A granite tablet placed across Summerlin Street from the abandoned "Navy Sound Lab" by the Daughters of the American Revolution marks the site of Fort Gatlin, built in 1838 to protect the first settlers of what is now Orange County from the Seminole Indians.
In the more than 150 years that have since passed, most evidence of the stockade and its inhabitants has been strewn about or carried away. Until last year, the U.S. Navy conducted top-secret research at the 27,000-square- foot lab built overtop part of the fort's site.
Now, about 45 residents have formed the Fort Gatlin Historical Group in hopes of resurrecting enough interest in the fort's historical significance to sidetrack county plans to obtain the property from the federal government, and perhaps knock down the lab and build "upscale condominiums."
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22, at Pershing Elementary School, the Navy will unveil its own archaeological and architectural research on the site, while receiving comments from the public.
While awaiting the final report, expected to be released about 10 days later, the Orange County Commission has frozen the process designed to decide what to do with the property. "The county is committed to working with the citizens, first of all," insists Bill Pable, the county's chief planner. "Before anything's done, there will be more public meetings."
Yet the citizens group is leery. It has conducted its own research, sought federal funding to reduce demolition expenses, applied to have the site added to the Florida Register of Historic Places -- even persuaded a local research company to use its high-tech equipment to search underground for logs that supported the fort. "It's the most significant archaeological find we've had ever in Orange County. It is the nucleus of the beginning of Orlando," says Linda Stewart, a former parks and recreation board member who acts as the group's spokesman.
Before the sale process was halted for the Navy study, a county consultant proposed three alternatives: homes, a park and condominiums. Based on the financial analysis, only the condo option made sense.
And while hinging their arguments on the site's historical significance, Stewart acknowledges the group is particularly repulsed by the practical implications of a condo development in the neighborhood.
"No one wants condos," Stewart says. Instead the group wants the site designated a park and the building made available, perhaps as government offices for the City of Edgewood.
The group has published a newsletter, and is preparing another one. Much to Stewart's chagrin, the county has produced -- at taxpayer expense -- six letters signed by County Commissioner Clarence Hoenstein. After applauding its efforts, the final letter, published on Sept. 29, is devoted entirely to responding to points in the group's newsletter, while failing to mention the Navy meeting.
No wonder the citizens perceive themselves as at odds with county officials who seem insistent on getting in the last word. "They ought to look more at the public benefit, rather than thinking of it as a private venture," Stewart says.
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