News Column

Orlando Sentinel Lauren Ritchie column

June 17, 2014

By Lauren Ritchie, Orlando Sentinel



June 17--Eustis city commissioners need to learn common manners.

The folks behind Trout Lake Nature Center came to a commission meeting recently with an offer to buy 269 acres the city wants to sell. Trout Lake President Joan Bryant described the group's plans for an eco-tourism paradise -- possibly with treehouse cabin rentals -- a natural history museum that would be Lake's first and a laboratory for research by college students.

Wow.

How did commissioners react? Stony silence. They didn't even bother to say thank you. Certainly a community group that brings forward such a rare and hard-won proposal deserves to be thanked for the effort and told it will be given the highest consideration, if nothing else. After all, commissioners, these are your neighbors.

The awkward reaction of commissioners naturally leaves observers wondering whether a group of residents is right when its lawyer accused the city in March of concocting a behind-the-scenes plan to sell the property to "enrich land speculators and developers at the expense of safeguarding conservation and rural lands."

That's when the idea to change the plan for that property suddenly came up publicly. Residents do have a point. This city has done everything it legally can in the past -- and sometimes more -- for developers. It does stretch the imagination to believe that the city was just puttering around the land maps while planning for a fire station and just happened to notice -- oh my gosh! -- a "mapping error," as City Manager Diane Kramer has said.

The result was that the city decided to "fix" the mistake by changing the plan for the land -- to dramatically increase its value -- before selling it. Under the old plan, arguably, nothing could be built on the 269 acres that is in 17 different parcels both north and south of County Road 44 because much of it was considered conservation land. Commissioners were poised on June 5 to "fix" the error by changing the land plan so that homes could be built on the property. However, that's the day Trout Lake officials came to the meeting with their purchase proposal, prompting commissioners to delay the change.

The nature center's offer comes up at Thursday's meeting along with a lame staff report that says little other than the county appraiser's office in the last two weeks increased the value of the property from about $878,000 to $1.5 million. Chief Deputy Appraiser Michael Prestridge said he will look into why the value nearly doubled -- this is the time of year that many valuations change. The staff report also suggests that Trout Lake buy the wasteland portion and let the city sell the more valuable upland. Thanks for that useless idea. Why should the nature center pay for near worthless property where its goals can't be accomplished?

This is what happens when bureaucrats set the agenda. They think in narrow terms and seldom consider the future value of having a large nature preserve in a city. This issue cries out for a leader on the commission.

As Byrant pointed out, the property could serve as a place for a variety of community and nonprofit clubs to meet, including 4-H, Scouts and gardening groups.

Partnering with the city, the nature center could build facilities for primitive overnight camping, a venue for events such as eco-weddings and even cool treehouse cabins. The center hopes to partner with Lake-Sumter State College in a research laboratory and the Florida Wildflower Foundation for seed production.

If it had space for a bigger venue, Trout Lake could attract traveling exhibitions, such as those provided by National Geographic.

The center is aware that its relatively small size -- 230 acres -- means Trout Lake "can only grow so much before we impact the land," Bryant told commissioners, and she is right.

Eustis officials rightly have long supported Trout Lake because the center helps make life in the city better. The support shouldn't stop now. Trout Lake has obtained a gift of $400,000 that is an investment in the city's future.

The argument that the city should get every nickel it can from this land is shortsighted and foolish. Those who make such an argument will only look guilty of what residents already suspect -- they're in cahoots with developers in a backroom deal. It will look especially stinky because the city ought to be donating the land to Trout Lake for all the center does for the city.

Eustis has a wide variety of surplus properties, but this is the only land located next to Trout Lake Nature Center. Commissioners have it within their power to create a future for the center or to curb its growth forever.

The fact that Trout Lake brought such a substantial cash offer to the table is impressive. It says this small group is serious. It's an offer that could cement a partnership for years to come in a community project that benefits everyone from thousands of schoolchildren annually on up.

Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.

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(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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