Oakland’s Push for Sewers Could Spark Development

If a push to bring a sewer system to Oakland is successful, the tiny town could be flush with development.

Town Manager Dennis Foltz said Oakland could double in population to more than 5,000 residents in five years or less and new businesses could boost its tax base if it gets a sewer system.

Little by little, the town, established in 1887, has gotten pieces in place for a system. State lawmakers have approved a total of $1.25 million in recent budgets to help Oakland lay pipe and build a lift station, an essential facility needed to move wastewater from a lower elevation to a higher one.

Foltz hopes legislators will carve out $2 million more in state funds this year to nudge the project — and potential development — along.

Spurred by the town’s progress, one developer has proposed 650 housing units, including a four-story apartment building that would be the largest residential project in Oakland’s history. Another wants to build 300 new homes, while a third has floated a project with possibly 200 more.

“But nothing can happen until we get sewers,” said Foltz, who has tried to rally support from business and civic leaders in west Orange for the town’s plan.

The quaint hamlet, known for its dirt roads and oak hammocks, boasts hundreds of available commercial acres along State Road 50, about 20 miles west of Orlando and a mile from a Florida’s Turnpike interchange.

Some homeowners are concerned about costs and how sewers might change the town, but others are ready to shut down their septic systems.

“I love Oakland the way it is, man, the way it feels,” said Zac Brown, 39, who moved his family to town about 10 years ago. “But the second they tell me we can tap in, I’ll have my plumber out here.”

Brown, who works in real estate and development, said he estimates connection costs at $7,000 or more, a worry for some homeowners.

But without sewers, the town can’t diversify its tax base, upgrade public-safety operations or add a middle school to its A-rated, K-5 charter school. Businesses are generally unwilling to move to sites on septic systems — and without revenue from commercial enterprises, the town would struggle to pay for improvements in facilities and services. The land that could be used to expand the charter school is the spray field for its septic system.

The town has rounded up backers, including the West Orange Chamber of Commerce and Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, whose district includes Oakland.

Her father, Jon, who died Feb. 5, served as the town mayor from 1998 to 2004 and a town park bears his name.

About a year ago, VanderLey’s predecessor on the County Commission, Scott Boyd, endorsed the project in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott.

Boyd extolled the value of sewer access for 200 acres of commercial or industrial property on S.R. 50.

A sewer system “is conservatively estimated to create over 5,100 jobs,” he said in the letter to the governor.

Boyd also called it essential for “creating an eco-tourism node” that would maximize use of the Oakland Nature Preserve, a revitalized Lake Apopka, and other attractions — including the West Orange Trail and Green Mountain Scenic Byway.

Replacing septic systems with sewers also would benefit the proposed “wellness areas” in west Orange and south Lake counties, he said.

Mike Satterfield, who serves as the town’s vice mayor, said any growth in Oakland ought to benefit businesses in nearby Clermont and Winter Garden, too.

“People have to go somewhere to shop and eat,” he said.

Foltz said Oakland also could use commercial development to lift the tax burden off its residents.

The town’s property-tax rate is second-highest in Orange County. Only Eatonville levies a steeper tax rate.

The town’s progress toward a sanitary sewer system has been slow but steady since it launched a study of the issue in December 2010. Oakland struck a deal in 2012 with Clermont, agreeing to process the town’s sewage if Oakland could pump it to the city’s treatment facility.

The progress has sparked interest from developers who see potential in the town’s location and its assets, including the West Orange Trail.

In August, the town’s planning commission recommended changing the land-use designation of 58 acres bordering the West Orange Trail for developer Dwight Saathoff. It had been zoned for commercial use.

Known for a controversial development in rural east Orange known as “The Grow” or Lake Pickett South, he pitched a plan he called Oakland Preserve that includes a four-story apartment complex, twice as tall as anything in the town except Oakland’s water tower.

Some people were upset by the proposal to build so many homes so close to the nonprofit Oakland Nature Preserve, a 128-acre conservation area with 80 acres of forested wetlands.

“People don’t understand,” Foltz said in defense of the proposed zoning change, which town commissioners will decide Feb. 28. “This could have been a Wal-Mart.”

Residents such as Brown who are supportive of sewers nonetheless are wary about what they would bring.

“You have to grow smartly,” he said.

By Stephen Hudak – Contact Reporter
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