End the River Cross charade, Seminole, and fight this out in court

End the River Cross charade, Seminole, and fight this out in court | Editorial

By Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board

Orlando Sentinel

Apr 23, 2020 5:18 AM


One of the key selling points for a proposed land swap between Seminole County and a private developer is that the deal would give the county more land.

The developer wants to trade 669 acres immediately east of the Econlockhatchee River for 238 acres the county owns just west of the river. That would allow developers to proceed with their plans — known as The Exchange — for hundreds of homes and businesses without worrying about development restrictions east of the river.

On its face, swapping 238 acres for 669 might sound like a good deal.

It’s not.

The Florida Audubon Society compared the two tracts, and its recently released findings boil down to this: The deal stinks.

Audubon Letter by Mike Lafferty on Scribd

The county-owned property is a “nearly pristine” wilderness with unspoiled forests and wetlands.

In contrast, nearly 360 acres of the developer-owned tract — more than half of the property — are “heavily disturbed” agricultural land that would cost at least $3.6 million to restore over a period of decades, Audubon found.

So much for the major selling point of this proposed trade. If the county goes through with the deal, it’ll inherit a problem requiring significant public money and time to fix.

Considering the financial hardships the coronavirus economic shutdown is certain to create for local governments, the last thing Seminole needs is a new, multimillion-dollar liability resulting from a bad deal.

The Seminole County Commission indulged this swap idea in the first place because it got sued in 2018 after rejecting the developer’s original plans for a project called River Cross. The county’s airtight reasoning for saying no: The development violates the county charter provision — approved by voters in 2004 — that keeps the eastern part of Seminole rural.

Former state Rep. Chris Dorworth, now a lobbyist and developer, then filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the county’s rejection violated the federal Fair Housing Act.

Supporters of the land swap now warn on a website — which conveniently fails to disclose who runs the site — that because of the lawsuit, the only way to save the county rural region is to give in to the developer’s demand for a swap.

We’re not hostage negotiators here, but it sure sounds like they’re saying the rural boundary has been seized by a lawsuit and the only way to save it is by acceding to a set of demands.

Do that and it’s not hard to imagine what the new playbook for development looks like in the rural area: Demand approval for a project, go to court if you don’t get it and then use that lawsuit to cut a deal.

No thanks. This charade has gone on long enough.

Seminole is in the right here. Commissioners did their duty and upheld a provision in the county charter that voters approved overwhelmingly some 16 years ago.

Seminole County then agreed to negotiate with Dorworth but, having seen what’s proposed in exchange for dropping the lawsuit, it now has the option of backing out on this deal, which is even more of a dog when you consider the fundamental truth that the land Dorworth wants to get rid of is already protected.

Punt this idea, Seminole. Go back to court if you must and defend the charter. Defend the voters. We have no way of knowing for sure how the court would rule but we have a high degree of confidence that if the county goes along with this swap it’ll open the development floodgates in eastern Seminole County.

This whole business is complicated by the state Legislature’s betrayal. It passed a bill last month that does an end-run around the charter prohibition against development in eastern Seminole. Now, property owners can simply annex into cities like Oviedo and Winter Springs and then leave development decisions solely to the cities.

Quick reminder: The bill was supported by Seminole-based lawmakers David Simmons, Scott Plakon and David Smith.

Smith has since repented and wrote a letter urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the bill.

David Smith Veto 410 Letter by Mike Lafferty on Scribd

We’re glad Smith saw the light. Seminole has enough room to grow without paving over the what little remains of its rural character.

Veto the bill, governor. Go back to court, Seminole.

Uphold the voters’ will.

Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Send emails to insight@orlandosentinel.com.