What Lake County planners and property owners hoped and expected would be a cursory state review of a long-term development plan for a 25-plus square-mile chunk of Southeast Lake County came back stamped with a notice of intent to find the sector plan called Wellness Way "not in compliance."
The state sent back a laundry list of deficiencies it found with the plan, including failing to specify where it will get enough drinking water for the build-out of the area, not planning for multiple modes of transportation beyond cars, and not emphasizing an urban form or functional place-making.
"We were surprised and a little disappointed," said Robert Chandler, Lake County's economic development and tourism director of the Department of Economic Opportunity's decision about Wellness Way. He and other proponents of the plan thought they had answered all the state's earlier concerns about the project.
"That took six months and we spent a lot of time responding to that and working with multiple reviewing agencies to make sure they meshed," said Chandler.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Transportation sent letters of support, and in July the Lake County Commission approved the plan.
County officials weren't the only ones caught by surprise by the state's findings. Jim Karr, one of several landowners in the area who contributed money to the county to help develop the plan, was also flummoxed.
"We, as a group, went to Tallahassee two times to meet with them and did not get any real input from them as to what the suggested changes might be," Karr said. " The last meeting was one week before they were to issue their findings, and at that meeting, they stated they did not have any real problems, or something to that effect."
Karr said it is obvious that the state had been writing the non-compliance report for a while and he doesn't understand why its objections weren't aired earlier.
"We spent a lot of time putting together a project that we feel like works for everyone, that has enough of an economic engine in it to satisfy economic development, preserve the environment more than if we did nothing, and limit sprawl," Chandler said. "But the state, they had other ideas."
Lake County is not going to give up on the plan. Chandler said the county has 90 days to negotiate with the state to work out the issues that Lake County and the state disagree about.
"We think that it is a good plan that would benefit Lake County," said Chandler, who grew up here. "To me this is one of the most important things we can do."
The land in question is directly in the path of growth, and is already feeling encroachment from the north by Clermont's exploding population and from the south from Four Corners. Its eastern boundary is the Orange County line by Horizon West.
Without creating a plan for the area, the county and others fear it will be developed in a piece-meal way that won't benefit anybody.
"That is the piece of this that I would like people to realize," said Chandler. "This is not a choice between what you see today (pasture land) and what the sector plan will say.
"Growth is coming, there is nothing we can do about that," said Chandler. "These people (property owners) have rights today to build on their land." The result would be scattered development with little thought to best uses, he said. "You would have a mess, that is what happens when you don't do anything."
The Department of Economic Opportunity's letter to Lake County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jimmy Connor started out by complimenting the county's efforts, but then went on to list a series of items it considers to be deficiencies.
--Failure to identify adequate potable water supply was the No 1 problem they had with the plan. Long term, it says that the plan hasn't shown that there is adequate water for the predicted growth.
--It was unhappy with the county's agreement to allow already approved developments in the area to continue as planned and not comply with the new plan.
--The long-term master plan didn't include minimum or maximum density or intensity of development standards. Instead it set an "Average" density standard.
--Failure to adopt the required framework map and hierarchy of places, which was not included in the document that was approved by the council, and the one that was in the amendment is inconsistent.
--It criticized the proposal of lacking "meaningful and predictable open space guidelines."
--It found fault with its " mobility options," which should promote a variety of transportation modes, including bicycle, pedestrian or transit.
--The state also said the plan did not "emphasize an urban form or functional place-making."
There is another complicating factor to the Wellness Way sector plan. CEMEX Construction Materials, an international company based in Mexico, wants to build a 600-acre sand mine in the area.
Influenced by residents in the area, the county commission voted last May 3-2 against the mining operation. As a result, CEMEX is suing Lake County to have the decision reversed.
The mine would boost Lake County's economy by $4.7 million a year and provide a source for all the roads and other construction that is on tap for Central Florida, company officials have said.
At the time of the vote Lake Commission Chairman Conner said it would harm the Wellness Way plan.
According to documents compiled by Lake County's planning staff, CEMEX wants to dig a million tons of sand a year from the mine, the Orlando Sentinel reported at the time. That volume of material translates into 160 "multi-ton" truckloads a day, seven days a week.