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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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The university won’t say what it has in mind for the site – right now, Heston says “flexibility” is its keyword. “We don’t have plans at this time for specific building A or specific building B,” he says. “All options are on the table.”

That the university is speaking of the land’s potential in terms of buildings worries students like Cooper Brinson of the Student Sustain-ability Alliance. “The university is looking at the land only as a source of potential development,” he says. “In my opinion, the value of a landscape has an intrinsic value simply by just being.”

Brinson says that construction there could have a detrimental effect not only to the cleared area, but also to the arboretum’s popular organic vegetable garden right outside the easement boundaries. Brinson fears that construction so close to the garden might mean that harmful runoff and trash could tarnish a program that has garnered attention beyond campus limits. According to Brinson, around 600 volunteers logged more than 1,500 hours of community service time in the arboretum’s garden 
last year.

Other criticism of the move focuses on the parcel of land the university is offering as compensation. According to Bohlen, parts of the proposed 10-acre replacement lie in a “100-year flood zone,” which means they’d be underwater if once-in-a-century rains came. “It’s the low point on campus, where everything wants to seep to,” he says. “It’s not an area that one would expect that the university would 
develop anyway.”

That’s led Chelsea Stewart, president of the Student Sustainability Alliance, to call the move an empty gesture, also pointing out that the university had already set aside that land for conservation in its 2010-2020 master plan. Stewart doubts that the swampy replacement would be able to host the same educational tours and outdoor classes as the eight acres near the arboretum. “Those [educational programs] can’t be replaced or traded off,” she says. 

Because the campus largely rests on the Little Econ River basin, any substantial new construction at UCF must be first permitted by the St. John’s Water Management District.

St. John’s compliance manager Bill Carlie says the district is “nowhere near getting to a decision” on whether the university’s request will be granted. He says the issue would probably be addressed, at the earliest, during the district’s governing board’s December meeting.

The creation of the easement at UCF can be traced to the same process of give-and-take mitigation as what the university is proposing now. When UCF wanted to build an extension to Gemini Boulevard in 1993, St. John’s permitted the construction, provided that some land was handed over for permanent conservation. That became a 157-acre easement, eight acres of which spilled over Gemini into the 
campus “core.”

Stewart fears it won’t be long before the rest of the easement is in the university’s crosshairs. “If they get this space now, in a few years, if they keep expanding the way they are, they’re going to want that last piece of green space,” Stewart says.

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