State errors treated legendary Hal Scott preserve as environmental scrap. Here’s why that matters. – Orlando Sentinel

When a state agency this month declared scores of Florida nature tracts as failing preservation goals and as marketable for home construction, one in Orange County was identified only as 20-23-32-000-000-001.

For those who know the parcel first hand, it also could have been labeled inspiring, priceless and among the county’s most significant conservation prizes.

Property 20-23-32-000-000-001, a tax number, takes in 1,810 acres, or nearly a quarter of Hal Scott preserve. The conservation property 15 miles east of downtown Orlando harbors some of the finest pines and grasses ecosystem in the Orlando region and arguably the very best in Orange County.

Within a day and under fire, the St. Johns River Water Management District deleted its list of surplus lands and explained the inclusion of the Hal Scott piece and many others in Central and North Florida as an error that triggered alarm but no risk of the lands being sold for development.

That might have been the end of it but for revealing a disquieting notion.

Hal Scott is a nature rock star. Its five-year making started 30 years ago. The task was herculean and groundbreaking, shepherded in part by an Audubon leader now deceased, Hal Scott, and paid for in part, in a novel arrangement at the time, by toll-road drivers.

The making of Hal Scott represented a protective embrace of more than 6 miles of the imperiled Econlockhatchee River and a barrier to eastern expansion of Orlando between Colonial Drive and the Beachline Expressway. The water district itself has devoted blood, sweat and lung health to its caretaking.

Many details of that accomplishment are forgotten today by even the government bodies that did the heavy lifting. Orange County was one and could not readily recall its exact contribution, which was many millions of dollars.

Hal Scott Preserve cost at least $31 million in 1990s dollars and possibly closer to $40 million, depending on the county’s contribution.

The inclusion of Hal Scott on the list of surplus lands should have never gotten out the door of the water district’s real estate office, said the agency’s executive director, much less evade other checks and balances.

What’s to stop that from happening in 10 or 20 years as the meaning of Hal Scott fades deeper into history, perhaps setting the stage for acts of incompetence or shenanigans?

“Hal Scott preserve was never going to make it to the light of day as far as being on the list for surplus. It was just a mistake,” said Mike Register, the water district’s executive director.

“We are working on memorializing land acquisition that has occurred and is of significant value so that regardless of who is here, who has retired, we have that memorialized,” Register said.

How and when that will roll out is to be determined, he said.

Many supporters of Central Florida’s wild places are on a seething, hair-trigger alert for government misdoings with protected parcels of nature.

The prime culprit behind that wariness is a plan to build a high-speed toll road through Split Oak Forest that, like Hal Scott, was a seminal, homegrown conservation effort.

In the 1990s, Orange and Osceola counties, with a financial boost from the state, acquired nearly 1,700 acres of forest, pasture and excavation sites 7 miles south of Hal Scott and a few miles east of Orlando International Airport.

That Split Oak Forest property was intended to serve as a pampered, permanent wildlife refuge as Central Florida growth sprawled toward it, pushing south and east past the airport into remote Orange and Osceola counties.

In 2017, the newbie but now defunct road builder, Osceola County Expressway Authority, declared that efficient transportation trumps environmental protection and mapped construction of a toll road through the heart of Split Oak.

The resulting furor has arrived today at a pending deal in which the Central Florida Expressway Authority would pave a toll road across a corner of Split Oak.

As compensation for the proposed intrusion, a development partnership under the Tavistock and Deseret Ranches brands, which is counting on the road, would donate an adjoining 1,550 acres of forest and undeveloped land for conservation.

The matter remains hotly controversial, fueling widespread certainty that, push come to shove, governments can’t be trusted with conservation lands.

Pat Harden, a founder of the Friends of the Wekiva River and a chairman in the 1990s of the St. Johns River Water Management District, said it doesn’t help that John Miklos spoke at an unrecorded and minimally documented session of the water district in March when surplus lands was a key topic.

Miklos drew infamy as being the founder and president of the developer consulting firm Bio-Tech while also serving for more than five years until 2019 as chairman of the St. Johns water district, which regularly vetted his company’s applications for development permissions.

A water district board member, Maryam Ghyabi-White, attended that workshop and does not recall that Miklos talked about surplus lands and that he instead focused on a related topic of lands held under conservation easements.

Harden said that along with her cynicism that the list of surplus lands was merely a mistake, as the water district contends, the district has been hit by budget cuts and staffing challenges, weakening its ability to safeguard environments.

“Sounds to me like there was a lot of confusion and the fact that the district has lost funding and many experienced people,” Harden said.

The district was downsized by former Gov. Rick Scott a decade ago.

Its workforce fell from 717 employees in 2011 to 591 a year later, an exodus that included senior and experienced specialists. The agency now budgets for 529 positions but is unable to fill 70 of those, Ghyabi-White said.

Charlie Gray, a founder of GrayRobinson and now in an emeritus role at the law and consulting firm, did legal work in the government purchases of Hal Scott lands. His wife, Saundra, was chairman of the water district into the early 1990s.

Gray said that in his opinion the water district struggles from a lack of expert perspective. “Its history was fired by Rick Scott,” he said.

Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida, was the first member of the public to protest the surplus lands list. She is thankful the water district hit its reset button on the matter.

Putting Hal Scott on the real-estate market would have brought explosive backlash, she said.

“It is such an ecologically important and publicly beloved property,” Wraithmell said. “If there was some nefarious plot to dispose of it, that would have been a tremendously incompetent way to go about it.”

Wraithmell and others, including longtime conservation leader Clay Henderson of Volusia County, said the water district’s short-lived surplus list of 127 parcels of a combined 18,637 acres in counties spanning Central and North Florida included many gems.

But the Hal Scott piece is the second largest of the 127 and easily among the most vulnerable to an environmental armageddon of metropolitan growth.

The entire Hal Scott preserve takes in 8,832 acres. The 1,810 acres of Hal Scott on the surplus list hugs 2½ miles of Econlockhatchee River’s west bank.

The trail to the parcel leads through a dark cypress forest and across a wood bridge over a coiling Econlockhatchee River. The swamp perfume at the water’s edge is dank and sulfurous.

Emerging from the forest, the terrain opens into Hal Scott’s celebrated ecosystem, pine flatwoods, which cover more than 6,600 acres of the preserve.

Long-lived longleaf pines are spread more sporadically than densely, making way for extended, painting-like scenery.

The forest’s sandy floor is flat, thickly covered in areas with thin blades of wiregrass and teeming with flowering plants.

On a recent morning, a cluster of yucca plants visible far out in the forest had lofted flags of white blossoms high above the grasses and palmettos.

Hal Scott is a “fire dependent” ecosystem. The district burns from hundreds to more than 3,000 acres there annually. The property’s health is readily evident.

Former University of Central Florida professor Reed Noss led many ecosystem and ornithology classes through Hal Scott.

He published two books that focused on flatwoods, “Forgotten Grasslands of the South” and “Fire Ecology of Florida and the Southeastern Coastal Plain.”

Noss said he considers Hal Scott and Disney Wilderness Preserve in Osceola County to be the best examples of flatwoods in the greater Orlando area.

Hal Scott is Orange County’s only refuge for red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species.

Of about 120 red-cockaded woodpecker nest trees in Hal Scott, more than half are on the parcel put on the list of surplus lands.

That 1,810-acre parcel was within a 2,076-acre tract purchased in 1992 from owners of the Avalon Park community, which was just beginning to develop then and borders Hal Scott today.

The water district paid $10.4 million for the 2,076-acre piece. All of that cash came from the Orlando–Orange County Expressway Authority as toll revenues from the region’s drivers.

The authority was compensating for extensive wetlands losses incurred from the construction of its State Road 417.

If all conservation lands have their back stories, Hal Scott’s was written prominently into Orange County’s contemporary DNA, which was somehow lost on the St. Johns water district.

The agency did not receive a written or verbal comment on its plan to sell surplus lands – not until the list was published this month.

“I think where we really messed up was stakeholder outreach,” said Register, the district’s director. “We did talk about it in a couple of board meetings and did not get any comment or discussion about it. And I think we shouldn’t rely on that as a way to check the box that our stakeholders are OK.”

The water district’s board referred obliquely to surplus lands in January.

Board member Doug Bournique described selling surplus lands as “horse trading,” or selling lands when prices are high and buying lands when prices dip.

“If we would have the latitude or Mike Register would have the latitude and have the public to trust us to sell off pieces that are not environmentally sensitive with the idea of creating a war chest for when the economy shifts and we can get two for one or three for one, I think that’s a brilliant idea,” Bournique said.

Breaking News

Breaking News

As it happens

Be the first to know with email alerts on important breaking stories from the Orlando Sentinel newsroom.

Further discussion came in the unrecorded March workshop, and still more in May during a regular meeting.

In the May discussion, the district’s real-estate director Sheila Theus outlined marketing strategies and methodologies for determining surplus lands. The example Theus provided, a 30-acre tract next to a subdivision, suggested the district was aiming at small or degraded parcels. She said a list would be published later this summer.

A board member, Ghyabi-White, responded to Theus: “We have a really great process in place.”

The water district’s real-estate office failed to account for prize parcels such as Hal Scott. The district’s land experts did not get a chance to vet the surplus list. The list was not previewed with Hal Scott’s co-owner, Orange County. Little public transparency occurred.

When the list was published, it identified parcels by tax numbers, but many were incorrect. The issue was placed on the agency’s consent agenda, which is typically where small parcels of no controversy are parked. Register said he did not scrutinize the list until after its posting.

Of the public’s roiling suspicions that resulted, “I don’t blame them,” said Ghyabi-White, who blames herself for not asking more questions. “We failed and there is no doubt about it.”

kspear@orlandosentinel.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.