"Isn't she just a beauty?" Cecilia Height, a Sierra Club activist, asks. She's standing on a white-sand bluff overlooking a drought-drained Econlockhatchee River at the Little/Big Econ State Forest in Chuluota, a few miles north of the Seminole/Orange county divide. "At least I think so. And we're losing it."
Around her are age-old cypress, oak and palm trees growing in the marshy area where a predrought river flowed. She points to what she thinks is a bobcat's hairball.
"Wouldn't this make a nice subdivision?" Height mutters ironically. She doesn't think it will be long before the land all around here is bulldozed, dirt-filled and cemented over. Indeed, much of it already is.
In June, the Orange County Commission will vote on the first phase of the east-west connector, a road designed to eventually run from Orlando's city limits to the edge of the Econ's banks not too far south of this point.
Proponents say it will alleviate traffic in a congested and rapidly developing area. Opponents counter that it will encourage sprawl and threaten the Econ's fragile ecosystem. But at its core, the brouhaha surrounding the east-west connector is a battle over the inevitability of development's surge across the Econ.
"If there was one thing I could say to our local leaders," Height says, "it's, ‘please, please, please -- leave some of our natural resources alone.'"
"If nothing else," says Barbara Bess, a coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Protection and head of the Econ Working Group, a coalition of more than 30 environmental and government agencies charged with assessing of the river's basin, "the Econ is remarkable because it is still relatively pristine. You can canoe, you can fish -- and you can do all that safely, because the water quality is good."
Yet the Econ is more than just a pretty picture: It's also Orange County's urban-service boundary -- a point beyond which the strip malls and tract housing that dot the rest of the county's landscape simply aren't allowed.
But even as officials jump on the growth-management bandwagon, some see the county laying the infrastructure for wide-scale development to head east past the river, into the land environmentalists call "the gates of hell." Simply put, development near the river creates flooding problems. Plus it destroys the habitats of hundreds of indigenous and sometimes rare plants and animals, not to mention further polluting the already contaminated underground water-storage basin.
The current battle hinges on this fact: Over the next 20 years, the county wants to build a four-lane thoroughfare connecting State Road 436 on the west to North Tanner Road, currently a sparsely populated two-lane dirt road just a few hundred feet from the Econ's west bank.
That's an odd place to end a major highway, says Marge Haverland-Holt, who sat on the road project's advisory committee. Indeed, landowners on the other side of the Econ already have offered their land to a possible tenant -- the University of Central Florida's Research Park, which will be built out in less than 10 years and looking to expand.; ;
For now, UCF has turned down that offer, says Joe Wallace, the research park's executive director. But if and when the park grows, there's only one direction: east, across the river.
Three years ago, the county commission laid the groundwork for development to cross that geographic barrier. Prompted by Commissioner Ted Edwards, whose district includes UCF and the research park, the commission voted 4-3 to oversize utility lines already headed out past the Econ to a subdivision on State Road 419, making it easier for future developments to access county utilities.
"I thought that was a terrible move," says Commissioner Mary Johnson, who joined with then-Chairman Linda Chapin and environmental groups in opposing Edwards. "It provided service for an area that really did not need to be expanded at this time -- or maybe ever."
Edwards defended the vote as pragmatic, saying it saved the county money; rather than promoting sprawl, he said he was preparing for the future. After all, he says, development east of the river will occur one day, like it or not. But that day hasn't come yet. "Every time a developer comes in," Edwards says, "I turn them down early. I've had a rule: Nothing east of the Econ."
The county's road plans, however, suggest a different reality.
A few months prior to the vote on utility lines, the commission approved the East Orange County Transportation Needs Study, a blueprint of 11 road projects proposed for the next 20 years. Included was a new east-west connector, the first five-mile phase of which would run from Orlando's eastern edge to Dean Road. It would cost about $38 million and take five to seven years to build. Along the way it would eat up 22 homes and 24 acres of wetlands.
But it's the next two phases -- the third would link to North Tanner Road -- that are the most contentious.
"Who's going to benefit?" asks Kim Lafluer, head of the East Orange Citizens Coalition, a grass-roots group dedicated to defeating the connector. "The people at the end of this road, they want this road badly. The rest of us are going to lose."
Lafluer will lose by having the road cut right through his neighborhood, depressing his property values, he says. Others will lose by having their homes taken or having a highway put in their backyard.
"It's all to support more growth," says Eugene Staccardo, another EOCC leader.
Orange County project manager Christine Kefauver says that's not so: The connector is a response to existing and planned development. That's it. Alarmist talk of the road crossing the Econ, say both she and Edwards, is a "red herring."
Edwards, in fact, doesn't think the commission will vote to extend the connector past Rouse Road, which would bring it to a halt halfway between State Road 436 and the river.
"We are not crossing the Econ River," Kefauver says.
But for how long? Kefauver says that directive came from Chapin, who now says: "Even I would say there's no point in saying we'll never go across the river."
Will it be the university's expansion that drives it? The research park can't expand on its own; its development is guided by a nine-member board, eight of whom are appointed by Orange County. "If the county chooses to develop east of the Econ," says the research park's Wallace, "and if they want to attract more high-paying jobs," then he'll reconsider the offer of land for expansion.
On this point, he and Edwards are allies: Because UCF and its research park are so vital to East Orange County's economy, Edwards expects the first developments allowed across the Econ will "probably tie-in" with the university.
As the road moves closer to reality, Kefauver increasingly finds herself the target of activists who oppose the project. At an advisory hearing this spring of the Local Planning Agency (LPA), dozens of residents blasted the plan -- and, sometimes, Kefauver personally.
At best the critics said it's irresponsible; at worst, they called Kefauver a liar and insinuated she was a pawn for developers. "I don't know why they feel they were misled," she says. Still, the LPA, which was set to send the project to the county commission for final approval, delayed its vote and directed Kefauver to set up another hearing.; ;
That April 5 meeting, at University High School, saw more of the same tension -- only without the restraint of a county forum. During her hourlong presentation, Kefauver was booed, sworn at and again labeled a liar.; ;
The advisory team, Kefauver concedes, never reached consensus. Some people simply didn't accept the road's necessity, she says.
EOCC members see it differently: County officials, they say, are ramming it down residents' throats.; ;
"They want to get across the Econ eventually to open up that land," Staccardo believes. "The connector provides an excuse to go across the river."
The Econ has seen its share of battles. For 5,000 years, it served as a central highway for thriving Native American tribes. As in so many other places, European disease wiped out the natives, leaving only artifacts and religious symbols buried near the river's banks.
The Econ, a large tributary of the St. Johns River, spent most of this century as a drainage ditch for sewage shipped out to the St. Johns. By 1987, in fact, there were no less than 13 sewage-treatment plants from the Econ's headwaters in Osceola County to Seminole County, where it feeds into the larger river.
Then environmentalists and state officials rediscovered the virtues of the so-called "Hidden River." Because it provided such a good habitat for so many different species, the state Department of Environmental Protection shut down the sewage plants. Moreover, land around the river was added to the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CRL) list; in the last decade, through CRL funds and the St. Johns River Water Management District, the state and county have bought about 20,000 of those acres of environmentally sensitive lands for preservation, including the Little/Big Econ State Forest.
In another win for environmentalists, the Florida Legislature in 1993 designated the Econ as an "Outstanding Florida Waterway" -- over loud objections of adjacent landowners -- thus making it easier to restrict potential developments. Shortly afterward, the state established 550-foot, no-development buffers on both sides of the river.
Like the rest of Central Florida, the land between the Econ and St. Johns rivers is about 25 percent wetlands. Unlike other spots, though, most of the land is low-lying -- sometimes sitting less than a foot above the underground water-storage layer known as the surficial aquifer -- and consists mostly of porous soils. In other words, it's flood-prone.
But not all of it, says Ken Bosserman, a real-estate agent who's served on nearly every Econ task force or study group in the past decade. Both Christmas and Wedgefield, two Orange County developments east of the Econ, sit on relatively high ground. Bithlo, however, a just a mile or so west of the river, has seen its share of flooding problems.
In Seminole County, places such as Chuluota and Geneva Hills also sit on sandy uplands -- the type preferable for large construction projects. But most of the undeveloped land, cautions Bosserman, is better off that way.
Just north of Orange County, development east of the Big Econ in Oviedo has exploded in the past decade. High-intensity developments such as Live Oak Reserve, the Sanctuary and Twin Rivers all sit in swampy land east of the river.
In Orange, the county approved a handful of subdivisions east of the river in the 1980s. But Orange didn't face its first real Econ battle until 1993, when the proposed Avalon Park subdivision -- half of which went west of the Econ -- came before the county commission.
Originally touted as a town for 40,000 residents on 6,000 acres, Avalon Park faced huge pressure from environmental groups. Even after the commission approved it -- 4-3, with Chapin casting the deciding vote -- it remained controversial. By 1996, the developer sold the acreage east of the river to the county for preservation and began building on the west side.
Development along the Little Econ, which sits inside the urban-service area, is even more intense. (The transportation study also calls for another crossing of the Little Econ.) Though not as fragile as its sibling, the Little Econ still has a tendency to flood the subdivisions that overlook its banks. Just ask Sue Eberle.
In 1994, Tropical Storm Gordon brought the Little Econ right up to Eberle's back door. In her neighborhood, in fact, a cul-de-sac flooded and two homes were surrounded by water.
That impact was felt up and down the river's banks. Later, officials labeled Gordon a 10-year event, meaning they expected such a storm once a decade. During the "big one," a 100-year event, Eberle's house may become part of the river.
Any hurricane, environmentalists warn, could do the same thing to new developments along the Big Econ's shore.
"Every respectable environmentalist," says Height, "is praying for a hurricane -- then they'll all see what we've been talking about."
"I never understood," Edwards says, "why it is you can have a university a mile from the river ... on the west side, and on the other side, it turns into different lands."
The land east of the river, he adds, doesn't have a greater percentage of wetlands than any other part of the county. It may be low-lying, Edwards says, but "to say it can't be developed -- [environmentalists are] they're distorting the facts."
Most of the area's high, dry land, Bosserman counters, has been built on. All that's left, particularly near the Orange/Seminole county line, are "badlands." Specifically, he says, the land that's been offered to the UCF research park is about 60 percent wetlands, most of which lies within the flood plain.
The closer development gets to the Econ, says UCF engineering dean Marty Wanielista, the worse it is for the river -- and the developments around it. Unlike most other rivers in Florida, the Econ is fed by groundwater, not springs. Development affects the groundwater flow, which in turn accentuates the river's extremes, meaning greater floods and more extreme droughts.
Beyond that, the flood-plain impact is unclear. A thorough study hasn't been completed in more than 15 years, though Orange County currently has one under way. The Econ Working Group should complete that assessment soon.
Right now, says Orange County stormwater manager M. Krishnamurthy, it doesn't appear development east of the river necessarily causes flooding -- so long as developers follow the rules. Indeed, he says, most of the problems in the Econ basin come from developments built before the county implemented its stormwater regulations in the 1970s, such as Rio Pinar.
"The new stuff should drain pretty well," says Mary Brabham, a stormwater engineer with the St. Johns River Water Management District, "[but] I'm not saying it won't flood. Our rules are supposed to help, but it is a change to the balanced ecosystem when you put pavement on it."
The surficial aquifer, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, is already horribly polluted. Its "potential vulnerability" -- meaning its contamination level -- is a 6 on an 8-point scale, with 8 being the worst. It's "pesticide vulnerability," on the same scale, is an 8. That's bad news for those who don't use county utilities and rely on well water. More development will only make it worse. "Once you get [contaminants] down in the groundwater," Bess says, "it's hard to get [them] out."
Animals, too, are threatened. The Econ plays home to all sorts of critters, from gopher tortoises to wild boars to diamondback rattlesnakes. Roads and houses cut through habitat. And over time -- especially with larger species, as evidenced elsewhere by the shrinking number of Florida black bears -- habitat fragmentation, as it's called, can be deadly.
"We as taxpayers need to address how important our natural resources are to us," says biologist Yvonne Froscher, who has worked on Econ issues for Orange County. "I know that there are many people [who] probably never walked in a swamp that had water in it. They've never seen a real rattlesnake. It's hard for these people to have an appreciation of the natural system in which we live."
The Local Planning Agency's unanimous endorsement of the east-west connector seemed a foregone conclusion. No one believed the LPA -- which reviews new road projects for their consistency with the county's development plan -- would turn it down. They never have before.
Moments after the vote, two elevators in the Orange County Administration Building were jammed with critics on their way to the offices of the county commission, which has the final say when it considers the project next month.
Even if the commission backs it, Lafluer says, they won't give up. "This road's gonna end up in litigation," he says. "We're gonna take it to court."