Development battle brews along river near Orlando

Classic struggle pits high-tech jobs against a fragile environment

January 27, 2002|By Christine Shenot | Christine Shenot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - No local waterway faces a greater threat from development than the fragile Econlockhatchee River, which winds along Orlando's eastern edges.

And no goal looms larger for Orange County leaders than attracting high-tech jobs - the kind found in the fast-growing research park just west of the Econ's fringe of forested wetlands.

Now, competing desires to protect the river and to strengthen the economy may collide in a clash of values the likes of which the county hasn't seen in nearly a decade.

For years, the mantra of growth-control advocates has been: `Not east of the Econ!'

But developers have begun to eye one of the last unspoiled expanses of private land on the river, more than 2,000 acres of pasture, woods and wetlands that grace its eastern banks. The nearby Central Florida Research Park could run out of space by 2006, and the Rybolt ranch is the target for expansion.

The ranch, described by one environmental consultant as "the big link" in safeguarding the river and its wildlife, sits just two miles from the research park and the University of Central Florida.

County officials say the only development they even would consider at the ranch is one aimed at nurturing the university and drawing more high-paying jobs.

"That is something I think we should look at," said Commissioner Ted Edwards, whose district includes the property.

Exactly what the developers might propose - and when - remains unclear. Hugh Harling, who has won approval for other controversial projects in the area, has talked privately with county and regional planners about the Rybolt property. But he has yet to submit a detailed proposal, and he did not respond to inquiries about what might be in the works.

Meanwhile, on part of the property west of the river, where Harling did the engineering work for a subdivision called Rybolt's Reserve, the water-management district recently took court action to halt construction because it was too close to a bald eagle's nest. The agency also cited a contractor for clearing and filling wetlands that were supposed to be preserved.

Even if plans for the remaining ranch property ultimately mesh with the goal of luring high-tech jobs, there's sure to be a firestorm when county commissioners take up the issue.

In December, a mention in a road study about a bridge over the Little Econ prompted scores of residents to pack a commission meeting in opposition. Elected leaders took the symbolic step, in a 4-2 vote, to declare they don't want a bridge there or across the Big Econ, either, which would be key to developing the Rybolt land.

`Major land-use battle'

The as-yet-undefined proposal for the ranch could be the embryo of one of the three biggest growth-management fights in 15 years, predicted David Heath, deputy county administrator. The other two, also in east Orange, were wins for the development side.

"This is going to be a major land-use battle," he said.

Follow the serpentine, northerly flow of the Econlockhatchee River from the air, and its role as a natural barrier to urban sprawl becomes starkly apparent.

To the east, the thick greenery along its flood-prone banks gives way to a patchwork of pasture, slash pine, palmetto and wetland pockets dominated by baldcypress.

But look west toward Orlando, and the landscape changes weekly. Bulldozers have carved into woods from the massive Avalon Park community on south Alafaya Trail northward to Oviedo in Seminole County.

In the 1990s, more than 85,000 people swarmed to new neighborhoods in east Orange and Seminole counties, bringing a population nearly half the size of Orlando to formerly rural areas of the river's drainage basin.

Environmentalists, who fear similar harmful changes east of the river, have long wanted to buy the Rybolt property for preservation.

Stretching from the river east toward Chuluota Road and from the Orange-Seminole border south to Lake Pickett Road, the land is a rich, textured mosaic of uplands and wetlands marked by varying hues of green.

The Econlockhatchee, reduced to a shallow creek in the winter months, is barely discernible through the reddish-gray tops of baldcypress trees surrounded by broad swaths of oak and evergreens that mark higher land. The geometric shapes of pastures stand out on the western and southern sides.

The mix of vegetation provides homes for a wide variety of wildlife, from sandhill cranes and wood storks to deer.

`The most crucial part'

"This is the most crucial part of the river that's left," said Steve Rich, an environmental consultant who has tried to persuade the owner, Eloise Rybolt, to sell the land for mitigation.

Under that scenario, developers would pay to protect the ranch in exchange for getting approval to destroy isolated, smaller wetlands elsewhere. Rich holds out little hope. A developer, he said, could offer $15,000 to $20,000 an acre "and still make a fortune," while those who want to save the property might come up with "a drop in the bucket" by comparison.

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