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Preserve in a jam



Clarence Hoenstine is trying to create a park and nature trail in east Orange County. People want it, insists the Orange County commissioner. It's the kind of thing the county has a long policy of supporting.

But some environmentalists don't want it. And the St. Johns River Water Management District says Hoenstine is treading on dangerous ground.

That's because part of Hoenstine's park lies within conservation lands granted to St. Johns as part of an agreement to develop Avalon Park, a planned community of 4,100 homes taking shape northeast of Orlando International Airport. St. Johns officials insist that using the lands for recreational areas isn't allowed.

The controversy illustrates the tension between environmental conservation and open space, which is valuable to people but less so to wildlife. It is also the latest flare-up in the troubled history of Avalon Park, whose developers now appear to be squeezed between a powerful county commissioner and the even more powerful contract it has with the water-management district.

"The problem is, we would like to work with [Hoenstine]," says Beat Kahli, Avalon's general partner. "[But] the land which we have sold to the county, of course, we can't donate to him."

Avalon began life a decade ago as an ambitious project with nearly 6,000 acres on both sides of the Econlockhatchee River. It was originally touted as a future town of 40,000 to be built on a traditional neighborhood model, with shops and offices. But pressure from the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and other activists forced a change in plans three years ago, when the county spent $14.7 million for 3,860 Avalon acres to create a nature preserve on the river's east side. The development shrunk to 1,860 acres.

The county's idea was to link the Avalon preserve land to the existing Long Branch Park and Hal Scott Preserve, creating a 9,000-acre wilderness park/preserve that would offer hiking, camping and such.

But access would be difficult, notes Kay Yeuell, a member of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Hoenstine proposes to improve access by using a bridge on a utility right-of-way. "It would open it up to a lot of people," Yeuell says. "Whether that's good or bad depends on your perspective." Yeuell thinks it's bad. Hoenstine doesn't.

"We feel that people have the right to have access to these lands for educational purposes, for bike riding, horseback riding," says Hoenstine, "but not in any way to destroy, build on or change."

The pedestrian connection to the larger preserve two miles across the river is beside the point, Hoenstine says. The trail's real purpose is to create access to and expand a proposed 50-acre recreational area bordering both Avalon and the Stoney Brook development next door.

"Of course it's community-driven," Hoenstine says. "The community wants a regional-type park. They're sick and tired of these little tot lots that you can't do anything on."

Kahli likes Hoenstine's idea. "The problem is, people can't play soccer here," he says. "If a young kid -- 8 or 9 years old -- wants to join a league, he is told, 'You can't play because the field is full.'"

Yeuell recently wrote Hoenstine to remind him that part of the area Hoenstine would like to clear for soccer fields and picnic tables is already spoken for by St. Johns. "These areas are intended for preservation in their natural, undisturbed state," Yeuell wrote.

Yeuell's letter resembled the one sent to Orange County planners by Elizabeth Johnson, the St. Johns agency's senior regulatory scientist. She sent it at the request of the Orange County Environmental Protection Department, and says she was surprised to find out about the proposal so late. "I felt we really needed to be part of that process," she says.

Hoenstine insists his plan does not violate any conservation easements, despite what the maps show.

"I don't even know where these people are coming from," Hoenstine says. "They're completely off the wall. ... They never came to any of the community meetings we had."

"I am not off the wall," Johnson replies. "I know exactly where I'm talking about." And Johnson says she would have gladly gone to the community meetings Hoenstine says he held -- if she had been informed of them.

"Please consider us available," Johnson says. "We want the project. But we also have certain other obligations, and so does Avalon development. If the county starts making all these adjustments, the one who is penalized is Avalon."

Kahli seems determined to keep his development on track. "I'm very in favor of that park," he says, "if it can be done according to the laws."

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