A proposed research and development park with high density residential and retail space plus a hotel in rural Irvine was approved in a 3-2 vote by the Marion County Commissioners after a 4 ½ hour meeting concluded at 10:30pm on Thursday night.
You have no idea where Irvine is, do you? A couple of county commissioners showed their unfamiliarity when they were surprised to learn that there are no traffic signals anywhere besides the intersection of CR 318 and Hwy. 441 in Orange Lake. By “anywhere,” I mean there is virtually no traffic signal in almost the entire northwest quadrant of the county apart from 441 in Orange Lake.
Do you know the I-75 interchange at CR 318? It’s the one with the Petro Truck Stop and the always tasty and satisfying Iron Skillet buffet. That’s Irvine.
Now imagine 900,000 sq. feet of office space, 100,000 sq. feet of retail space, a 200 room hotel, and 258 new residences mixed from apartments to town homes to single family, all shoe-horned into a 150 acre strip running from east of Jim’s Barbecue on 318 south along the interstate, nearly halfway to the CR 316 bridge. The colored graphic above is an early version of the project at 450 acres, but it does reveal what this could become. The red and lavender color is the major portion of the 150 acres.
The centerpiece is a mammoth R & D office space that exploits a geographical position between Gainesville and Ocala. By the way, someone should point out that this is not Raleigh-Durham, NC, Dallas-Fort Worth, TX, or Tampa-St. Pete. It’s Gainesville-Ocala, FL: two nice small cities with little in common besides I-75.
The centerpiece of the Irvine area presently is the Petro Truck Stop, perfectly suited to its location and a genuine destination for hungry truckers – and they know good food. The proposed complex is wholly inappropriate for Irvine.
For starters, the project is in the “Farmland Preservation Area” (see the blue blip in the map graphic). While the county staff found that the proposal was within allowed use variance for the Farmland Preservation Area, it raises the question, “What the hell? Really?” Using the CR 318 frontage for retail may make some sense as far as zoning, and less sense commercially, but dropping a whole new town into this site passes as “Farmland Preservation” use? C’mon.
Here are some valid points cited in opposition. The proposed project:
- expects to double the traffic flow, causing a wide range of problems,
- has no supporting infrastructure,
- impacts a fragile water system (see nearly dry Orange Lake)
- expands the county water utility inevitably into a whole new area,
- has no anchor client, and no sign of support or interest from UF,
- relocates jobs that will be primarily for non-residents,
- is totally contrary to the comprehensive plan,
- is inappropriate since other areas are development priorities,
- is simply a gambit to get a land use waiver, increasing property value,
- clearly constitutes “urban sprawl,” and
- lacks commercial viability since a property on the southwest corner of the interchange was approved for a 200 room hotel years ago and it was never built; in fact, nothing has been built there in many years for that very reason.
Okay, this proposal has nothing going for it. Even the name is abysmal, “Sunny Oaks.” As an audience member chortled, “It sounds like an old folks’ home.” Yup. (It started out as “Heart of Florida.”)
The Star Banner’s Bill Thompson does a great job capturing the full range of opinions and the dynamic of the discussion in his article on the meeting.
Commissioners Amsden and Bryant did not believe that this was the right place for this project and didn’t believe that the developer had adequately allowed for the project’s impact. For instance, the project’s planning never considered traffic flows within the interchange and the need for upgrades like traffic lights to manage the increased flow there. These commissioners believed the county would end up footing a major bill and coping with a range of headaches in a quiet, rural location that should simply be left alone. Further, lacking a client partner makes the venture too speculative.
On the other hand, Commissioners Zalak, McClain and Stone were giddy in their approval. It does not seem unreasonable to expect commissioners to be discerning, but being so devoted to the lie that ‘any development is a good development’ suggests their immaturity and gullibility despite years of experience, or else their duplicity in winking at a scam. That’s how appallingly bad this is.
Zalak hoped for traffic congestion because it would mean people were going to their jobs. No, really; he actually said that. Urban crawl plus urban sprawl equals success. Or jobs. Regardless, Mr. Zalak apparently believes that a good Farmland Preservation Area is one that gets developed into something useful like urban sprawl.
McClain was thrilled that a new developer’s agreement put the developer on the hook for every impact. Yet the developer’s representative David Tillman was dancing and hedging only moments before. The objections by Amsden and Bryant were ignored as McClain gushed about having an airtight developer’s agreement. Waving the document like a magic wand, he swallowed the paper promise hook, line and sinker.
Not to be out-done, Stone’s imperturbable smile beamed as he endorsed the project, echoing Zalak’s enthusiasm for any development, and McClain’s zeal for the developer’s agreement. Bait-and-switch is clearly a strategy which Stone cannot imagine, but then neither can Zalak or McClain. Yet somehow, Amsden and Bryant seem to get it.
Who knows what “Farmland Preservation Area” really means now? No one probably imagined it included a hotel, research center, stores, and 258 residences, all on 150 acres. In an area zoned one dwelling per 10 acres. If you ask three of our County Commissioners, they will tell you that such a development is perfect for a Farmland Preservation Area.
It is unlikely this project will get very far in its present scheme. Any sane person can see this is a doomed over-reach. It is more likely that the bait was taken in a bait-and-switch. The switch? We’ll have to wait and see.
UPDATE: Reader Pete surfaced some interesting news. Sunny Oaks Estates, LLC of Boca Raton, where Siemens Group is headquartered, has unpaid taxes for 2010 and 2011 totaling about $3,000. Hey Commissioners, missed an easy collection here.
Now that’s $1,400 for 2011 on the whole 450 acres, or $3.18 per acre. Since I paid about $1,200 for my 1/4 acre in the Shores, I completely understand the logic at work here. Well, not really.