With so much hyperbole and understandable passion about this issue, it’s important to have a reasoned discussion about the facts.
What was the River Cross lawsuit?
The developer of River Cross sued Seminole County in Federal Court after their denial by both the Seminole County Planning and Zoning Commission and the Seminole County Board of County Commissioners for a Future Land Use change on their property.
The developer has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars taking depositions from all involved and in discovery arguing to the court that the Seminole County Rural Boundary – the basis of their denial for a Future Land Use Change on their property – has a Disparate Impact and a Segregative Effect under the Federal Fair Housing Act.
While the judge dismissed the Disparate Impact portion of the suit, he allowed the developer to continue with the Segregative Effect portion which was a blow to Seminole County who had sought to dismiss the lawsuit.
In essence, the River Cross developer is arguing that the rural boundary effectively keeps minorities from living beyond the rural boundary line and the evidence here is damning: minorities are 5x less likely to live in the rural areas of the county as they are in other urban areas of Seminole County.
What is the likely outcome of the lawsuit?
The real answer is no one knows yet, but thus far, the River Cross developer has won several small battles in the case and the County’s efforts to dismiss the lawsuit have fallen on deaf ears. Both sides have highly respected and expensive counsel, but the Seminole County is having to pay for their outside counsel from the County’s General Fund and thus far has expended over $200,000 on this case.
Based on the motions and arguments filed in the case, the most important question the judge will have to answer is whether the Segregative Effect has a Substantial Impact. With over 1/3 of the county required to have lots sizes 3, 5 or 10 acres in size due to the Rural Boundary, this definition of Substantial Impact is ripe for review and is likely what brought Seminole County to the bargaining table with the Developer.
What happens if Seminole County loses?
Federal court is different from state court in terms of potential remedies. Federal courts have many options which state courts do not have. A federal court could enter the developer’s development plan into the judgment, or they could completely strike down the rural boundary line. The county would have the right to appeal, which they likely would, but the effect of the Rural Boundary being struck down by the judge would open huge swaths of Seminole County to major development and it would be a major undertaking to again pass a Rural Boundary that could survive this Segregative Effect argument.
What does the deal actually say?
The deal spells out a potential land swap between the two parcels and sets a schedule by which the developer will submit an application, which includes working with staff and obtaining approval by the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of County Commissioners.
The county has full discretion to deny the application for any reason. Whatever they approve or reject, the developer will have five days to determine whether it is acceptable and to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice or to reject the approval and to return to federal court. Dismissal with Prejudice means that the company will be forever barred from resubmitting an application.
What happens if the deal is denied or if the parties cannot find a deal that works?
Part of the agreement is the abeyance of the lawsuit for 210 days while the developer submits his application and the county reviews it. At the end of that time, or at said time as the parties reach impasse or a deal has been done, the court case will reinstate. As all discovery has closed and the case is ripe for trial, the boundary would likely be on trial in the next couple months.
Is this a fair trade?
Let’s look at the facts of the deal. We learned from court documents the developer has a contract to purchase the 667-acre parcel known popularly known as “River Cross”, for $35,300,000. The terms of the land swap as approved would require the developer to close on the land and transmit a warranty deed to the county in exchange for the Econ River Wilderness Area (ERWA) property, which is 238 acres.
The county paid $3.5 million for the ERWA property in 1994. Adjusting for inflation, this is just under $6 million in 2020 dollars. The county would receive $35.3 million in property for property they spent just under $6 million (in 2020 dollars) on.
The River Cross property is almost 3x as large and sits in the part of the county that we want preserved while the ERWA property is adjacent to other urban and suburban developments and is on the urban side of the rural boundary.
When it is developed, the ERWA property would generate millions in property taxes for the County’s general fund that could be used wherever needed. In addition the developer has stated that they would cover the costs of preserving the River Cross land and the costs to build equestrian and other trails on it so that there would be no long term costs to Seminole County taxpayers for its maintenance and enjoyment.
Why would Commissioners support this swap?
Of course, the best person to ask this of is the County Commissioners themselves. They have all stated their support for the Rural Boundary at one time or another so one might extrapolate from their actions their concern that this developer and his lawsuit amount to a dangerous threat to the Rural Boundary and the way of life it protects. They have also lost at several steps along the way with this lawsuit and their legal fees are mounting. Perhaps this swap is a way to protect the judicial destruction of the Rural Boundary and all that it protects.
What’s that to stop Seminole County from trading the “River Cross” area in the future for development?
When the county purchased this Econ River Wilderness Area land in 1994, it did not put a conservation easement on the property. Because of that, the land is still “live” for development. As part of any trade, a conservation easement would permanently remove future development potential from the site.