Somewhere between the Harris Engineering building and the edge of Gemini Boulevard on the University of Central Florida’s main campus in east Orlando is a tranquil parcel of land dotted with pines, palms and vine-covered shrubs. The foliage thickens near the road, absorbing the cutting sounds of passing cars so all that can be heard here is the faint chatter of students and the rustling of birds in the treetops.
This eight-acre patch of undeveloped land is part of the UCF Arboretum. In recent years the space has been used as an outdoor classroom of sorts, a showcase of native flora and fauna where college and elementary school students alike have come to study Florida’s natural history.
Simply put, it’s a good place to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
Looked at another way, it’s also a good place to build.
That’s because the area is also the last substantial tract of undeveloped space within the campus “core” – that is, the area within the circular Gemini Boulevard that has not been claimed by classroom buildings, parking garages and student housing. Given the torrid increase in both student population and new construction at UCF – a new football stadium and arena in 2007, a new performing arts center this year, new parking garages regularly – it’s easy to see why the university would want these eight acres.
But there’s a catch: This part of the arboretum is also under a conservation easement, which forbids any alteration of the land. To make matters even more complicated, it’s under restoration orders by the St. John’s River Water Management District after a former arboretum director violated the terms of the easement by clearing trees and planting exotic species in the area following Hurricane Charlie in 2004.
Rather than sign a consent order with St. John’s that would have bound the school to its restoration duties, on Sept. 17 UCF sent a letter to St. John’s offering a trade – sort of. More specifically, the university proposed that the boundaries of the easement be adjusted so that the desired eight-acre space could be replaced by 10 acres of wetlands in the northeast corner of campus.
“We wanted to act sooner, rather than later, to get the process started to potentially shift the easement to a more ecologically sensitive part of campus,” UCF spokesman Grant Heston wrote in an e-mail to the Orlando Weekly dated Oct. 1. New arboretum director Patrick Bohlen agrees that the proposed replacement is more ecologically sensitive because it’s a breeding ground for gopher tortoises and high-quality habitat for other native species. But he also worries about the future of his program if the eight acres next door to the arboretum’s office were released from the easement. “Personally, I would argue that the arboretum program maintain a presence on that land,” he says.
Besides maintaining the 82 acres of land under its purview (not all of it is part of the conservation easement), UCF Arboretum staff also lead walking tours, run a community garden, advise student sustainability programs and provide volunteer hours through cleanups and other landscaping work.
The university won’t say what it has in mind for the site – right now, Heston says “flexibility” is its keyword. “We don’t have plans at this time for specific building A or specific building B,” he says. “All options are on the table.”
That the university is speaking of the land’s potential in terms of buildings worries students like Cooper Brinson of the Student Sustain-ability Alliance. “The university is looking at the land only as a source of potential development,” he says. “In my opinion, the value of a landscape has an intrinsic value simply by just being.”
Brinson says that construction there could have a detrimental effect not only to the cleared area, but also to the arboretum’s popular organic vegetable garden right outside the easement boundaries. Brinson fears that construction so close to the garden might mean that harmful runoff and trash could tarnish a program that has garnered attention beyond campus limits. According to Brinson, around 600 volunteers logged more than 1,500 hours of community service time in the arboretum’s garden last year.
Other criticism of the move focuses on the parcel of land the university is offering as compensation. According to Bohlen, parts of the proposed 10-acre replacement lie in a “100-year flood zone,” which means they’d be underwater if once-in-a-century rains came. “It’s the low point on campus, where everything wants to seep to,” he says. “It’s not an area that one would expect that the university would develop anyway.”
That’s led Chelsea Stewart, president of the Student Sustainability Alliance, to call the move an empty gesture, also pointing out that the university had already set aside that land for conservation in its 2010-2020 master plan. Stewart doubts that the swampy replacement would be able to host the same educational tours and outdoor classes as the eight acres near the arboretum. “Those [educational programs] can’t be replaced or traded off,” she says.
Because the campus largely rests on the Little Econ River basin, any substantial new construction at UCF must be first permitted by the St. John’s Water Management District.
St. John’s compliance manager Bill Carlie says the district is “nowhere near getting to a decision” on whether the university’s request will be granted. He says the issue would probably be addressed, at the earliest, during the district’s governing board’s December meeting.
The creation of the easement at UCF can be traced to the same process of give-and-take mitigation as what the university is proposing now. When UCF wanted to build an extension to Gemini Boulevard in 1993, St. John’s permitted the construction, provided that some land was handed over for permanent conservation. That became a 157-acre easement, eight acres of which spilled over Gemini into the campus “core.”
Stewart fears it won’t be long before the rest of the easement is in the university’s crosshairs. “If they get this space now, in a few years, if they keep expanding the way they are, they’re going to want that last piece of green space,” Stewart says.
Although there are technically other pieces of “green space” around campus set aside for conservation, only those under easement are protected should the university have a change of heart. (Which doesn’t seem unlikely, considering that in 2005 the university broke ground on its football stadium not long after submitting a master plan in which the stadium was absent.)
The university’s latest move doesn’t surprise seasoned activists like Emily Ruff, a UCF alum who in 2004 campaigned against the university’s ambitious development plans in a dispute that went all the way to the governor’s office. “Growth for the sake of growth is the same philosophy as cancer,” she says. “Diversifying and developing their programs, rather than making their student population bigger, is a better place to start.”
When asked about growth, UCF’s Heston says that the university isn’t letting just anybody in. He points to this year’s freshman class, which has an average GPA of 3.8 and average SAT score of 1237. Both numbers, he says, are record highs for the university.
That said, Heston doesn’t see growth at the nation’s third-largest university tapering off anytime soon. “Our commitment is to provide access to quality students that want to pursue higher education, and we’re going to continue to do that,” he says.