One of the things all these Spideys claim to have in common: No matter how many times they’re knocked down, they always get back up. I had never thought of “dogged persistence” as a superpower.
If that’s true, though, then add the group Save Orange County to the pantheon of Marvel-ous modern superheroes. The Central Florida organization has had to repeatedly fight off developer assaults on its rural eastern Orange community adjacent to the Econlockhatchee River.
“This has been an ongoing battle,” said Kelly Semrad, who’s been in the thick of it ever since she and her husband bought their home in the rural area in 2013. They were hoping for a quiet place to raise their kids outside Orlando’s hustle-bustle. The quiet didn’t last.
“We closed on Friday the 13th,” she said. “I feel like that day jinxed us.”
Signs went up the next day advertising a developer’s proposal for a change in the area’s zoning, she told me. The battles to keep it rural have raged nearly nonstop ever since.
“We’re passionate,” she said of the friends she’s made among her neighbors. “We’re relentless to protect it.”
The most recent fight climaxed last week with a county commission hearing that drew hundreds, lasted nearly six hours, and resulted in a suspenseful split vote at 1 a.m.
Their opponent for this round has been a Texas-based company named Columnar Holdings LLC that 10 years ago spent $15.5 million to buy a chunk of a 100-year-old ranch. It has been trying ever since to change the zoning to a higher density than one home per 10 acres.
Columnar’s latest development carried a ridiculous monicker, “Sustanee.” It’s supposed to imply that this is an environmentally friendly “sustainable” development when clearly it’s not. It’s as if some sneering supervillain like the Green Goblin insisted on being called “Mr. Sweeteepie.”
With Sustanee, Columnar promised to create “a unique, environmentally-focused, nature-oriented learning community of single-family homes designed to create a deep connection between people and nature by providing for walkability within a natural setting and celebrating sustainable practices.”
The bottom line, though, is that “Sustanee” would plop down about 1,800 cookie-cutter houses in an area that’s been zoned for low-density rural living, not urban sprawl. Sure, they promised nature trails and open space too, but that was just putting lipstick on the Spider-Ham.
“They’d be building urban density into a rural area without any urban services,” Semrad, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, told me. “No sidewalks. No increase in fire and police protection. No extra schools. That would all be left for the taxpayers to pay for.”
At the conclusion of that six-hour meeting, Save Orange County won by a single vote. The county commissioners decided 4-3 to tell Sustanee sayonara.
While they were victorious this time, Semrad said, “People should not have to fight so hard to protect the rural community that the county promised to save.”
There are fights a lot like this going on all over the state these days. Developers, aided by a governor and Legislature foolishly eager to accommodate their campaign contributors, are doing their best to knock down local opposition any way they can.
So what, I wondered, was the secret to Save Orange County’s superpowered success?
The Econ River, as most locals call it, is a tributary of the St. Johns River. It’s “one of the last unspoiled rivers in Central Florida,” according to the canoe-and-kayak-crazy folks at Paddle Florida.
The name means “river of mounds” referring to the numerous Native American burial mounds built along its banks. That should tell you a lot about how pristine it is.
So should the fact that the official state map says paddlers are likely to see “sandhill cranes, bald eagles, ospreys, hawks, wading birds, wood storks, roseate spoonbills, waterfowl, shorebirds, deer, turkey, and sometimes black bear.”
“The county promised not to cross the Econ River with urban development,” Semrad told me.
Yet as far back as 2002, developers began “quietly putting together a plan to create a city-sized development on the Econ River’s eastern banks — the side Orange County officials have pledged should remain rural,” the Orlando Sentinel reported 22 years ago.
The paper said the plans called for “a sprawling business park, a small airfield, a hotel-conference center, homes, apartments, two schools, and commercial outlets onto 2,000 acres of environmentally fragile land” that up until then had been part of the Rolling R Ranch.
That project never came to be. It was the first of many failed attempts at converting the ranchland of the Rolling R into a sea of concrete — a string that has continued through last week’s vote on Sustanee.
It included another iteration named “Sustany” (note the “y” instead of the double-e). At the urging of Save Orange County, commissioners rejected that one in 2016.
You may have heard that the University of Florida put out a report recently warning that we’re likely to lose 2.2 million acres of Florida farmland by 2070. Rolling R is Exhibit A for what’s been happening.
To stop this trend, “Florida must work to further effective public policy, planning, and land management strategies to ensure that agriculture and its many values can flourish over the coming decades,” the report said.
Instead, our elected officials have seemed eager to push out the farmers and ranchers in favor of the development industry — no matter what the impact may be on our economy and our ability to feed ourselves.
Save Orange’s battle against some other plans for altering eastern Orange County didn’t turn out as well for the keep-it-rural advocates.
For instance, in the case of a proposed 2,000-home development called “The Grow” (I will pause here for all your rolling eyeballs to come to a standstill), the county commission voted 4-3 to approve it in 2016.
Maybe a better name would have been “The Blow,” because that’s what it felt like for the Save Orange folks — a body blow that knocked them for a loop.
But they got back up, as resilient as the British band Chumbawumba in their hit “Tubthumping” “I get knocked down, but I get up again You’re never gonna keep me down.”
Semrad told me Save Orange County raised $200,000 to pay for battling the decision in court. They took their case to a judge in the state Division of Administrative Hearings. In 2018, she ruled for the residents, saying the county had improperly approved an urban project in a rural area.
Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the last word.
In 2019, then-Gov. Rick “I Love the Smell of Bulldozers in the Morning” Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis reversed the judge’s decision.
They concluded the county could interpret its own growth rules any way it wanted. Apparently, it didn’t matter what the county’s zoning had promised to all the people who’d bought their property in an area that was supposed to stay rural.
I think it speaks volumes about the developer of The Grow that he then hired as his builder Pulte Homes. That’s the same company that pleaded guilty to 22 counts of illegally destroying gopher tortoise burrows in Marion County.
While they lost that one, Semrad said, they had persuaded the county to include so many conditions that the development had to meet that so far, “they have not turned any dirt.”
Meanwhile, the Save Orange County folks took aim at the source of their defeat. Their own county commissioner, a real estate lawyer named Ted Edwards, had voted to approve the project, despite what his constituents wanted.
Obviously, the voters needed an alternative who’d defend the zoning code. A co-founder of Save Orange County named Emily Bonilla, who works as a career adviser at Full Sail University, ran against Edwards.
The smart money was on the white, experienced incumbent to romp to victory over the first-time, biracial candidate.
“He outraised her,” Semrad told me. “But she beat him.”
And when Sustanee came up, she voted against it.
I called up Commissioner Bonilla, who verified the story of how her candidacy in 2016 was inspired by Edwards’ wrong-headed support of The Grow. She also verified that Edwards’ campaign raised far more money than she did.
“I think I raised about $28,000 and he raised $350,000,” she said. Much of her opponent’s money came from the development community, she said. Yet she won the most votes.
When she ran for reelection in 2020, “I still had developers coming after me,” she said.
They again backed a pro-development candidate and, again, he collected far more money than she did. Yet once again, her well-known determination to protect eastern Orange County from sprawl helped her draw more votes.
Being on the inside instead of the outside has shown her what the average citizen doesn’t know, she told me. All the talk of transparent decision-making is just that — talk. When I asked what she meant, she told me this story:
One evening, as she was driving to a meeting, she got stuck at a loooong red light. She happened to glance over and see a developer she knew who was sitting outside a bar.
Sitting with him was a recently retired county employee who had been instrumental in the county’s negotiations with that developer. When the retiree spotted her looking his way, he walked over to say hello.
“I thought you’d retired,” she told him.
“Oh, I’m a consultant now,” he replied. Then he explained to her, “This is where the decisions are made.”
“Someone had been telling me about how people on the county staff support developers so when they retire, they all get cushy jobs, and I said, ‘No, I don’t believe that,’” Bonilla told me.
What she saw that day showed she was wrong, she said, and added, “I guess I am just too naïve.”
Semrad told me her organization is not opposed to all development, just projects that don’t comply with the current agricultural zoning. If Sustanee’s design had complied, they probably would not have objected.
Further complicating the situation, she said, is that the owners of Sustanee allowed a company called Ag Carbon Solutions to run an illegal disposal pit on the property. The pit, which takes in truckloads of yard waste, has become a source of contamination for local wells and the Econ River, she said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection told the owners and operators of the pit last year that they had been violating the law since 2020. A DEP inspection report I saw said that the company is “storing and disposing of off-site yard trash in a manner which violates multiple provisions of” the state’s rules.
So far, they haven’t stopped, Semrad said.
Curious about what might happen next to sustain Sustanee’s plans, I called up Sean Froelich, one of the partners in Columnar.
“We haven’t made any decisions,” he told me. “Obviously we didn’t get what we wanted from the county commission.”
I asked if there was anything his firm could have done differently that would have produced a different outcome.
“No,” he said. “I think we put together the best plan we could have.”
I didn’t tell him this, because my mama raised me to be polite, but I think the best plan would have been to comply with the current zoning.
I asked Semrad and Bonilla what they would tell the folks in other parts of the state seeking advice. Here’s what they said, plus a few of my own conclusions:
I don’t know for sure, but judging by the past elections, Semrad will draw a well-financed opponent backed by development interests. I bet he calls himself “Mr. Sweeteepie.”
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