On Jan. 10, the board of county commissioners voted to allow Marc Watson to build residential housing on his Universal Boulevard land after the county's legal department opined that the developer had all the legal rights to do so. The housing and the people it will bring were at the center of a controversy over how already-overcrowded schools would become even more so. According to school board attorney Frank Kruppenbacher, the new development could require the district to build two new elementary schools at a cost of about $125 million.
Through correspondence with the board and quotes in the Orlando Sentinel, both Watson and Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty were quick to point out what a swell developer Watson really was. He was paying full school-impact fees, though technically he didn't have to, and was donating a site for a future elementary school.
In a Jan. 27 letter defending the development to county commissioners, Crotty wrote: "I convinced the developer that negotiating with the School Board to make a contribution toward the needs of our children was the right thing to do. Based upon their discussions, the developer agreed to provide a 12-acre site on his property to accommodate an elementary school. With land worth approximately $1 million per acre, that's a $12 million donation to our children."
Pretty generous, huh?
But something strange happened Jan. 25, two days before Crotty wrote that letter: The donated site, quickly and quietly, was swapped out for another plot of land. The original 12-acre site, which had been used to counter criticism of the development from the start, was no longer a standout example of development done right. Why? Because it stank. Literally.
That piece of land sits near the northeastern corner of the old Lockheed Martin property, which is sandwiched by Sand Lake Drive on the north and Universal Boulevard to the south. The 12 acres butt up against a tiny, unnamed frontage road. Standing on the eastern edge of the site, you can look east and see why the Orange County School Board realized they were getting a shitty deal.
"It's right next to a sewer treatment plant!" says board member Kat Gordon.
The South Water Reclamation Facility is flush with the western edge of the frontage road. The 12-acre site is directly across the street from the treatment plant; the giant water basins are plainly visible from the proposed school site.
It seems obvious that someone from the school board should have visited the proposed site before the school board voted to accept the land, but no one did. On Jan. 9, the school board voted 5-2, with none of the members having seen it, to accept the donation from Watson. (Gordon and board member Rick Roach voted against it, saying there just wasn't enough information.) To the board's credit, they realized this wasn't the sweetest deal, but they also saw the writing on the wall. The county board was set to vote the next day on whether to approve residential uses for Watson's land. Kruppenbacher told the board, "If that approval goes forward, I don't believe we'll be in a position to get a site at that point." The board's thinking was that they either take the site, or get nothing.
"If this were reversed and we threw that type of pressure on the county, they'd be laughing at us," said Roach.
On Jan. 25, Gordon, Kruppenbacher, school facilities program director Dianne Kramer, chief facilities officer Pat Herron and Watson finally made a trip to take a look. Gordon objected as soon as she saw the land.
"It smelled bad," she says. "And you never know what kind of leakage is going on under the surface. I told `Watson`, 'You can't put our kids out here.'"
It turns out the smell isn't the only thing that stinks about the deal. Crotty's Jan. 27 letter to county commissioners referred to the site as a "$12 million donation." He had made that same $12 million claim in the Orlando Sentinel three days earlier.
But the Orange County Property Appraisers thinks the land is really worth about $600,000. There are sections of the whole Watson property that are appraised at $470,000 per acre, but the 70-acre tract from which Watson donated the 12-acre school site is classified "industrial" and valued at $50,000 per acre.
So where did Crotty get the $12 million figure?
"It was just a number that was bandied about when discussing the property's worth in 10 years when the school is built," says Steve Triggs, county spokesman. "It's not based on any appraisal."
Of course, the appraised value of land is often much lower than its market value. "As more and more happens in that area, that land is going to continue to go up in value," says Bill Donegan, Orange County property appraiser.
However, that doesn't mean you get to peer into a crystal ball and create a value from the future. "But we have to look at that land as undeveloped land right now," says Donegan. "That site isn't near any infrastructure. The more you have to do to prepare land, the less valuable it is."
When trying to win over a public skeptical of a development, a $12 million piece of land rings more altruistic than $600,000 piece of land (or a potentially, 10-years-down-the-road, $12 million site).
Still, Gordon has nothing but praise for Watson. After she told the developer that the sewer-bordering site would not suffice, Watson offered up another hunk further in on his property and away from the plant. This one's 15 acres, three more than before.
"I think he just wanted to be done with us so he could move on," says Gordon.
The deal for this new land hasn't been finalized, and Donegan hasn't seen the specifics on where it's located. Watson seems ready to tout the new site just as much as Crotty did the old one. On Jan. 30 the developer sent a letter to county commissioners and local media blasting county commissioner Teresa Jacobs she was the lone nay vote in the decision to give Watson housing rights. He wrote, "Commissioner Jacobs is protesting our project despite the fact that I am giving a $15 to $17 million dollar site to the school board."
That price tag apparently reflects the same $1 million-per-acre formula. New site, same tricks.[email protected]