With growth comes growing pains.

4: What If It Fails?

Lake County’s population has boomed over the past two decades, doubling from 154,000 in the 1990 census to 298,000 in 2010. By 2020, the population will top 400,000.

Most of that growth has come from single-family housing development. Clermont and the Villages are prime examples. Construction around Clermont was torrid until 2008. Thousands of acres of abandoned orange groves there were cleared and developed — seemingly instantaneously. As housing developments were completed, the population of south Lake County boomed — in Clermont alone, it has risen 400 percent over 1990 levels.

But, this growth brings associated burdens. Since the development was almost all residential, the new jobs to come into the area were mainly service industry support — big-box stores, chain restaurants and retailers. The better-paying (or even simply available) jobs were in Orlando, or the attractions, further south. Traffic heading south and east became the commuter’s woe.

Water resources were strained. Warmer temperatures and a rapidly increasing population resulted in an overtaxed upper Floridan aquifer. Water reserves have been drained so low that the state has given the cities of Groveland and Clermont sizable grants to find alternate water supplies, either with a large storage capability for re-use water or for drilling down into the lower Floridan aquifer.

Without a commercial tax base in the mix, funding to support city services for a burgeoning population rests heavily upon the residential sector. And, as more houses go in, the burden increases. Clermont has struggled to add staff and services to keep up with the growth, building a $10 million police station, buying a former church and repurposing it for an arts center, spending $500,000 on repairs, and added staff — police officers and fire lieutenants, parks and recreation staff and an events coordinator. All of is this is quite understandable for meeting growth needs, but to pay for it, the city finally proposed raising city homeowners’ taxes by up to 45 percent.

Even worse, is the ominous connection between boom-and-bust building and poverty in Lake County. In an Aug. 6, 2015 column titled “Level of poverty in Lake schools begs questions about state of economy,” Lauren Ritchie wrote so well there’s no benefit in paraphrasing:

“… Poverty, with all its bad implications for education and health, has increased by a breathtaking 20 points in just seven years in Lake County.
How could this happen?
The most obvious answer is that thousands of people who worked in the construction trades lost their jobs, and lacking other skills found employment in the low-paying service industries — if at all. Some folks have said that construction workers have moved away, but the schools’ population statistics don’t support that theory. The number of kids being educated here has risen, even if by modest numbers.
The biggest problem is that Lake never diversified. And by suspending impact fees for years, it stupidly continues to cling to the fantasy that things will be wonderful again if only Lake can keep building homes. That worked out so well for us during the bust, didn’t it?
Lake never managed to attract companies that would offer jobs in manufacturing or industry. Though the county’s cheerful economic-development web page lists local hospitals as the companies that employ the most people, the truth is that the biggest employer in Lake is the school district. That’s a sign of an ailing or rural economy — or both. …”

Has Lake sunk so deeply into the clutches of the services industries that it cannot climb out of the hole? Can it ever escape the cycle of a boom-and-bust housing industry, which means more service employees are needed, which means more children born to people being paid the lowest salaries?

Coming out of the recession, South Lake leaders have struggled to craft a plan called “Wellness Way” as an economic solution for the region. It’s similar to Mount Dora’s Innovation District plan in many ways, perhaps enough to make Mount Dora nervous.

South Lake’s Wellness Way Plan.

Here’s how Wellness Way was envisioned to work: There is a 16,000-acre sector plan, developed by the county. The parcel is currently owned by 24 landowners. County taxpayers will pay for road construction and commercial infrastructure. According to the formula for commercial development, there must be 1.61 acres of commercial development for every residential acre built.

When completed, Wellness Way’s commercial district would be composed of many of the same interests Mount Dora hopes to attract — healthcare, office space, education, light industry. The aim was to create close to 25,000 new jobs.

But there are devils in the details. The parcel is huge compared to the 1,600-acre plan for the Mount Dora Innovation District. Accordingly, the amount of residential development in the mix is also huge, bringing in about 40,000 new residents. That will strain water resources already under significant strain. The parcel is a sensitive recharge area, and the plan doesn’t require use of alternate sources of water or address where they might even be found.

Residential development guidelines aren’t precisely stated, so although the county favors high-density housing, there’s a huge loophole for more single-family sprawl. The plan also doesn’t have strong enough requirement to address the needs for new schools. And finally, the plan doesn’t yet have buy-in from regional agencies who operate the Conserve II sewage operation in South Lake.

Just this September, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity put a halt to the project, citing concerns about water supplies, densities, school population and transportation.

Lake County officials, who earlier were given the impression from state officials that the plan would go through, were surprised. Some say politics has thrown dirt in the mix. As it turns out, CEMEX corporation wants to open a sand mining operation in the middle of Wellness Way and is suing the state to get its operation included as a use permitted within the plan. (Some Clermont officials protest that the mine would clog traffic on Hwy 27 and heap added dust on the city.)

Now county and state officials will go back to the negotiating table, vying to avoid an official administrative hearing.

Cemex sand mine

Regardless, Wellness Way has been put on hold for at least another 18 months. With development booming all around, one can’t help but wonder if the deal will eventually unravel and the feared sprawl ensue with a vengeance.

What can prevent this from happening in Mount Dora? Timing and luck, perhaps: the Mount Dora district is much smaller, so the threat of rampant residential building is less. It all may come together much more quickly, and there aren’t the same overcrowded conditions to start with.

Finally, though, it may just be a matter of matter of intestinal fortitude. County commissioner Leslie Campione told us,

“The most likely roadblock will be perceived conflicts between what elected officials and planning staff desire to see happen ‘first’ versus land uses and economic activity that naturally occur because they are driven by market forces. The key will be to hold firm with regard to quality design standards while allowing a level of flexibility that promotes long term economic sustainability, realizing that at the end of the day, we want career opportunities and high wage jobs in Lake County and this is exactly the right place for it to occur.”

Ryan Donovan, Mount Dora’s First District current representative, put it this way in another interview: ” We need to vet who we do business with very carefully … Deals have to be carefully examined. Remember, everyone wants a piece of Mount Dora these days. We have to be careful that we’re working in the right way with the right people.”

“We need the political fortitude of city council to lead when those changes are requested,” says city planning and zoning manager Mark Reggentin. “A very public process will prevent it from happening. We have one opportunity to do it right. Thankfully, the last four to five councils have been steadfast.”

“However, it could turn in one year if council takes a different approach and supports single family or apartment development. We’ll become another bedroom community — a nice one maybe, but unsustainable.”

— David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on October 5, 2015.

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