Eastwood residents celebrate as developer’s bid to build 200 homes in east Orange rejected

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A busload of Eastwood residents filled the Orange County Commission chambers Tuesday afternoon to hear commissioners quickly and unanimously reject a request by a real-estate developer for permission to build about 200 homes on the east Orange community’s shuttered golf course.

© Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel Sarah Gonder, Eastwood community organizer, discusses the challenges of a developer who wants to put 200 houses on the neighborhood golf course while the group waits outside the Orange County Administration building in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. The commission later voted against the developer and not permit building new homes on the neighborhood golf course.

The crowd, most wearing red “Save Eastwood” T-shirts, applauded the board vote.

About 175 residents signed up to lobby the commission during the meeting’s public-comment period, but only four people spoke — two residents and land-use attorney Brent Spain, representing the community’s homeowners association, and Lowndes attorney Hal Kantor for the developer.

“As a Florida resident who has spent countless hours with the goal of protecting my community, I am keenly aware of the difficult job that you hold,” Eastwood resident Angela Emerson told the commissioners, who voted 4-3 a year ago against Benge Corp.’s plan for 200 new homes. “It requires fortitude, compassion and a listening ear to guard over public interests in the face of all the future development projects that are presented to you.”

© Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel Sarah Gonder, Eastwood community organizer talks to those riding the bus to the Orange County Administration building in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. The neighbors are fighting a developer that wants to build 200 homes on the neighborhood golf course.

More than 100 residents rode a chartered bus to the meeting from the east Orange community, about 15 miles from downtown Orlando.

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Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said he received over 700 emails from Eastwood residents opposed to the development.

Kantor warned the board that the vote could be costly for the county as his clients will sue for compensation under the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Protection Act of 1995, a Florida law, which allows property owners to seek damages if they can prove a government action unfairly affected their land value.

“I would start off by telling you the potential cost to the county of not settling is about $20 million,” Kantor said, a combination of what his clients contend the lost value of its land to be and compounded interest of about $745,000 a year. “One year has passed so we’re already over $18 million.”

Kantor said the developers were prepared to help solve other community problems, but won’t now.

For instance, he said, they offered to give up about 127 acres of the 278-acre golf course to the community.

“So we will continue to own it and we will maintain it in accordance with county standards, which is not what I think the [residents’] preference is but county standards allow grass to grow up to 12 inches and that’s what we intend to do, “ said Kantor, a land-use specialist lawyer. “We have land available to resolve the stormwater [flooding] problem and had offered that but that won’t get done either –– at least not through land from us.”

After the vote, Kantor said his statements weren’t intended as threats to the community. “They were just facts,” he said.

Spain said he doesn’t believe the developer’s Harris appeal will succeed, calling it “facially and legally without merit and deficient…”

Eastwood dates back about three decades when county commissioners approved the original land-use plan for 2,320 homes in 1993.

But only 2,016 were built.

Benge Corp. insists it has “vested rights” for the remaining 304 residential units, but its plans called for fewer.

In a letter to commissioners Tuesday, Deputy County Attorney Joel Prinsell disputed Benge’s claim that it has vested development rights.

shudak@orlandosentinel.com

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