|RYBOLT RANCH/DOES $11.5M ECONLOCKHATCHEE DEAL CROSS THE LINE?|
|Written by Marjorie Holt|
|Monday, November 10 2008|
Sentinel Staff Writer
November 10, 2008
The Econlockhatchee River is an imperiled environmental treasure and a designated barrier east of Orlando that developers aren't supposed to cross.
Nowhere are those facts more in focus than at Rybolt Ranch near the University of Central Florida. On Tuesday, state and county authorities will consider buying for conservation more than a square mile of ranch that straddles the river.
Environmentalists had applauded the proposed $11.5 million purchase. But that was before they learned that a small, strategically located sliver of land is being left out of the sale. It's that tiny piece of real estate, they fear, that could literally provide a bridge to massive development near the river.
In separate activities last week, developers met with planning officials to describe their plans to build 5,000 homes on the more than 2 square miles of Rybolt Ranch that will stay privately owned.
Such a project would defy the long-standing legal and symbolic taboos on hopping over the Econ with major development.
Already alarmed over plans for a small town just east of the river, environmentalists expressed outrage when they learned what else the developers were planning for the one piece of land left out of the conservation sale: a road and bridge over the Econ, directly linking the new homes to the urban landscape surrounding UCF.
"Why are we buying the land if it doesn't provide a barrier to development?" said Marge Holt, an Econ specialist for the Central Florida Sierra Club. "We would vehemently oppose a bridge."
Robert Christianson, who oversees land purchases at the St. Johns River Water Management District, said his agency negotiated for the best deal it could get.
The $11.5 million offer, with as much as $1.5 million coming from Orange County, is to acquire 710 acres -- 382 of which are protected wetlands, with the remaining 328 taking in more costly uplands that could be built on.
As for the thin strip of wetlands, Christianson said it's not for his agency but for local planning authorities to decide whether a road and bridge should be built there.
That's what worries environmentalists such as Holt, who sees the Econ as vulnerable to developers with big bucks and political connections.
The celebrity among Central Florida waterways is another river -- the Wekiva River -- whose spring-fed waters have drawn the concern of several governors and Legislatures.
Though harder to find and enjoy, the Econlockhatchee is every bit as endowed with woods, wildlife and stunning scenery of sandbars, inky-black currents and palm trees bowing over the waterway.
The river starts with rain that falls on Osceola County's Econlockhatchee Swamp, which drains north into Orange County, where a channel takes shape. From there, the Econ meanders into Seminole County and empties into the St. Johns River for a journey of 36 miles.
Until the 1980s, Orange and Seminole counties did little to protect the Econ. As a result, a main tributary -- the Little Econlockhatchee River -- was all but destroyed by the outward spread of Metro Orlando.
Development regulations adopted by the early 1990s were designed to protect the main branch of the Econ from such a fate.
Today, a variety of rules makes it all but impossible to build within 1,000 feet of the river's central channel. Orange County also holds a big part of the Econ as the eastern limit to urban growth.
The boundary has endured, more or less, with notable exceptions of subdivisions spreading north from Bithlo.
For years, however, Rybolt Ranch has been a persistent source of worry about the integrity of the Econ as a barrier to urban growth.
The ranch's fate is a familiar one in Florida, where elected officials have professed that agriculture is critical to maintaining green space. But they have done little to shield farmers and ranchers from encroaching on suburbia.
The Rybolt property was inherited in the 1940s by Don and Eloise Rybolt, who grew cattle and citrus, cut timber and eventually sold some ranchland west of the Econ for housing. He died in 1991, and she is now 91.
Their daughter, Mary Lamar, has continued the business but sees the end drawing near.
Cowboys-for-hire have left to work elsewhere, local suppliers are closing and many of the area's pioneer ranching families -- a support network in times of need -- have left.
What was a Rybolt patch of rural solitude is now sandwiched by streetlights.
Lamar said her decision to sell part of the ranch for preservation and part for development stems from discussions with her parents, who had long wanted permanent protection of the ranch's share of Econ wetlands.
But they also wanted a payoff from a half-century of hard labor on the land.
Several planning officials said the developers for the Rybolt property will face an uphill battle if and when they apply for rezoning and building permits for thousands of homes and millions of square feet of business space.
Their early concepts describe the project as a "university town" that puts residents close to jobs related to UCF and provides them multiple forms of transportation other than cars.
During his last years, Don Rybolt entertained repeated offers to buy his property, his daughter said. One told him he could make enough money to move to "Shangri-La."
"You don't understand," the Rybolt patriarch told the bidder. "This is Shangri-La."
Mary Lamar knows her father would support her decision to turn Rybolt Ranch into a town tentatively called Rybolt Park.
"It's a bittersweet option, but the world is changing here," she said.
Copyright © 2008, Orlando Sentinel
|Last Updated ( Monday, November 10 2008 )|
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