Trading houses for trees 

Bob Wood is standing in his back yard on Balmoral Road in Winter Park, just a few hundred feet through a thick stand of trees from Lake Berry. At his feet is a dirt mound the size of a half basketball, with a softball-sized hole on one side. "I'm not sure who lives there," he says. His daughter thinks it's an armadillo.

Wood is pointing out a road on the property next door and describing how the road may soon be moved a few hundred feet closer to the lake -- and paved. Moving that road would take out most of the trees, which Wood thinks would be a bad idea.

Then there are the planned houses: 262 of them, big ones, on great big lots. This will be called "The Preserve at Windsong." It will occupy the last bit of unspoiled Florida land remaining in Winter Park.

What is in play here is the usual alliance between nature lovers and NIMBY types. In this case, the nature lovers may be willing to take a gamble, hoping that the city will step in and keep a wooded section of land free from a proposed development.

The Morse-Genius Foundation is selling the land, for a reported $34 million, to support its ongoing philanthropy and other projects such as the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which eventually envisions a larger, more permanent museum to replace its current Park Avenue quarters. The land is not far from Rollins College, bridging lakes Mizell and Berry and straddling Winter Park and the abandoned Naval Training Center. The total acreage is 195.

"Seventy percent is citrus, the other 30 percent is native Florida as it was, almost untouched, and very much a wildlife nature-preserve-type environment," says Winter Park city planner Jeff Briggs. Most of that native Florida land is not for sale and will instead become a preserve at the center of the planned subdivision. But about 10 to 20 wooded or wet acres are in the path of bulldozers. And much of those are visible from Wood's back yard.

Wood knows there are going to be houses. He has no problem with that, he says. But he and a band of neighbors -- some of them with serious credentials in planning and engineering -- would like to save as much of that native Florida land as possible. Ultimately, they'd like the city to buy the land and keep it as it is.

Toward that end, the Lake Berry Property Owners' Association, with Wood acting as an unofficial spokesman, has over the past three months done its level best to nitpick the developer, the Keewin Real Property Co. of Winter Park, represented by Allan Keen.

"We feel there are too many short cuts being allowed in the development approval process for this project and the public is being misinformed," Lake Berry association president John Webb wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to city manager James Williams. One call to action from the group lists 22 specific bones of contention with the current plan.

The struggle between the property owners, the developer and Winter Park officials has resulted in several proposals and counter-proposals. Now, the Winter Park City Council will have to decide between a plan that alters the city's required lots sizes and one that leaves several wooded lots up for grabs.

The problems started with some bad math. Although Winter Park agreed to an overall plan that would allow 304 lots, it turns out there is no way to draw that many on this tract and still comply with the city's rules requiring, among other things, 100-foot frontages. So Keen asked for an OK to relax some lot-size requirements and requested permission to build bigger houses on his slightly smaller lots. He withdrew this request last month, but could resubmit it any time.

This sort of wrangling typically accompanies any suburban housing development. But Winter Park, with its air of exceptionalism, is not your typical small town. So the Lake Berry neighbors submitted a counter-proposal, one they say is more in keeping with the spirit of Winter Park's planning heritage. They want a few even smaller lots, pushing the development away from the lake, which would save a few acres of trees.

"It would be wonderful for everyone if the plan they brought could work," say Briggs. "But the developer tells us he'd lose 10 lots if he did it their way."

Briggs' department has proposed a modified plan that complies with the deal the city made with the developer in 1996, while allowing a lakeside park with a public vista. This plan would move the road closer to the lake. With this proposal, the city is aiming for an "old style of subdivision," Briggs explains. "In the 1920s, for example, they would put the road along the lake so people driving by see the lake rather than houses."

Only trouble with that is, the road kills the trees.

Wood would rather take a gamble -- a gamble he's not fond of: Allow the developer's plan, which places six house lots directly lakeside where the trees are, but have the city or state buy those six lots. Thus, the trees would stay standing. "If we can't come up with the plan to buy this out, then `the developer` gets all these lots."

Keen finds the neighbors' gripes mystifying, if not actually hypocritical. After all, the development he is planning has nicer houses on larger lots than those surrounding it. And he's complying with modern storm-water retention and open-space regulations -- things that were nonexistent in the days when Wood's home was built.

Still, in the spirit of brotherhood, he will entertain alternative proposals.

"If they -- whoever they are -- want to come in and buy those six lots and not build on them ... more power to him," Keen says.

Keen is easy-going about the possibility because it doesn't affect him economically. He's faced with the possibility of someone buying several lots at their "developed" price when in fact no development has occurred.

The next meeting of the Winter Park City Council is Jan. 26. If the council picks a plan the Lake Berry Property Owners don't like, they may go to court.

Wood hopes it won't come to that. He is in many ways a professional compromise artist and still holds out hope for the appointment of a "blue-ribbon commission" to study the plan and then work toward the public purchase of the trees near his back yard. He is trying to foster trust. "We gave all our information to the other side," Wood says. "This is not a self-serving thing. We're doing this because it's right."


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