By ORLANDO SENTINEL EDITORIAL BOARD
ORLANDO SENTINEL |
FEB 13, 2020 | 5:30 AM
Seminole County deal with River Cross smells like a double cross | Editorial
In 1990, Seminole County voters decided to raise their own property taxes so the county could buy and preserve property. That’s how important it was to them.
A few years later, Seminole used some of that money to open a wilderness preserve for the public to enjoy on the western banks of the Econlockhatchee River.
Now, 30 years after the people voted for preservation, the county is considering surrendering that same wilderness area to accommodate a development called River Cross.
The deal smells more like a double cross.
Here’s the plan: Seminole County commissioners, faced with a federal lawsuit brought by land developers, are considering a compromise. They would swap the Econ River Wilderness Area immediately west of the river with a larger tract on the river’s east side, where the developers originally wanted to build.
On the surface, It might seem like a sweet deal: Give up a 238-acre tract on the west side of the Econ River for a 669-acre tract on the east side. And in the process, get out from under a costly federal lawsuit.
It’s not so simple.
The reason Seminole County’s in court is because it denied the developer’s original plans to build hundreds of new homes and more than a million square feet of shops and offices.
The lawsuit is a hail Mary by a developer who knows the county had a rock-solid foundation for its denial: The original development site is inside an area that voters decided in 2004 should remain rural. That rural boundary is part of the county’s charter.
County commissioners can move the line, but they’re under no obligation to do so just because some developer gets a hankering to build a bunch of houses and make a bunch of money.
A land swap to allow the development may seem benign, even helpful. It’s not.
Let’s be clear: Neither of these parcels — the county’s nor the developer’s — currently allow the kind of giant development that’s planned. The sole beneficiary of this proposed swap is the developer. That’s not a trade; it’s a giveaway.
It also could set a precedent that would embolden other big landowners inside the rural area to hatch more development plans, hoping they too can force a swap for some public land they can clear-cut for apartments or shopping centers.
The proposed River Cross swap also would leave the legal issues in developer’s lawsuit unresolved. The lawsuit contends that Seminole’s rural boundary somehow violates the federal Fair Housing Act.
There’s no sense trying to untangle the lawsuit’s logic here. But it makes sense to let the courts settle the matter.
Otherwise, the next developer who comes along might go down the same road, using the same, unresolved litigation as leverage to force another River Cross-type swap.
The swap currently on the table gives the county plenty of leeway before it’s final. The developer has to come back with a building plan for the Econ River Wilderness Area, and the county commissioners could approve or reject it.
We don’t mean to be flip, but so what? Going along with this scheme — no matter what kind of plan is submitted — would amount to a betrayal of the public.
Don’t do it, commissioners.
One lesson from this whole affair is that Seminole’s rural boundary is too flexible. The River Cross developer’s original plan was to build inside the rural area by persuading three county commissioner to move the boundary line.
That’s right, it only takes three votes on the five-member commission to undo the will of Seminole County’s voters. The developers couldn’t get the votes — this time — which is why they’re now using a lawsuit to angle for the land swap.
The problem is that a couple of bad election results could leave Seminole with a more developer-friendly County Commission willing to move the boundary whenever a new development comes along.
That’s why the county needs another vote on its charter, this one requiring a super-majority of commissioners to move the boundary. It should take an extraordinary vote — not just a simple majority — to overturn the voters’ decision to establish the boundary in the first place.
Meanwhile, county commissioners need to stand firm in protecting its public land and the public’s trust.
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, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com.