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Officials, environmentalists argue how it should be developed and even if there is a need

By John Bozzo

June 3, 2011

Editor's note:This is the first story in a two-part series on the proposed Farmton development in South Volusia County.

VOLUSIACOUNTY - Deep in the swamps and trees, the last large land war in Volusia County has ended.

Skirmishes remain, but Chicago-based Miami Corp. has emerged as the victor.

For the past 86 years, Miami Corp. has been recognized for "enlightened" management of the 59,000-acre rural Farmton Tree Farm. It operated quietly and in peace. But hostilities have erupted in recent years since Miami Corp. began pushing a new, more "active" direction for the future of the large tract located south of Edgewater and west of Interstate 95, extending south into Brevard County.

Miami Corp. has big development plans for the property. It claims those plans, because of the way it clusters buildings, will preserve the natural resources of the tree farm, famous for its wetlands, tributaries to the St. Johns River, a swamp that serves as headwaters for Spruce Creek and a critical wildlife corridor. Critics say the plan threatens or fails to go far enough to protect those resources.

Development

During the next 50 years - no significant construction would begin until 2025 - the tree farm could be transformed with the construction of 25,000 homes and four million square feet of commercial space.

While there are many critics of the project over environmental concerns, protecting nature remains part of the vision, Miami Corp. officials say - the company will immediately set aside about 40,000 acres for conservation, development will be clustered together to limit the amount of land impacted and other environmental standards and policies will be set in place.

"This is the only way to preserve land in the future," said Glenn Storch, an attorney who has marshaled the Miami Corp. plan and calls it "the most important thing" he's ever done.

Forces opposing the plan include Barbara Herrin of Edgewater Citizens Alliance for Responsible Development. She responds to arguments for the plan with one word - "poppycock."

"It's a city we don't need in an area that doesn't support this kind of dense development," Ms. Herrin said.

Financial pressure to change

Historically, Miami Corp made money from Farmton through various activities, including forestry, turpentine production, livestock and hunting licenses.

Turpentine and livestock activities ended years ago and forestry is no longer viable.

Miami Corp. officials have come under pressure to develop the site to produce income. Offers have been made to buy parts of the tract.

This is not the first development idea for this vast property. Previously, Miami Corp considered the construction of 1,700 "ranchette" homesites from 10 to 25 acres in Volusia and 2,306 sites of five acres in Brevard. Existing land rules would have permitted this, but Mr. Storch lobbied his client not to build a checkerboard of houses. He felt the dirt roads and septic tanks that would have been part of the project would despoil the land.

"Of course, it would have destroyed the wildlife habitat corridor," Mr. Storch said.

Miami Corp. officials did not want that kind of legacy, he said and "gave us a lot of money to find another way."

Clustering construction together is the key to "another way." This allowed the company to set aside land in permanent conservation.

"To me, this is the most important thing I've ever done," Mr. Storch said. "My client is taking a tremendous risk, putting all this land into conservation with no prospect of development for decades to come."

Ms. Herrin rejects the ranchette versus clustering argument.

"It (4,000) ranchettes would be far less destructive than what they're proposing," she said.

A University of Florida conservation expert said he believes clustering is generally a better development strategy to protect the environment, but in this case, the risk of the ranchettes may have been overstated.

Miami Corp.'s clustered developments are too big and the land set aside for conservation is too small to protect a statewide wildlife corridor, preserve secure habitat for the Florida black bear and other sensitive species, said Tom Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning at the University of Florida GeoPlan Center.

"I consider the threat of ranchette development on Farmton to be essentially a straw man argument in an attempt to make the landowner's alternative development proposal that includes a massive amount of residential and commercial development spread across a significant portion of the property look better than it is," Mr. Hoctor said.

Housing needs

Mr. Hoctor also doubts a market would ever exist for the several thousand ranchettes that were proposed before rules in both Volusia and Brevard counties were massaged to accommodate Miami Corp.'s new plan. He expressed his views in writing to elected officials in both Volusia and Brevard counties.

Local critics assert there's no demand for the current project either, especially in the post-recession economy.

"Nobody has any reason to believe we're going to need that many homes here over any reasonable period, especially after the Restoration development was approved," said Don Picard, president of the Southeast Volusia Audubon Society.

The proposed Restoration development, just a little north of Farmton, could double the current population of 21,225 in Edgewater by adding 8,500 homes on 5,181 acres during the next 15 years.

In addition to other developments already approved, both Volusia and Brevard counties each have more than 40,000 vacant housing units, according to U.S. Census records.

"You and I know ... (those) ranchettes would never happen," said Volusia County Councilman Carl Persis, one of two who voted against the Miami Corp. plan. "They're not going to find people to live out there. That would take 200 years."

Mr. Persis said Farmton is in a "preserved" condition.

"Now, less is going to be preserved and we're going to cram some people in some areas and call it 'smart growth,' " he said.

Sierra Club of Florida members filed a lawsuit May 17 to block the Miami Corp. plan.

"This is what got Florida into the housing bust," said Linda Bremer, Sierra Club Florida Steering Committee member. "When almost one in five homes in Florida are empty, where is the need for this development?"

Mr. Storch acknowledged there's no current demand to build on Farmton, but defends the clustering strategy and points to Miami Corp.'s plan to immediately set aside roughly 40,000 acres for preservation. Nothing will be built until the market rebounds, he said.

"We don't need housing now," Mr. Storch said. "All this is, is a plan to encourage preservation."

Phil Laurien, executive director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, said the housing market will determine when the Miami Corp. land is ready for development.

"They're trying to lock into some entitlements now," Mr. Laurien said. "This is the next generation of what we expect a town to look like in Central Florida."

The East Central Florida Regional Planning Council has not endorsed or opposed the plan.

So far, the nitty-gritty details of the Miami Corp. plan have not been put forward for review. Future hurdles include two Development of Regional Impact studies.

"We didn't see the same level of detail, so we were not as comfortable as we were with Restoration," Mr. Laurien said.

Edgewater Mayor Michael L. Thomas declined to talk about Farmton. He hunts on the tree farm. But Thomas expressed pride in the clustering strategy design of the proposed Restoration development.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're the poster child for the state of Florida for the way we did business on this," Mr. Thomas said.

Restoration sets aside 3,700 of 5,181 acres for conservation. Other plans include energy-efficient buildings, trolleys, solar lighting, walking and bicycle trails. The developer also promised to create jobs.

Next week:State approval granted; critics ask where the water will come from.

 


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