Save Orange County

The proposed development of the Lake Pickett area in east Orange County has caused a major concern for residents and many businesses. If the development is approved by county commission and the mayor, thousands of cars will be added to roadways, which residents believe that the current infrastructure can't handle. 

The fate of one of east Orlando’s last untouched lands has officially been decided.

The county commission meeting on Tuesday gathered county officials, city board members and residents to hear arguments for and against two major developments happening in the area: Lake Pickett North and Lake Pickett South.

Residents of east Orlando have expressed opposition towards the proposed developments east of the Econlockhatchee River that could change the rural character of the region.

The two separate development projects are expected to add thousands of new homes and cars. In response, residents of the Lake Pickett area have created a movement known as Save Orange County, which has residents, city officials and businesses petitioning to protest construction.

A petition has gained over 10,400 signatures against new growth that will extend past the urban boundary line.

Bill Lutz, vice chairman for Save Orange County and a resident of rural Orange County, says that the majority of the people who are involved in the organization either live, work or traverse the area.

“They all know that this area is not able to absorb 4,077 homes."

The Econlockhatchee River is known as a watershed area and wildlife corridor, and it is the last pristine river in Orange County. It is also the dividing line between Orlando’s urban and rural service areas. The river will be at risk of fertilizer runoff if the developments are approved, according to Lutz.

“The east side of the 'Econ' is made to be friendly to the wildlife and friendly to the watershed, and we need to not bring urban-type infrastructure across the Econ River,” Lutz said.

His concerns are that the expansion of State Road 50, currently a work in progress, is not enough to handle the new developments. According to him, the major roadway’s expansion has only accounted for the housing developments that occurred on Chuluota Road in the 90s.

Lutz, a law enforcement officer of 42 years and a native of Miami, moved up to enjoy the rural lifestyle that east Orlando had to offer and has lived in Orange County since 1978.

Dr. Kelly Semrad, Lake Pickett resident and UCF professor specializing in econometric analysis at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, joined the Save Orange County movement as an advisor.

“Orange County really functions under the assumption that an increased population will resolve and create tax revenue, and that increased tax revenue will resolve in a higher standard level of service to residents,” she said.

However, Semrad added that the more you increase your population, the more services the area demands, such as police and firefighters.

“Ultimately, what will end up happening is that we will become completely built out since there’s no other land to actually build on,” she said.

In order to support the general population, taxes will become higher, similar to what is seen in major cities such as New York or Los Angeles, according to Semrad.

The biggest fight for Save Orange County is not the developments of Lake Pickett North or South, but the text amendment. Semrad says the wording allows higher density for large-scale developments than what the actual developments in the Lake Pickett area are proposing for themselves.

The amendment would allow 12 units, or townhomes, per acre if the builder bought either Lake Pickett North or South and had interest in rezoning the land.

“What everybody in the community can agree with is that 12 units per acre is way too dense in an environmentally sensitive area where the rest of Orange County water depends on the St. Johns River,” Semrad said.

The biggest concern is a recession that could dramatically affect the area.

“Orlando is heavily dependent on tourism. Whereas if we go through another recession, tourism shrinks,” she said. “The number two industry in the state of Florida is actually agriculture. Agriculture is resilient through economic hardship because everyone always needs to eat, regardless.”

Semrad argues that building in this area would be a betrayal of what people paid for.

“People purchased property out in this area based on a promise that this area would always remain rural,” she said.

Although the proposed residential and business districts are expected to add problems to the infrastructure, development planners have come up with alternative solutions in keeping the east side of Orlando semi-rural.

“These developments are actually very creative in terms of their conceptual plan,” Semrad said.

The Lake Pickett South development named "The Grow" will be known as an “agrihood,” supporting sustainable lifestyles in the new neighborhood of 2,900 homes. The agrihood would include a community garden, hiking trails and a farm-to-table restaurant.

According to developer Dwight Saathoff, president of Project Finance and Development, plans for The Grow were modified many times in response to comments received from residents and county officials. 

"The theme of the project will be one that emphasizes locally grown food and agriculture," he said. 

Saathoff said that the gardens, edible landscaping and the architecture of the houses were all intended to create a project that would be compatible with the rural elements of east Orange County. 

"If young people don't learn how food is grown and they don't develop an interest in it, then eventually we're going to run out of farmers," he said.

Saathoff said his family are farmers from South Dakota who inspired his idea to create the agricultural-themed neighborhood. Over time, he became intrigued to learn more about farm production. 

The Grow's blueprints designate 700 acres out of 1200 as open space. According to Saathoff, some of the subdivisions that exist in east Orange County possess much higher density than what his plans are for the agrihood.

"That density of the project is only 2.49 units per acre, which makes it less dense than the single-family subdivisions that already exist out there, adjacent to us," Saathoff said. 

Semrad contests that the builder who will buy the property does not have to follow through with the conceptual plan of the agrihood, as there is no law-binding agreement that states that the property must abide by those standards.

Semrad said that if one rezoning plan is approved, it will create a precedent that could cause a “domino effect”

“What will end up happening is that we will pave our way to the St. Johns River,” she said. “And, we will lose much of the aquifer recharge center that is available out there and that is natural, and we will end up paying lots and lots of money for fresh water supply.”

Save Orange County has created a Facebook page that currently boasts over 3,100 likes. The organization has posted signs across east Orlando, protesting the development of the land and the addition of thousands of cars to roadways.

Orange County Commissioners approved the Lake Pickett South development in a 4-to-3 vote later on Tuesday night. Plans for the Lake Pickett North development were sent back to be reviewed by the state. The final decisions for the developments were voted on by Orange County Mayor Theresa Jacobs and six county commission officers.

“It’s simply wrong to give seven property owners the right to rezone an area and increase taxes on the other 10,000 people that reside in the area,” Semrad said. “It’s simply wrong.”

Originally published on July 18, 2016.

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