News / Events

Trust may develop some land in Volusia Owner Miami Corp. soliciting public's ideas


October 8, 2008

It's the 57,000-acre question: What does the future hold for a 90-square-mile chunk of timberland owned by the Miami Corp. along the Volusia/Brevard county line? Though company representatives insist they have no specifics yet, they are moving to guarantee the company's rights to develop part of the property, much to the chagrin of those who would like the land to remain untouched.
The company is responding to events happening locally and at the state level that are driving up land values and possibly curtailing property rights, said Glenn Storch, the attorney who represents the company here.

Those outside factors, he said, are forcing directors of the for- profit family trust to make decisions about how to protect its investment, while hoping to maintain the family's legacy of philanthropy and environmental stewardship.

Prospective developers regularly approach the company about buying the land, even in the current economic climate, Storch said. Among other pressures he cites are surrounding development growing toward the company's land, two new sets of county subdivision rules and the proposed "Hometown Democracy" amendment to the state constitution that would require all land-use amendments to go before voters.

The company has filed paperwork with Volusia County to clarify its status as an exempt subdivision -- meaning the land in this county could be subdivided today with no questions asked. Storch said the company does not intend to subdivide the property that way but hopes instead to make use of newer, "greener" subdivision rules being developed by the county.

The other step the company has taken is to conduct a pair of community meetings this fall to solicit ideas for the property's future. Guests invited to a meeting in late September included dozens of government representatives, including the Department of Transportation, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, Volusia County and the city of Edgewater.

Participants also included nearby landowners and Karyn Hoffman, a member of West Volusia Audubon who serves on the Audubon of board.

Several in the group hoped more details would be available. Conceptual maps on display showed more than half the property could be preserved in agriculture and conservation, with four areas spaced along Osteen-Maytown road between Osteen and Edgewater that could be developed. Some said they'd like to see all of the land remain undeveloped as green space, agriculture and parkland. Others envisioned university technical schools and high-tech jobs as well as new homes and schools.

But Storch and a team of locals hired to come up with a plan for the property said it could be all those things: wildlife habitat, trails, agriculture and hunting areas, as well as homes, businesses and schools in a design that would allow buyers to live, work and play close to home.

Proponents of and subdivisions like those Storch describes say existing rules prevent planning well-designed subdivisions that cluster homes and businesses in one area while preserving large areas of land. Storch calls it a "prohibition against preservation," with no incentives for getting people to build green developments and, in some cases, making it more difficult, with requirements for certain lot and home sizes.

A committee with the Volusia Council of Governments is working on a draft ordinance for creating "conservation subdivisions," which may be finished sometime this fall.

Local environmentalists -- who for the most part were not invited to the meetings -- fear the new rules will allow property owners to cluster too many homes in small areas. They say that would have the same collective negative effect on water use, wetlands and wildlife habitats as if the property was divided under existing rules.

Q. What is an exempt subdivision?
A. Under existing county regulations, Miami Corp. is one of a number of old subdivisions exempt from current rules. Their property can be divided and sold immediately with no official review and no requirements for such improvements as roads and sewers. A new ordinance to remove those exemptions may go to the County Council in November. Miami Corp., however, took advantage of a county policy that allows landowners to ask for a review of their zoning for a formal determination of how many lots are allowed. Palmer Panton, the county's land development manager, said since the company started that process last December, it means the company would be exempt from the new rules.

Q. How many houses could be built on the Miami land as is, without any changes in land use or zoning?
A. The land is zoned forestry resource, agriculture and environmental systems corridor. It could be subdivided into lot sizes ranging from 5 to 25 acres, with 2,236 homes in Volusia and 2,044 in Brevard for a total of 4,280.

Q. Does Miami Corp. plan to subdivide that land under the existing rules?
A. No, said Storch and others retained to represent the company. Instead, he said, company directors want to try to come up with a preliminary development plan for 20 to 50 years out, focusing development in some areas and leaving 50 percent to 60 percent of the land in its more natural condition.

Q. What did participants at Miami Corp.'s community meeting say?
A. They presented dozens of ideas, including a possible trolley system and other lower-impact transportation methods, positioning schools and nursing homes away from areas that need to be managed with prescribed fires and keeping agricultural land between conservation land and homes to reduce confrontations between people and wildlife.

County Chairman Frank Bruno said as much of a conservation corridor as possible should be protected, linking to other preserved lands.

Greg LeFils, member of a family that has farmed nearby for more than 80 years, said the corporation should be able to continue making money with the land, for example by expanding its wetland bank as Central Florida continues to grow. He said the land also might provide income by selling credits to corporations who need to compensate for their carbon emissions.

Q. What do others say?
A. To local Hometown Democracy supporters and other anti-growth advocates, the plans sound much like the sprawl that already covers much of Central Florida. They are concerned about suggestions by one consultant to Miami Corp. last year that as many as 20,000 to 40,000 homes could be built. They wonder why the company won't just cluster the same number of homes now allowed on the property into one small area.

Q. What is Miami Corp.?
A. A family trust developed for the purpose of making money and protecting long-term investments for generations of the Deering family. One of the original tenants in the Wrigley Building in Chicago, the family has owned the land here since the 1920s. Family members donate thousands to charities each year. It's the largest single private landowner in Volusia County.

A. About 47,000 acres in Volusia and 10,000 in Brevard.

A. The company has produced timber products for years. It grows southern yellow pine, mostly slash, that's used for boards, pulp and poles. They also sell cypress trees for mulch. But industry trends and foreign competition are making it difficult to make money.