Sprawl foes lose battle over Econ River growth

The battle over the Econlockhatchee River, a fight to keep urban development from spreading east of the winding river, was won Tuesday night by developers who want to build 4,000 homes in the Lake Pickett area.

Commissioners, who sat through more than seven hours of testimony — an overwhelming majority of it opposed to two proposed megadevelopments — voted 4-3 to change the county’s comprehensive land-use plan to allow the projects in an area considered to be largely rural.

Commissioner Ted Edwards, whose district includes the Lake Pickett area, rejected the view that what is rural should stay rural.

If that concept held, he said, “we wouldn’t have UCF, we wouldn’t have Research Park, we wouldn’t have Disney.”

But Dwight Saathoff, who had proposed to add about 2,000 homes in a project he calls an “agri-hood” named The Grow said his development is less intense than others in nearby Seminole County and was specially designed to blend in with the rural feel of the community.

Saathoff said his development was needed to provide homes to people drawn to a growing jobs corridor on the west side of the river that includes Lockheed Martin, the Central Florida Research Park and the University of Central Florida, which has the nation’s second-largest enrollment.

He won over several vocal opponents of sprawl, including Deborah Schafer of the Chuluota Homeowners Association.

She fretted that friends in east Orange would be unhappy with her change of heart, but she praised Saathoff as willing to listen and address their concerns. Schafer said Saathoff’s proposal, also known as Lake Pickett South, is a development with both thought and vision.

But most foes worried that the projects will open the pastures, pine savanna and cypress swamp to more development — even beyond Saathoff’s project and Lake Pickett North, another mega-development of 2,000 homes proposed by Sean Froelich and also known as “Sustany.”

Some raised concerns about increased traffic on congested roads and potential water shortages.

“Once we breach the urban boundary line, we can’t go back,” said Shawn Bartelt, a member of the League of Women Voters, which opposed the projects.

But Orange County staffers, who have studied the projects, contend the proposed changes will not authorize more intense development outside the projects’ boundaries. Most of the land east of the Econlockhatchee River — also known as the Econ — is zoned for one home per 10 acres.

The staffers recommended approval.

Saathoff’s supporters argue that the urban-service boundary — roughly following the river — was breached years ago, pointing out that residential developments like Cypress Lake Estates were approved on water and sewer lines stretched across the Econ for new elementary and middle schools.

Business owner Marty Berman urged commissioners to approve both, though previous boards historically rejected growth east of the river.

“Just because that was a good idea 20 years ago doesn’t mean it’s good today,” Berman said.

Several opponents showed short films appealing to commissioners to reject the projects.

John Lina, chairman of Save Orange County, a group opposed to the developments, lent his singing voice to a video that featured images of east Orange set to John Denver’s 1971 easy listening hit Take Me Home, Country Roads with slightly altered lyrics. The opening stanza was: “Almost heaven, east Orange County…”

The song tickled Jacobs, who said, “Nobody has ever done that before.”

shudak@orlandosentinel.com or 407-650-6361.