Developer’s attorney: strong case still to be made for controversial River Cross project

GrowthSpotter contributor

Despite an emphatic rejection by Seminole County planners, an attorney for developer and former state legislator Chris Dorworth said he has a strong chance of prevailing when county commissioners are asked to approve his 670-acre River Cross mixed-use development in August.

The development, for which conceptual plans were filed in April, is controversial because it would violate a rural boundary line drawn to protect sensitive agricultural and grazing land east of the Econlockhatchee River.

Dorworth, now a lobbyist for Ballard Partners, is asking commissioners to amend the county's Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map to remove the property from the rural protection area, and zone it for high-intensity development. 

Seminole's Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously recommended Wednesday against approving the project, the Orlando Sentinel reported that night. The county planning staff also advised against the development in a report. 

But it will be a new ballgame when county commissioners consider the project on Aug. 14, said Dorworth's attorney on the project Tara Tedrow, of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed, P.A.

Tedrow said Dorworth has a strong, well-researched case showing the need for more housing in southeastern Seminole County.

That’s important because the urban-rural boundary can only be changed if an applicant can document that more rural land is needed to accommodate population, housing or employment growth.

“Because there is a rural boundary line that has to be amended, the overarching question is whether this property should be removed from the rural boundary,” Tedrow told GrowthSpotter. “The argument we put forth with an incredible amount of data, evidence and research supports our case that it should be removed.”

River Cross is slated to have 600 single-family homes, 270 townhomes, 500 apartments and 1.5 million square feet of shops, restaurants and offices on what is now the Hi-Oaks Ranch, owned by an affiliate of Orlando attorney and investor Kenneth M. Clayton. The property is currently zoned for one home per five acres. 

Tedrow said population projections show a need for housing in Seminole County, especially affordable housing. One hundred of the 500 apartment units at River Cross will be slated for affordable housing designation, meaning they will be eligible for tax credits, low-interest loans and grants to subsidize lower-than-market rents.

“We have a critical shortage of affordable housing,” she said. “The planning staff didn’t disagree with that conclusion.”

The development could also provide housing for the rapidly-expanding University of Central Florida and the adjacent Central Florida Research Park, Tedrow said. UCF is two miles from the proposed River Cross site.

Opponents, including residents in the rural protection zone, say such a large development is the epitome of urban sprawl. Sanitary sewer service is lacking in the area, and would have to be extended at public cost.

Existing roads in the rural landscape are not capable of handling thousands of new daily vehicle trips generated by the massive development, county planners wrote in a staff report. 

Tedrow counters that River Cross does not meet the definition of urban sprawl.

“The definition of urban sprawl is single-use, transit-dependent development,” she said. “By definition, we are not urban sprawl. We are a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, non-transit-dependent community.”

The specter of a 670-acre, high-intensity development so close to the Econlockhatchee, designated an Outstanding Florida Water, was cited by planners as another reason the project should be denied. Seminole County voters, in a 2004 referendum, chose to protect the area from high-density development.

To counter those concerns, the River Cross development team is touting environmental protections inherent in the project’s design. For instance, Dorworth has committed to putting 100 acres into conservation, most of it as a buffer between the development and the Econlockhatchee.

“When we look at the Econ River corridor and the protection within that whole corridor, we’re providing safe and responsible access,” said George Kramer, director of planning at S&ME in Orlando and a consultant on River Cross.

“Not only are we protecting property from future development and impacts, we’re providing walking and biking trails, kayak launches,” Kramer said. “So, people who live in the river corridor and around the region can appreciate the importance of that natural environment.”

The 100 acres would include a 550-foot buffer that must be maintained along the river per state regulations. Kramer said the amount of land conserved could go well over 100 acres. 

Kramer also pointed out that River Cross will apply for certification from the Florida Green Building Coalition. The certification considers both the site’s layout and the materials and processes used for construction of the homes.

Aspects of the development that Kramer said will contribute to the green building designation include: treatment of stormwater runoff, limiting the amount of impervious surface, designing the community to be walkable, and maintaining a significant amount of green space.

Kramer charged that county planners and residents have shown no interest in engaging in negotiations with the development team.

“There hasn’t been a willingness to engage in the planning process as much as it’s just been ‘No,’” he said. “The county staff said our buffers are inappropriate, and when we asked what appropriate buffers would be, we didn’t get an answer.”

The county commissioners will likely make the final decision at their Aug. 14 meeting.

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