Local developer Dwight Saathoff, urban planner Jim Hall and Orange County staff entered uncharted waters together in early 2014 when they began fleshing out plans for a sustainable community on nearly 1,200 acres south of Lake Pickett Road, in east Orange County.
The goal was to write a Regulating Plan, the first of its kind in Orange County, to zone a massive mixed-use community commonly known as "Lake Pickett South" -- now dubbed "The Grow" -- which proposes 2,256 residential units, 237,000 square feet of non-residential use, an elementary school, community parks, community gardens, a working farm, equestrian facility, a farmers market and sustainable retail space.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent by Saathoff thus far on preparing the project and its Regulating Plan, at least five times what he says would normally be spent when working through the county's standard rezoning process for Planned Development.
But the developer knows the payoff will come for a community that will set new precedents in Florida, and planners see it as a paradigm-shifter for future Orange County zoning. They're now in the home stretch, with The Grow's Regulating Plan to be reviewed next week by Orange's Development Review Committee.
"This is the most complex and detailed planning document that I've seen in almost 30 years of being involved in real estate," said Saathoff, principal with Project Finance & Development LLC and developer of The Grow, of the 47-page plan now under review.
"It's definitely been a test of stamina, and required perseverance. No private group has had to plan (in Orange County) to the degree of detail we are having to do here."
LAY OF THE LAND
The Grow development rezoning covers 1,189.8 gross (837.9 developable acres) generally located north of E. Colonial Drive, south of Lake Pickett Road, east of S. Tanner Road and west of Chuluota Road.
It's a rural area where other large-scale residential projects have been pitched over the years by developers, and all been denied by county commissioners or withdrawn by applicants, due to protest by nearby residents and the county's own development restrictions near the Econlockhatchee River.
The Grow aims to create a farm and garden community where residents participate in preserving the rural and agricultural heritage of the surrounding area, while implementing best management practices for sustainable field-to-table living.
Three community meetings were held through the first half of 2015 for the development, which drew hundreds of residents from rural East Orange County. A related Comprehensive Plan amendment and Future Land Use Plan amendment were transmitted last July by commissioners for further state review.
Those amendments should now return to the Board of County Commissioners this May for adoption, which is when the Regulating Plan for zoning of the property needs to be ready. That has created a race against the clock for Saathoff's project to pass muster with DRC this month and reach the Planning & Zoning Commission in March, lining it up for BCC in May.
"Making planning history is difficult, but it's way better than making medical history," joked Jim Hall, urban planner for VHB, Inc., who worked with Saathoff on writing The Grow's Regulating Plan over the past two years.
While this is the first Regulating Plan for a development in Orange County, the concept has been embraced in other parts of the country for new urbanism and smart growth-focused projects over the past decade.
"We're truly creating new rules for neighborhood design in Orlando with this," Hall said. "The entire development has been broken up into 14 neighborhood pods which are 60 acres or less each, with a central focal point in the middle of each neighborhood being a communal park, pool, garden or similar."
Every neighborhood will be connected by non-automobile paths, with more than 12 miles of pedestrian and bike paths throughout The Grow. Every single home will be less than a quarter-mile from its neighborhood focal point.
"And one of the best concepts we've implemented, which has come out of Canada in the past decade, is called a 'fused grid' which deters people from choosing to drive for short trips of a half mile or less," Hall said. "The fused grid uses all your bike and trail paths to intersect roads in such a way that it makes it easier to walk or bike than to drive. It also deletes 7 percent of the road construction cost in a development, without eliminating lots or open space."
In conceptualizing The Grow, Hall and VHB staff studied some of America's most classic neighborhood designs, including Riverside outside Chicago from the 1800s and Radburn, New Jersey from the 1920s. They admired the central focal points of today's Savannah, Georgia, and the new urbanism success of Seaside, Florida.
The proposed Regulating Plan features four Transect Zones with their own development standards, public spaces, neighborhood boundaries, community focal points, street typologies and cross sections, intersection density and connectivity measures, green infrastructure components, interconnected open space systems, and streets with a strong bicycle/pedestrian orientation.
Transect Zones are the key, because they'll provide a predictable pattern to the community that lets its density transition from light on the exterior (near existing rural homes), to higher densities within the community and along E. Colonial Drive.
The four Transect Zones provide the basis for neighborhood structure, and are defined as:
-- T1 Natural: To be applied to areas that will remain undeveloped or designated for agricultural use, this will include land unsuitable for settlement due to topography, hydrology or conservation. (Gross Acres: 382.9, Net Developable: 32)
-- T2 Rural: This will serve as the link between existing rural homes on The Grow's exterior and higher density neighborhoods within the community. To provide compatibility with adjacent developed areas, the T2 Rural zone could include like-to-like density buffers, such as matching lot size. Average density of development won't exceed two homes per acre. (Gross/Net Developable Acres: 127.8; 223 homes)
-- T3 Edge: This zone will include mainly single-family detached homes within walkable neighborhoods, but can also include central focal point uses, community buildings, gardens and parks. Development won't exceed five homes per acre. (Gross/Net Developable Acres: 520.7; 1,912 homes)
-- T4 Center: This zone will feature a mix of residential (single-family attached, detached and vertically integrated housing), along with non-residential uses like commercial, office, service and civic uses. Development will have a minimum average density of five homes per acre and maximum average of 12 per acre. Higher density residential, office and service uses will be concentrated on the most southern portion of the development, adjacent to S.R. 50. Multi-family apartment complexes will be prohibited. (Gross/Net Developable Acres: 122.4; 121 homes; 237,000 square feet of commercial or service area)
LESSONS FOR ORANGE COUNTY
"Most of us in the planning division are new to this, we've never applied a form-based, transect-based paradigm to development in Orange County before," said Olan Hill, chief planner with the county.
"We've learned a lot from this, because it's not based on our standard land development code. The Regulating Plan is essentially a brand new code that we're writing and implementing (for The Grow) at the same time," he continued. "We're learning how to apply these new regulations as we go through the process."
Hill and Orange planners hope this experience with The Grow's Regulating Plan will prepare them for rolling this type of form-based code across the county in the coming years.
Orange County's development code is archaic. Created in the 1950s and tweaked in small ways since then, its meant to achieve compatibility through separation of uses.
It's the urban sprawl model the U.S. has become used to, but planners and civic leaders know isn't desired today. Most people want mixed-use, walkable communities.
The form-based, transect-based zoning concept was first introduced by county planners in the I-Drive Vision Plan, which was embraced by county commissioners in late 2015 but is still having its detailed code written by staff.
Saathoff's The Grow development should be the first with this zoning concept to be rolled out in the county, if it remains on course for BCC in May. The I-Drive Vision Plan would follow, and a third is being developed for land near Innovation Way, east of Orlando International Airport.
Editor's Note: This story was updated Friday morning to correct the title of Jim Hall, urban planner with VHB, Inc.