Developer Sues for Not Being Allowed to Develop Public Wilderness Area

dorworth chris In: Developer Sues for Not Being Allowed to Develop Public Wilderness Area | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Developer Dorworth

Here is a story that is too common:  a developer wants to build a city on an established wilderness area (Econ River Wilderness Area), is denied by county commissioners, so he sues.  Now he is trying to finagle a way to get what he wants by trading his land to the county for some of theirs nearby.

There should be no development of any kind here in this public wilderness area.

Developer Chris Dorworth envisions a bustling community filled with hundreds of homes, apartments and townhouses, along with stores, offices and up to two hotels, on what is one of Seminole County’s most popular public wilderness areas west of the Econlockhatchee River.

Called The Exchange, the proposed development is being pitched by Dorworth, a former state legislator, as a way to settle his federal lawsuit against Seminole after commissioners unanimously denied his controversial River Cross project.

A master development plan submitted to the county as part of Dorworth’s application for a land use change shows up to 328 single family homes, 287 townhouses, 955 apartments, 945 dormitories for students attending nearby University of Central Florida, 430 hotel rooms, along with 620,000 square feet of office and commercial space.

The development would be spread across most of the 240 acres of the Econ River Wilderness Area, east of Old Lockwood Road and north of McCulloch Road.

In January, Seminole commissioners unanimously agreed to consider swapping that wilderness area land for 669 acres known as the Hi-Oaks Ranch property, which sits just east of the Econ River and within the county’s rural boundary, to settle Dorworth’s lawsuit.

Commissioners said they wanted to at least look at any development plans Dorworth was considering for the county land on the other side of the river in explaining why they would consider the trade.

“There’s no guarantee from either side,” Commissioner Lee Constantine said. “We were willing to look at what he’s willing to offer… at any particular time we could get out of this deal and go back to the courts to decide.”

Dorworth filed his lawsuit a few months after commissioners in August 2018 unanimously voted down his River Cross development project that called for hundreds of homes, townhouses, and apartments on a good portion of the Hi-Oaks property.

Hundreds of residents blasted the River Cross proposal saying the property sits within the county’s rural protection boundary approved by voters in 2004 and such a development would lead to urban sprawl.

The Econ River Wilderness Area was purchased by Seminole in 1994 for $3.5 million through the county’s Natural Lands Program. It was opened to the public four years later and offers roughly three miles of hiking trails through woods and scrublands. Last year, it attracted nearly 40,000 visitors.

According to the proposed settlement agreement, the county would take possession of the 667-acre Hi-Oaks property after Dorworth’s development plans for the wilderness area are approved by the county.

Dorworth called the swap a “great deal for the county” because Seminole would walk away with property along the environmentally-sensitive river that is three times the size of the wilderness area.

“This is not a very fair trade for me,” Dorworth said. The Hi-Oaks property “is far more valuable” and “is the plum crown jewel” of east Seminole County.

“If I dropped dead today, there will be attempt after attempt by other developers to develop this [Hi-Oaks] property, because the land is just that valuable,” he said. “The county now has a chance to preserve it.”

Dorworth explained that the county could preserve the Hi-Oaks land into a larger wilderness area with hiking and horse trails. And because it sits directly across the river from his proposed development, residents would be able to walk or ride their bikes across the Econ via pedestrian bridge.

The Exchange “is a very exciting mixed-use development and has the walkable urban features that you would see in a Baldwin Park,” Dorworth said. “My goal has always been to bring a project that allows industry, mixed-use and commercial to function in close proximity to UCF and allows Seminole to take advantage of the economic machine of Central Florida Research Park.”

But Seminole resident Kimberly Buchheit angrily slammed commissioners for even agreeing to consider trading away land that belongs to the public. She and scores of other residents have urged commissioners to pull back on the deal.

“I’m appalled that we’re even at this place,” she said. “There shouldn’t even be a development considered on this property. This is the most visited natural land area in Seminole County….”

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