First, some background you must know. These comments are factual and not intended on pointing blame in any direction. I think we are at this point more because of circumstances than fault. Personally, I should have been paying attention and been more involved years ago but the past is the past and we can only change what is to come.
East Orange County is unique and especially the area right around the Econ River. It is because the Econ is the dividing line between what is called the USA and the RSA. (note the purple line on this map) The USA is the Urban Service Area where high density housing is allowed and the RSA is the Rural Service Area where only low density is allowed. Because many of the roads we travel out here are in the RSA, they are not improved to accommodate higher traffic. This is by design. These roads are not intended to carry heavy traffic. Just to the west of the Econ River is McCulloch, N. Tanner, Percival and parts of Lake Pickett Road. Over the years these roads have seen many sub-divisions built with little to no improvement to the roads. The only improvement other than a few traffic lights has been paving N. Tanner from Lake Pickett to Percival. But this improvement has hurt more than it has helped as it has given traffic that would otherwise travel on 50 an alternative route for commuters thus increasing the traffic on the rural roads. Now Hwy 50 is being expanded to 6 lanes from Dean to just past the bridge over the Econ but everyone knows this will not be enough to handle the traffic.
Fast forward to the present. I have heard Orange County staff and developers say many times that developers should not pay for improvements to roads that the development does not directly impact. In fact, I have been told that Governor Scott signed a bill that only allows local government to charge impact fees to developers that only pay for the direct impact the development has on the surrounding infrastructure. So when it comes to the Lake Pickett properties, when the developers build 5,000 homes they are only required to pay impact fees on the additional impact this traffic will have on the roads within a 2 mile radius of the property. This excludes Hwy 50 past Lake Pickett to the West and also McCulloch Road. And even roads in the impact area are only funded with the difference the impact causes which is by no means enough to do anything substantial that will positively improve traffic.
With that in mind, think about what has happened over the years. There have been many sub-divisions built just inside the USA that do not require BCC (Board of County Commissioners) approval because they are zoned appropriately so they are under the radar so to speak. Then out in Bithlo, there are sub-division like Corner Lakes that were allowed to be built because of “entitlements” given in 1991. From what I understand, in 1991 there was a deal made that “entitled” certain properties to be built at higher density. These properties are not completely built out yet which means there are more developments that can be built under the “entitlements” translating to more traffic. These properties do not require BCC approval.
Because of these factors every time a new development is built and no improvements are made to the roads, little by little, there are more cars on the roads clogging them up. Orange County has considered anything east of UCF rural so they have not allocated resources to the infrastructure in this area. This is why we find ourselves in this situation.
In a recent meeting a developer for the Lake Pickett properties made the remark that they should not have to pay to fix all the infrastructure issues out here. Yet they should be allowed to develop the properties. These are opposing viewpoints. This statement was confirmed by Orange County staff. OC Staff must follow the law but it begs the question. isn’t this thinking why we find ourselves in this situation. And if we let it continue, where does it finally end.
The big question is if the developer is not required to pay to fix the roads, who is? The only party left is Orange County. But Orange County admits they don’t have the money. Personally I have paid property taxes of about $3,500 per year for 22 years so in total about $77,000. I know this money goes to other places too but I have not seen any real improvements to the roads from my tax money and there are thousands of people out here like me. The only conclusion I can make is that our money has gone to other places in Orange County. It sort of makes me feel like the neglected stepchild of the family.
This cycle has to stop. The conclusion I have come to is that if the developer can’t or doesn’t want to pay to fix the roads and Orange County doesn’t have the money to fix the roads, we need to stop development until the roads are improved to accommodate the current level of traffic and then sensibly plan for the future. I see this no different as you would if you want to buy something you can’t afford. I would love to go out and buy a 2015 corvette but two things would happen. I would probably lose the car because I couldn’t pay for it or I would be living in the corvette because my wife would kick me out of the house. None of those two options appeal to me so I will continue driving my old 91 Dakota and be happy doing it. Now if I planned and saved for my 2015 corvette, I could probably afford it sometime in the future. We must stop this cycle and let infrastructure catch up with development but the only way it can be done is to stop building for a while and pay for improvements to the roads over time.
This idea is certainly not popular with developers as their business is to build. It is also not popular with the landowners because they feel it is their right to develop their property. It is certainly their right but if the property is zoned 1 house per 10 acres and they want 4 houses per acre, that is not their right. It must be approved by the BCC. We live here and many of us are long-term residents and because of that I feel we have gained a certain status and right to demand this area be developed the way we want it developed. I am not a transient and this is my home until I die. We must take this opportunity to improve our area and have a say in it’s future.
When we have the first meeting on March 2nd, 2015, I want to hear how Orange County plans on addressing this issue. There are other issues that are equally important but we can’t begin to talk about them until we solve this one.
I do want to make a point saying that I consider all of the folks in Orange County government as friends. I have met many of them over the past couple of years and find them all very professional and dedicated to their jobs. They are great people doing great things. I think it is a set of circumstances that got us here. I have also met landowners and developers and have the same feeling about them. They are doing what they can to accommodate us as residents yet trying to do business at the same time. We need to continue moving forward and all work together to solve this very difficult problem and come up with good solutions that work for all of us.