I've been watching them whittle down the Econlockhatchee River for 25 years now.
Here a house, there a house, everywhere a house-house.
The view from
Earth shows how depressingly skin-deep this wilderness has become.
Environmental protections offer little more than a wide-enough setback to preserve a view from a canoe. But on the other side of the canopy are the concrete, fertilizer, pet manure, yard chemicals, road oil and other pollutants.
These things slowly take their toll, as we are now seeing with the
and the Butler Chain of Lakes — the two most protected water bodies in Central Florida.
Developers who build next to waterways and argue their projects will have no environmental impact are hucksters.
The real question is how bad the damage will be. And, at least from my perspective, is there something about the development that makes the damage worth it.
This takes me to Rybolt Park.
It is a proposed 1,415-acre development that would build east of the Econ, across the river from
. To get from one to the other, a bridge would be built.
The arguments for it are that the damage would not be as bad as the damage that could occur if something else is built there. And the damage will be worth a project that complements rapid-growing UCF, providing nearby housing and a jobs center.
Pushing these arguments is a juggernaut of consultants, the likes of which I've rarely seen amassed, which is saying something in Central Florida. It is about as hard a sell as I've seen sold.
I must agree with them that if we are to have 728 homes, 4,272 condos and apartments, and more than 2 million square feet of commercial space next to the Econ, this is about as good as you could do it.
There would be a 1,600-foot buffer from the river, 500 feet more than is required. The development would be built on cow pasture, so no existing forest would be bulldozed. There would be dense, village-style development, allowing for more than 500 acres of open space.
Also included in the development, the consultants say, would be several thousand jobs, many of them high-paying research jobs linked to UCF.
The consultants compare this with the alternative, a nuclear option of rural-zoned, large-lot ranchettes blanketing the site.
Simply put, Rybolt Park pushes every button that could be pushed to promote this kind of project. And to be fair, Mary Rybolt Lamar, who represents the family that owns the property, seems genuinely sincere in her desire to protect the river.
If it were on the western side of the Econ, on land approved for urban development, it would be a no-brainer.
But it is not, and hence the need for the bridge.
The fear is that the bridge would link the sprawling, semi-rural lands of east Orange and Seminole with UCF. It would be like the
Trail, a migration route that kicks off another round of urban-sprawl frenzy.
In recognition of this, the bridge is configured pretty much to serve just the Rybolt property. It will have sole access to the riches of UCF.
The problem is that good intent now will have little impact on the growth realities of tomorrow. Getting a bridge across the river is the hard part. Once that is done, connecting the bridge to other road networks and widening it is relatively easy. And more will be whittled out of the Econ's lands.
The history of Central Florida tells us that this is more than a possibility.
Because of that, I would set an incredibly high bar for a bridge. I would want research facilities on the order of the
lining up for space in Rybolt.
Unfortunately, they are not. We are told that when the development is approved, they will.
So what we have is a guarantee of more rooftops and a promise of future jobs.
This also is what we have at Avalon Park and Horizons West, two other hinterland projects sold on the premise they would provide jobs with their housing. They have not.
We are drowning in rooftops.
Yet developers are clamoring for thousands more to accommodate the high-tech companies that supposedly will flock to Innovation Way. Build rooftops now. Hope jobs come later. It is the way we do business because rooftops offer the quickest turnaround on a buck.
So I am highly skeptical of the latest version of this sales pitch coming from Rybolt Park.
I don't see a compelling argument to justify the enormous harm a bridge eventually could cause.
The family will not sell out for ranchettes. I can assure you they are not stupid people, and that would be stupid.
Nor do I buy the argument that a positive vote from the
Commission today doesn't constitute approval. We are told it simply sends the project to the state for review. What would it review that we don't already know? This simply is a strategy to get the camel's nose in the tent.
Rybolt Park is being proposed at the wrong time and in the wrong place, and without the necessary benefits to overcome that reality.
The time to consider this is when that equation changes.
Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or