Highest praise goes to Judge Suzanne Van Wyk, Emily Bonilla and to attorney Ralf Brooks. Read this article in the Orlando Sentinel.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Judge’s ruling could doom Lake Pickett development in east Orange
Orange County leaders broke their own growth rules when they approved a 2,000-home development in mostly rural east Orange County last year, a state judge ruled Friday.
In her decision, Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk called for the County Commission to admit its mistake, which could doom the controversial Lake Pickett South project.
“It’s dead,” said Kelly Semrad, one of six petitioners who filed the legal action against the county over the project, also known as the Grow. “The people won. We beat the county.”
Lake Pickett South developer Dwight Saathoff held out hope he would be able to appeal to the governor and Cabinet to revive his project.
Opponents of the project had argued it would destroy their rural way of life east of the Econlockhatchee River and damage the surrounding environment. Supporters said it would provide homes for people working in the growing jobs corridor west of the river, including Lockheed Martin, the Central Florida Research Park and the University of Central Florida.
Commissioner Emily Bonilla, elected last year in part because of her opposition to the project, said she would ask the County Commission to rescind its 4-3 vote in favor of Lake Pickett South at the board’s next meeting on Aug. 22.
Bonilla, a former activist against increased development in east Orange, said she was “really excited about the judgment. Finally the people’s voices have been heard. … The next step is my putting this on the agenda for the next meeting. We need to make sure this is set in stone.”
Saathoff said the judge’s decision “was based on a technical flaw in some language which she points out can be easily fixed,” adding Van Wyk ruled in the county’s favor on all other substantial issues, including environmental, sprawl and transportation concerns.
“We are extremely confident that this minor problem will be resolved at the next level of review,” he said.
Mayor Teresa Jacobs said in a statement she would not comment on the judge’s order because the litigation was ongoing, “but as I said at the time of the public hearings, I could not support either of the Lake Pickett projects.”
Most of the petitioners who challenged the project are members of the group Save Orange County. Their activism failed to prevent county leaders from approving Lake Pickett South in July 2016, but after Commissioner Ted Edwards lost to Bonilla in November, the commission rejected a similar proposal called Lake Pickett North a few weeks later.
The petitioners’ attorney, Ralf Brookes, said his clients “are delighted. … It was a long, hard battle and they expended lots of money and lots of effort. They were limited to three minutes at the podium before the County Commission, but they had their full day in court and they were proved right.”
A memo sent Friday by County Attorney Jeffrey Newton to Jacobs and county commissioners said the county was still reviewing the decision.
The basis of Van Wyk’s decision was her finding that the “text amendments” approved by the county in July 2016, which created a new category for the Lake Pickett area, “direct[s] urban development to the Rural Service Area, contrary to the county’s established desired development patterns.”
The county, Van Wyk wrote, had argued that up to six housing units per acre had already been allowed in some areas around Lake Pickett, despite regulations limiting future development to just one unit per 10 acres.
In her ruling, Van Wyk said the county was being “contradictory” because those urban areas were supposed to be the exception, not the rule, for the largely rural area.