On May 11, 2005, Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty stood before the Chamber of Commerce crowd gathered for his annual State of the County address and announced what would be his legacy project: A corridor of high-tech businesses and houses where people could walk or bike to work. There would be high-salaried jobs, big-name companies and the national prestige that comes from making a serious dent in the tech world. He called it Innovation Way.
"We will develop Innovation Way with the goal of making it as famous as `California's` Silicon Valley and the `North Carolina` Research Triangle," he proclaimed. It would stretch from the University of Central Florida to an expanded Orlando International Airport, and include a new Veteran's Administration hospital, a University of Central Florida Medical School and the UCF Research Park.
It was an ambitious, widely heralded goal. If successful, Innovation Way could mollify the region's dependence on low-wage tourism and establish the Orange County's national identity as something other than Mickey Mouse's beneficiary. This would be perhaps Crotty's most permanent stamp on the county's future.
The Innovation Way corridor abutted the single largest land holding east of the Mississippi River, a 300,000-acre swath of undeveloped, environmentally sensitive land sprawled across Orange, Osceola and Brevard counties called Deseret Ranch. For the last 50 years, the Church of Latter-day Saints has owned the land but not done much with it. (Today the ranch houses the nation's largest cattle producer.)
In February, the church decided it wanted a piece of the Innovation Way pie. It asked the county for permission to build 10,000 houses and to develop 200,000 square feet of office and business space — a massive development in and around the flood-prone Econlockhatchee River.
Initially, however, county staffers weren't sold. On June 19, they recommended that the county reject the proposed development. They called it premature and said there weren't enough jobs to justify the glut of new homes. Most importantly, they said the county didn't have the financial wherewithal to provide essential services — fire, school and sewer — to this area, which lies on the outer reaches of the county's urban service boundary.
Two weeks later, those concerns vanished into thin air. On July 2 those same county staffers signed off on the church's proposal. The problems hadn't gone away; instead, they were just ignored.
What changed the staffers' minds isn't clear. For some residents, that raises suspicions that Crotty and his staffers are going to shove this project through come hell or high water, perhaps jettisoning their own growth management guidelines in the process.
"When you're at the meetings and you see the county flip-flops so drastically from one month to the next, you know that something just isn't right," says Suzanne Arnold of the Lake Mary Jane Alliance, a homeowners group opposed to rapid development in Innovation Way. "The way we see it, `Innovation Way` is a big deal that the mayor's been working on for a long time and he wants to see it through."
County records lend credence to Arnold's view. On June 24, the county inked a deal with the church. The church would "accelerate and expedite" a road project vital to the Innovation Way corridor in exchange for future tax credits. A week later, the church's development was given a green light.
"Road E," as it's referred to in county documents, would be a mile-long, two-lane road that connects to an interchange with the Beachline Expressway, which is also known as State Road 528. According to county records, the county can't justify spending $15 million on it because current levels of development, nearby schools and present transportation levels "do not presently justify, require or warrant construction of and there is no present demand for Road E."
The church was under no such restrictions, however, and the county wanted to get the road built in part to assuage residents' frustrations over the delay of a long-awaited new interchange with the expressway and an expanded Alafaya Trail.
The LDS church has a hand in that interchange as well. In August 2007, a church subsidiary paid $102 million to buy the International Corporate Park, a 2,900-acre industrial park dormant for the last 20 years. In 2006, the park, Orange County and the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority had agreed to build the $30 million new interchange. When the Mormons took over the ICP — which is just a stone's throw from the chunk of Deseret Ranch that the church now wants to develop — they also took over its $15 million share of that interchange.
The church has considerable skin in the game — a $45 million commitment to the mayor's pet project is nothing to sneeze at. Still, county planners insist that there was no quid pro quo between the June 24 Road E agreement and the July 2 staff reversal on the proposed Deseret Ranch development. That said, county planners are empathetic with the church's plight.
"We've got all of them `church representatives` sitting around the table talking about pouring millions of dollars into Innovation Way East" — the county's name for the Deseret Ranch property — "and we're not approving their land request. I can see how it's very difficult for them," says Susan Caswell, Orange County's planning division manager.
Critics, including some county commissioners, say that's no reason to let the church develop their land unfettered.
As Commissioner Linda Stewart, whose district includes Innovation Way, told Crotty in an Oct. 28 letter: "If the only way to build the long-needed Alafaya Trail expansion and interchange improvement to the Beachline `Expressway` is to add development that goes against planning and financial sensibilities, we insure for ourselves a credibility problem of the highest order with the voters of this county."
THE BIG PICTURE
If it seems like Orange County's in a hurry to get this done, it may be because there's a potential monkey wrench on the horizon. As some staffers acknowledge privately, it's possible that in 2010 Florida voters will approve a proposed constitutional amendment stripping local governments of the ability to make these types of land-use changes without first getting voters' approval by referendum. And if that happens, developments like Innovation Way might not happen.
"This is exactly why we need this amendment," says Lesley Blackner, co-founder of Florida Hometown Democracy, the group proposing the amendment, which narrowly missed the November 2008 ballot but will likely appear on the ballot in 2010 `see "Not over yet," June 26`. "I find it amazing that anyone would propose a development of that size in this economy. It goes to show that the county isn't concerned with the residents' needs but rather with keeping the development industry happy."
But the biggest driver for the church's newfound development plans isn't fear of a prohibitive constitutional amendment. It's more organic.
Asked why in a declining real estate market the church finally — after a half century — decided to build, its lawyer makes a simple observation. "Historically the LDS church hasn't looked at developing out there, but now they are feeling development pressures from the county," says Wayne Rich, the former Orlando city attorney who represents the church.
That's not meant to cast the church as the reluctant developer —no one forced the Mormons to file their application for a land-use change in February. Rather, it's an admission of inevitability. It would naive to expect that, with the church already invested in the ICP and Innovation Way planned so close to Deseret Ranch, the church wouldn't want to build.
That's not what's made this development controversial. Instead, it's the scope and magnitude of the Innovation Way project, and the fact that this area is far outside of the urban core.
At its zenith, Innovation Way could be its own metropolis — already, more than 20,000 homes are planned, not including the Mormons' 10,000. As even the county has admitted, most of the infrastructure to support such massive development simply isn't there.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are worried about the possible ecological damage and the unanswered questions they had about the perceived vagaries of proposed project. "We want the `church` to put all their cards on the table as far as developing goes, because we're dealing with extensive wetland and tremendous wildlife," says Charles Lee of the environmental group Audubon of Florida.
From the county's perspective, the LDS church's planned development fuses nicely with the new urbanism concept of Innovation Way — a place where work and play are interconnected and mass transit is key. "The `church` has applied to develop in a multimodal way, which means that everything in Innovation Way will be connected," says county planner Caswell.
That's exactly what county officials have in mind.
County staffers may be on board, but the public isn't yet there. The church's application for a land-use change — a key initial step in the development process — came before the county commission Oct. 28. There, scores of residents packed the commission chambers to protest the development. Commissioners, including Stewart and Teresa Jacobs — who has since left the board — voiced concerns with urban sprawl, infrastructure and procedural issues. Jacobs, in particular, thought that staffers weren't putting the church through the same bureaucratic hoops other developers go through.
Facing the possibility that the application would be rejected, the LDS church postponed its request. That move was strategic. Had the board voted it down, the church would have had to wait two years before resubmitting its application. Now, it can— and likely will — bring it back up in a couple of months.
"It's only a matter of time before this passes," says Caswell.email@example.com