News / Events

Wild area on Farmton land to be preserved

By Dinah Voyles Pulver, Environment Writer

April 11, 2010

Intense debate gives public ‘magical’ land

OSTEEN -- For years, the woods surrounding Deep Creek as it flows into the St. Johns River were known only to hunt-club members and the few boaters brave enough to venture past bright yellow "No Trespassing" signs.

But when the landowner, Miami Corp., launched a 50-year development proposal more than two years ago, the creek suddenly attracted a stream of elected officials, scientists and planners getting their first look at the remote wilderness.

Volusia County Councilwoman Pat Northey was stunned when she saw it for the first time. The same impression grips nearly everyone who sets foot on the land.

"It's magical," said Northey, who made it a personal mission to conserve the area and open it to the public.

Wild beauty greets the eye at every turn. A rustle in the leaves reveals a turkey gobbler. A whisper of wings might be a wood stork or ghostly night heron taking flight through the dense cypress forest.

The palette of colors changes with each season. In spring, golden bachelor buttons emerge from the earth while slender red blossoms peek from air orchids. The creek's surface glows with the reflection of bright-green cypress needles.

But this soul-stirring beauty masks an intense debate roiling over the owner's long-term plans for the land.

The 1,140-acre area along the creek is one small part of 59,000 acres the Chicago-based family land trust owns in southern Volusia and northern Brevard counties. The company wants to change its authorized land uses and secure long-term development rights for 25,000 homes and 4 million square feet of nonresidential space on about 19,000 acres.

In exchange, the company will conserve about 40,000 acres, including two large swamps and the corridor along Deep Creek. The creek carries water south from Lake Ashby, collecting rainwater that falls on a vast area east and north of Deltona.

Under the company's original proposal, the creekside land would have been protected to a degree, private but secured by conservation easement for a wetland mitigation bank. That wouldn't give the property the higher level of protection it needs, Northey said, nor would it allow the public to see its rare beauty.

During several contentious meetings, she made one point clear. The proposal would not win her vote unless the Deep Creek area was deeded over to the public.

"It's truly old, natural Florida," Northey said. "It needed to be in public trust, something that people could see and touch and feel."

The company agreed, and the plan now spells out how the 1,140 acres will become the Deep Creek Conservation Area.

The plan, which only changes land use and requires separate approvals for each stage of development, has been approved by the Volusia County Council and submitted to the Florida Department of Community Affairs for review.

The department is expected to declare the plan not in compliance, which would then require mediation and a possible hearing with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings.

If the plan is ultimately approved, within 60 days of that final approval, 465 acres at the creek's confluence with the river will be deeded over to a Community Stewardship Organization. A permanent conservation easement will be granted to the county, the St. Johns River Water Management District and probably Audubon of Florida.

As the company continues to sell credits in its wetland bank, the remaining acreage also will be turned over. The conservation area encompasses the bulk of the flood plain along either side of the creek, beginning just south of Osteen Maytown Road.

The stewardship organization, recommended by a panel of science experts that reviewed the plan, will develop and oversee the management plan for the public conservation area. The organization also will co-hold an easement and make recommendations for other conservation areas at Farmton. Its membership will include representatives of the property owner and the county, with the majority of members from statewide conservation organizations, such as Audubon of Florida.

For opponents, including no-growth advocates and many environmental activists, the tradeoffs aren't enough. They say the company's proposal to build several times the number of homes now allowed will permanently impact natural resources and unfairly position a significant amount of the county's future growth in too remote an area.

Supporters say the conservation-oriented design is the best example of smart growth, and with the future developer paying for roads and services, the kind of long-term planning Floridians should have done long ago.

However, even officials who voted against the proposal say Deep Creek is a wild and wonderful place.

County Councilman Andy Kelly twice voted against the Farmton plan. He compares the impact of the people, homes and commercial development to dropping a pebble in a stream.

"This is like dropping a boulder in the water," he said. "The ripple effect is going to be a massive wave for years to come."

The conservation areas don't compensate for the development impact "in the least," he said. But, he would be happy to see Deep Creek conserved and open to the public.

The view from the bridge on Osteen Maytown Road, where the creek is labeled the Lake Ashby Diversion Canal, fails to do the creek justice. That requires standing alongside the water, surrounded by cypress, cedar and red maple trees, where cell phones receive no signal and the only human sound is boats passing on the river.

"It's phenomenal," Kelly said. "It's a graceful and serene setting and one of those places that once you go there, you don't want to leave."

Although the word pristine is often used to describe the area, it isn't completely untouched by human influence. The creek was dredged sometime during the first half of the 1900s, with high berms created along its banks in some locations. An occasional plastic or glass bottle can be found along the creek.

Both Northey and Kelly want to be sure the county and the stewardship organization carefully define public access so the Deep Creek Conservation Area retains its natural beauty.

Northey said the plan likely will include access by permit, boardwalks, observation platforms and a kayak and canoe launch. She looks forward to sharing.

"It takes your breath away," she said this week. "It's absolutely beautiful."

Click here for the Deep Creek Photo Gallery on DB News-Journal’s website.

 


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