”
He said there remain 95,000 acres of undeveloped or rural land east of the Econ, including 37,000 managed as open land by government agencies, and noted the new developments are on the westernmost edge of the area, leaving the rest still open.
Bonilla pleaded earlier in the afternoon with commissioners to vote their consciences, particularly after groups provided petitions with 10,000 signatures opposing.
“The people have spoken across Orange County about this development and about the actions of the county’s current leadership,” she said.
“People in every area of the district have told me that they don’t like the decision to cross the Econ with urban sprawl,” she added. “Three previous county mayors and our current mayor says no. Focus development on where it is needed and is already planned for at Innovation Way.”
The vote also opens the way for a related, similar, but different 1,416-acre project, formally known as Sustany but dubbed Lake Pickett North by county planners. The two share road plans and traffic flows, matters that were key to the approval of The Grow.
The Grow developers still must submit subdivision plans for approval by the board, and that could take six to eight months.