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Trees or homes? Miami Corp. land use hinges on Volusia, Brevard OK

BY LUDMILLA LELIS, ORLANDO SENTINEL

September 5, 2009

During the next 50 years, a new city of residential villages and business districts could be carved out of remote timberland in central Volusia and northern Brevard counties where Florida black bears and panthers still roam.

That's the vision a Chicago company offers for 59,000 acres west of Interstate 95. One of Florida's largest privately owned tracts, the land has sat largely untouched for 80 years while the rest of Central Florida has developed.

The Miami Corp., founded by a family whose fortunes came from International Harvester, is offering to preserve 75 percent of the property — more than 44,000 acres — in exchange for the right to create dense but environmentally friendly villages on the rest.

The development, to be called Farmton, could someday have 23,000 residences — more than the number of homes Ocala has now. The company hopes to get approval from both counties this month.

"This family wants to do the right thing and has a legacy of doing the right thing," said Glenn Storch, a Daytona Beach attorney representing Miami Corp. "Should this be ranchettes in the future, or do we want preservation of 75 percent of the land? It shouldn't be that difficult to decide."Opponents, however, wonder whether more homes and businesses are needed, given the glut of homes for sale and vacant commercial space.

"There is no good reason. There is no demonstrated need," said Barbara Herrin, a New Smyrna Beach environmentalist. "What they need to tell us is: 'Why are you doing this?'"The Deering family, which once owned Miami's lavish Vizcaya mansion and gardens, began buying the property more than 80 years ago and has managed it for decades as a tree farm with hunting camps. The land makes up much of the "palmetto curtain" separating Volusia's coastal cities from burgeoning cities along the St. Johns River.

However, profits from the tree farm have dropped, and four years ago state officials — knowing that the land had development potential — broached the idea of balancing development with preservation of large wildlife tracts, Storch said.

The company is hoping to get approval this year, before next year's potential passage of a ballot measure known as Florida Hometown Democracy. The proposed constitutional amendment would give voters veto power over development projects.

"Clearly that will change the dynamics," Storch said. "The window of opportunity to make this vision a reality is now."

Only a "gateway district" of homes, shopping centers and other businesses near I-95 and State Road 442 would be built in the first 15 years. The development would include environmental features such as solar panels, bike trails, native vegetation and a ban on the use of drinkable water for watering lawns.

The rest would be built after 2025, according to the proposal. That would delay the most intense development until roads and schools could be made available. In their review, Volusia planners recommended that the development not exceed 2,287 residences until schools can handle the growth.

But is there really enough demand for the housing, now that the recession has planning experts toning down growth projections?

Storch said the proposal is designed to let development progress when the time is right. "Until then, we have a vision for what the family wants when the need is there."

The Volusia Planning and Land Development Regulation Commission will discuss the Miami Corp. proposal Sept. 22. The Volusia County Council is scheduled to vote in October. Meanwhile, the Brevard County Local Planning Agency will review the project Sept. 14, with Brevard County commissioners making their decision the next day.

If both counties agree with the proposal, the state Department of Community Affairs will review it.

 


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