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Under construction forever

UCF asks the state to remove conservation status from a coveted patch of land

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Somewhere between the Harris Engineering building and the edge of Gemini Boulevard on the University of Central Florida’s main campus in east Orlando is a tranquil parcel of land dotted with pines, palms and vine-covered shrubs. The foliage thickens near the road, absorbing the cutting sounds of passing cars so all that can be heard here is the faint chatter of students and the rustling of birds in the treetops. 

This eight-acre patch of undeveloped land is part of the UCF Arboretum. In recent years the space has been used as an outdoor classroom of sorts, a showcase of native flora and fauna where college and elementary school students alike have come to study Florida’s natural history. 

Simply put, it’s a good place to relax and enjoy the outdoors. 

Looked at another way, it’s also a good place to build.

That’s because the area is also the last substantial tract of undeveloped space within the campus “core” – that is, the area within the circular Gemini Boulevard that has not been claimed by classroom buildings, parking garages and student housing. Given the torrid increase in both student population and new construction at UCF – a new football stadium and arena in 2007, a new performing arts center this year, new parking garages regularly – it’s easy to see why the university would want these eight acres.

But there’s a catch: This part of the arboretum is also under a conservation easement, which forbids any alteration of the land. To make matters even more complicated, it’s under restoration orders by the St. John’s River Water Management District after a former arboretum director violated the terms of the easement by clearing trees and planting exotic species in the area following Hurricane Charlie in 2004. 

Rather than sign a consent order with St. John’s that would have bound the school to its restoration duties, on Sept. 17 UCF sent a letter to St. John’s offering a trade – sort of. More specifically, the university proposed that the boundaries of the easement be adjusted so that the desired eight-acre space could be replaced by 10 acres of wetlands in the northeast corner of campus.

“We wanted to act sooner, rather than later, to get the process started to potentially shift the easement to a more ecologically sensitive part of campus,” UCF spokesman Grant Heston wrote in an e-mail to the Orlando Weekly dated Oct. 1. New arboretum director Patrick Bohlen agrees that the proposed replacement is more ecologically sensitive because it’s a breeding ground for gopher tortoises and high-quality habitat for other native species. But he also worries about the future of his program if the eight acres next door to the arboretum’s office were released from the easement. “Personally, I would argue that the arboretum program maintain a presence on that land,” he says.

Besides maintaining the 82 acres of land under its purview (not all of it is part of the conservation easement), UCF Arboretum staff also lead walking tours, run a community garden, advise student sustainability programs and provide volunteer hours through cleanups and other landscaping work.

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