History in the taking?

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Thelma Ayres was buried on the same June day that her house was torn down. For many neighbors of Boone High School, the twin events have come to symbolize what's at stake as the Orange County School Board plows ahead with plans to condemn their homes for what residents see as a dubious school expansion.

Some current owners have lived in those homes for 50 years. But today, the lot that Ayres called home is cluttered with students' parked cars -- a violation, say neighbors, of residential zoning laws, but a precursor to the sacrifice of 84 lots for more student parking and athletic fields at the boxed-in high school. The School Board also envisions a new two-story Blankner Elementary School on the site. With those plans in mind, board members voted in April to move forward with the proposed $27 million expansion that would gobble up 25 acres of the neighborhood united as South of Boone.

A retired circuit court judge will rule next month on whether condemnation can proceed on the properties, which the school district wants as a whole. Meantime, says district spokesman Joe Mittiga, the owners of 40 parcels have returned contracts accepting the district's purchase offers. "Those contracts will be approved by the School Board contingent on the judge on Oct. 7 approving the overall acquisition," he says. (The Ayres home, he adds, was one of two purchased for the expansion project apart from the current controversy.)

But the fight for the rest is not over. And as those who want to stay build their case, they have enlisted a new ally that they hope will buy them time, if not an eventual victory.

That ally is history.

In 1995, it turns out, Orange County had the neighborhood surveyed for historic significance. That survey determined it was eligible for listing as a district in the National Register of Historic Places, says Walt Marder, the preservation architect in the state's Bureau of Historic Preservation.

"The buildings represent a very nice cross section of early Orlando development," says Marder, who visited the area last month and has forwarded to residents the proper forms to start the bureaucratic wheels turning. "It's not all one economic group being represented; it's a number of economic groups. It's kind of a very good, interesting microcosm of the beginnings of Central Florida."

Such an official designation -- most recently awarded in this area to the town of Eatonville -- "doesn't guarantee much," he says. "It's kind of like that and a half a buck will buy you a cup of coffee." But the possibility has energized homeowners who have recovered artifacts that range from hand-hewn nails and spikes of the type used in building log cabins to a two-pound cannon ball.

"As a matter of fact, we were told to quit digging for artifacts by the state, because we might destroy the site," says Ollie Stewart, one of the most vocal opponents to the School Board's intrusion, who notes suspiciously that locally kept records of the area's significance delete references to a still-standing log cabin and one other historic property. (Both are mentioned in the original report of the historic survey in Marder's hands.)

School Board attorneys have since met with the preservationist. "As most attorneys do, they played their cards pretty close to their chest, and we were doing the same thing," says Marder. The options if historic designation is granted could be as elaborate as requiring the buyer to relocate rather than demolish structures, or as simple as preserving photos and floor plans of the significant homes in a state archive. "There are lots of times when people tear down National Register stuff," notes Marder, "so these things don't always turn out the way we'd like to see them turn out."

Attorney Mark Leavitt, who represents 14 property owners in their negotiations with the School Board, which he says is intimidating several with its strong-arm, take-it-or-leave-it purchase offers, adds: "The odds of stopping this taking are greater than most cases. But in most cases they're extremely slim. In this case, they're just slim."

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