Osceola halts lakefront development despite permits, approves moratorium

Under clear threat of litigation, Osceola County Commissioners voted Monday to reject a development agreement for 543 lakefront homes on Alligator Lake, despite the developer having approved permits and dramatically altering the project in response to environmental concerns on the Alligator Chain of Lakes.

Commissioners then approved a series of moratoriums extending a countywide ban on boat lifts, ramps and marinas, and prohibiting any new development on lakefront property on Alligator Lake and a half dozen smaller lakes for 90 days.

Hanover Capital Partners paid $7.75 million last October for 178 acres on the western shore of Alligator Lake, with plans to build a boating community with internal canals and a boat lift to transfer boats into Alligator Lake.

The Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit in January -- over the unanimous opposition from County Commissioners -- for a 3-acre dredge to accommodate a boat lift and boat ramps for the community.

Hanover President Bill Orosz made numerous concessions in an effort to win support for the development agreement. First, he eliminated the boat ramp that would have provided residents direct access to Alligator Lake. He also reduced the lift from a double-boat to a single-boat lift, changes that would have reduced the size of the dredge to half an acre. 

"This was a huge concession to reduce the dredge from three acres to a half acre," said Jo Thacker, attorney with Broad and Cassel representing Hanover.  She warned commissioners they were sending an alarming message to the development community.

Orosz had agreed to use a more environmentally sensitive hydraulic dredge at three times the cost rather than a mechanical dredge to construct the lift. And he even offered to place $100,000 in escrow for future lake improvements. Still, it wasn't enough to convince one of the three commissioners who voted to reject the agreement. 

"How can the county change the rules in the middle of the game and then retroactively enforce them?" he asked.

Raleigh Steinhauer, government affairs director for the Greater Orlando Builders Association, told commissioners their actions Monday sent a message that Osceola County is anti-growth.

Thacker said it was particularly unfair to apply the boat lift moratorium to Hanover Lakes. "This denies their property rights," she said. "It's shortsighted, and it's going to be challenged."

The final votes were 3-2, with chairman Brandon Arrington and commissioners Fred Hawkins Jr. and Viviana Janer serving as a block against the development agreement, and in favor of the two moratoriums.

"This board made it clear we were against this project back in August when we sent a letter to the Corps of Engineers asking them not to grant the permit," Janer said.

County Attorney Andrew Mai advised the board that it could be vulnerable to a legal challenge for subjecting current projects to the moratorium. "There is always exposure for permits in process," he said. 

Hawkins urged commissioners to do everything they could to stop Hanover Lakes and any future projects like it from damaging the fragile chain of lakes.

"This is our chance," he said. "I know people talk about lawsuits -- we can get sued any Monday. We'll handle that. This is our chance to take a stand." 

Commissioners Peggy Choudhry and Cheryl Grieb cast the dissenting votes. Both said the county bears its share of responsibility for approving the property rezoning back in 2014, and for dozens of other approvals its staff authorized since then. 

"As a business owner, I have to look at what it is is we did and approved," Choudhry said.

Orosz told GrowthSpotter he and his team would need to regroup and decide how to proceed. "Obviously, we're very disappointed," he said. "Everything grinds to a halt now. The whole project was based on having lake access." 

Commissioners asked county staff to evaluate the issuance of Hanover's ACOE permit, but stopped short of agreeing to commit funds for any appeal.

They also amended the boat lift moratorium to exempt man-made lakes, after representatives for Margaritaville Resort said the ordinance would force them to stop work on a lake that's a major component of their resort.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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