EDITORIAL - Orlando Sentinel
December 4, 2006
Ever wonder who has the real power in the New Florida? We're about to find out.
THE PROBLEM: As we detailed in Sunday's editorial, if South Florida developer Avatar gets its way, thousands of new residents will move next to a 12,000-acre nature preserve in Osceola County just restored to how it was 100 years ago. That means the preserve's steward, the non-profit Nature Conservancy, will have less freedom to set the fires needed to maintain a healthy habitat that will keep alive all the endangered plants and animals that now fill the property for the public to see.
Equally disturbing, the new megadevelopment could block the Florida panther, bobcats and other wildlife that now work their way to the preserve from the Everglades. That wildlife journey was part of the point of the preserve and for good reason. It sits at the Everglades' headwaters.
Can this jewel be saved? We'll see.
BEST SOLUTION: Avatar and The Nature Conservancy agree to a plan that keeps the preserve healthy while at the same time protecting Avatar's legal rights that date back 35 years when the huge Poinciana development was approved. The compromise can happen if Avatar will leave enough open land. The idea is to separate the new houses from the smoke and the critters.
Sound logical? Not to Avatar. It wants to keep open only 300 of its 3,100 acres. The Nature Conservancy wants closer to 1,500 acres left untouched, mostly near Lake Hatchineha, the lake that borders the preserve. Avatar covets the lake for the same reason The Nature Conservancy does: It's a haven for precious plants and critters. Besides, it's gorgeous. Just think what you can get for those homes. Avatar no doubt has already done the math. In fact, it has named the development Mira Lago -- Spanish for "see the lake." Doesn't sound like it will be backing off the views anytime soon.
But guess how Avatar would have its residents get to the lake? By turning into a boat-filled canal the narrow ditches that animals now can easily jump across. Even worse, about 850 feet of the canal would cut through a swath of land that the South Florida Water Management District acquired just 11 years ago to save it. Is this Florida's new definition of "saved"?
WORST SOLUTION: Politics take center stage. The two sides can't agree, and Avatar takes its case to the South Florida Water Management District board of governors. Carol Wehle, the district's executive director, has told Avatar she wants the developer to work it out with The Nature Conservancy before Avatar applies for a permit. And she's confident that the district's board would do the right thing. But how long will Carol Wehle be around? Avatar isn't planning on asking for the permit until after the first of the year, just in time for a new governor. New agency heads usually come with new governors.
Even if Ms. Wehle survives, will the district board protect the preserve? This is the same board that doesn't want the federal courts setting a deadline for the cleanup of the Everglades, even though that's the best way to assure its success.
Next, the governor and Cabinet would take center stage because Avatar may well need their OK to cut those canals through to Lake Hatchineha. Remember, that's public wilderness it's cutting through. Will the newly elected Cabinet have the gumption to stand up? Don't count on it. Its members don't have to run for election for another four years.
This isn't the only problem lurking here. Not only could the preserve be blocked on its western border by Mira Lago, but Florida's Turnpike Authority is studying putting something called the South Port expressway along the preserve's northern border. Forget fires if a superhighway sits at the edge of that property. Fires shut down traffic faster than you can say I-4 rush hour. And when that happens, you just stop the burns. It's too much of a hassle not to.
Can this get any worse? Yes, it can. Let's not forget why this so-called Disney Wilderness Preserve was established 14 years ago. It was in exchange for Walt Disney World and Orlando International Airport destroying hundreds of acres of swamps in their new projects -- including the town of Celebration for Disney and a new expressway for the airport. But that was years ago, most of the swamps long gone. So now Central Florida critters may lose those swamps and these swamps too. Sound fair? No, it sounds like Florida.
This issue isn't just about whether this particular preserve thrives or dies. Developers all over Florida are happily gutting swamps and paying to preserve bigger chunks elsewhere, as happened in this case. The practice even has the fancy name of "mitigation banks." But little thought has been given to the land bordering all these preserves. Oh, about 15 years ago, someone in the state Department of Natural Resources suggested establishing "greenlines" around areas like this. The idea was to make it harder to develop. It made perfect sense. Why spend all the money restoring preserves for endangered plants and animals only to have them destroyed by the next development scheme? But, as usual in Florida, it went the way of the dodo bird. The developers declared it extinct before it even got a hearing in the Legislature. That's how it works . . .
Is this also how it works? The same governments that allowed Disney and the airport to kill swamps in exchange for restoring a preserve will now allow another development to kill the swamps that were restored?
So maybe Florida is paradise after all. A paradise for the developers.
Second of two parts