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Horizon West developer seeks different path for Wellness Way

Wellness Way, on the eastern border of Horizon West.
Wellness Way, on the eastern border of Horizon West. (Teresa Burney)

In 1992 Jim Karr sat in a coffee shop in Winter Garden with a group of other land owners in West Orange County, hatching plans that would eventually convert their freeze-smacked citrus groves into the biggest development plan in Orange County history, the 38,000-acre Horizon West.

On one cool morning this May, Jim Karr sat in a different coffee shop in Winter Garden and explained what he and other owners of land just across the Lake County line from Horizon West are planning. It's the next big development called Wellness Way -- 16,200 acres, 25.28 square miles, in Southeast Lake County.

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There are some things Karr wants to do differently from Horizon West.

For one thing Wellness Way, which is working its way through the Lake County planning approval process, will be slightly more focused on designating more land for commercial uses to create jobs than on residential construction. That contrasts to Horizon West's strong focus on rooftops. The Wellness Way plan calls for 26,600 jobs with a build-out of 16,464 housing units.

The other difference Karr is working toward is creating a residential home plan that is more flexible than Horizon West's are.  He said Horizon West regulations are too tight.

"It takes away your ability to be more creative," he said. "We pinned ourselves in a box and at the end of the day it all really looks alike.  We want bigger, smaller and different architectural styles, and you've got to leave the plan flexible enough to accommodate that."

Karr and roughly two dozen land holders in Wellness Way contributed $75,000 to Lake County to create the development plan for the land. Karr says there is no leader of the group, that they each have their own interests, yet they poneyed up to get the plan done.

Robert Chandler, Lake County's director of economic development and tourism, said there have been few landowners in Wellness Way objecting to the plan. "It's almost universal agreement," he said.

The state, too, has found little to quibble about, he said, only asking 19 questions about the 200-page report.

The area is sparsely populated. Most is owned by large land holders, some are former citrus growers, others have other agricultural pursuits. The City of Orlando and Orange County jointly own the largest tract of land, where they inject highly treated sewage effluent into the Floridan aquifer. There are only two small subdivisions in the area.

Lake County planners have continuously asked themselves during the process, "What would happen if they left the parcel as it is rather than creating a cohesive plan for the entire area?" Chandler said. Location will dictate development at some point, Chandler said.

"It's east of Disney and Horizon West; it's south of Four Corners, Disney, and Champions Gate; and it's west of the Green Swamp where nothing can be developed," he said. "Growth is going to come into that area so do we want to have it developed piecemeal with everybody doing something indpendently? We could end up with five-acre ranchettes on well and septic that are ridiculously difficult to service."

In July the plan, called a sector plan, is scheduled to go before the Lake County Commission for a vote.

If it is approved, the next step would be to carve out a portion from the main plan for more detailed planning, such as determining specifically where the utilities and roads will be located, and the zoning for each individual parcel.

Most likely the first section to be carved out would border Clermont, which can supply utilities and already has a steady pattern of growth. Actual development on the site could come in as few as 24 months, Karr said.

In the meantime, Lake County is scouting businesses for the area, specifically aiming for those related to health and wellness. With the close connection to Clermont, which has made its mark with its Olympic athlete training center, triathlons, and other wellness initiatives, the angle makes sense.

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"We would love to see the first thing be some kind of employment center," said Karr. "We know that the residential market is strong now. That's a no brainer, but it's important to get some economic development going. It would be nice if they started together."

Another early task will be planning the exact locations of roads through Wellness Way that will connect with the greater metro area. Now the large area is cut off from easy access to the major transportation corridors.

"Once you connect the roads then everything is opened up." he said.

tburney@growthspotter.com or 407-420 6261

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