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Why Tampa Bay should pay attention to Florida's biggest land development plan ever

Anyone who has driven I-4 from Tampa Bay to Orlando or Disney World has gone through quiet Osceola County, though they may not realize it. Kissimmee and Celebration are two of the few familiar names of towns tucked in Osceola's northwest corner, while Yeehaw Junction — one of the state's more colorful rural designations — lies in the county's extreme southeast corner.

Somewhere between those county extremes lies Deseret Ranch, a sprawling, 300,000-acre cattle ranch long owned by the Mormon Church that's taking the next step in the largest land development plan ever proposed in Florida.

It involves a 60-year strategy to convert 133,000 of those ranch acres (that's six times the size of Manhattan) into housing developments and towns that could accommodate up to half a million people by 2080.

"You can't plan growth," Deseret Ranch manager Erik Jacobsen recently told the Orlando Sentinel. "You can only plan for it. It's going to come. … When it all comes together, I hope people say, 'Hey, this makes a lot of sense.' "

The Osceola development calls for about a dozen densely populated urban centers, multiple employment centers and a central business district, all designed to be within a half-mile of commuter rail, light rail or rapid-transit bus lines.

Tampa Bay, rarely organized for such singular larger-scale developments, might want to pay attention to these long-term plans. Any project of this magnitude in Central Florida will have opportunities and repercussions for the I-4 corridor that connects Tampa Bay to Orlando and the east coast of Florida. Developing what is ranch land on such a massive scale means more people and more traffic but also more demand for goods and services. It also means the Greater Orlando area is destined to continue its rapid growth as outlying rural areas become part of a broader metropolitan region.

And, yes, it means the Orlando region eventually — decades from now — will likely surpass Tampa Bay in population and political and economic clout. After all, the tourism-packed city is surrounded in all directions by sparsely inhabited land that, once developed, will ally itself with its Orlando core.

To its credit, the Mormon master plan to develop part of its Osceola holdings offers a comprehensive way to grow the county's economy. It will add people and communities without the typical piecemeal style of Florida sprawl, while preserving large tracts of natural Florida in the process.

Florida has seen occasional examples of massive master plan developments, most recently in rural Taylor County south of Tallahassee on the Gulf Coast. Several years ago, the Foley Timber and Land Co. that is Taylor's largest land owner unveiled a master plan with the county's blessing designating areas of residential and commercial growth in hopes of boosting a slow economy, while specifying vast tracts of land that will remain untouched.

The Osceola plan is not without controversy, as recent news reports point out. Nobody likes to see rural Florida disappear, but that has been the Florida Way to becoming the third most populated state in the country. Some critics see darker motives in the vast Mormon-owned development plan, including control of area water rights. Others are simply wary of any development whose Salt Lake City owner is the less familiar Mormon or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints religious group.

For 60 years, the Mormons accumulated ranch land in Osceola County. Its Deseret Ranch there ranks among the country's largest beef cattle operations, and adheres to the church's message of being prepared for adverse times. The church's presence in Florida resurfaced in the public spotlight several years ago when the Mormon-controlled, Utah-based (and tax-paying) real estate business called AgReserves agreed to buy more than 380,000 acres in the Florida Panhandle area from the St. Joe Co. That deal, valued at more than a half-billion dollars, made the Mormon Church the largest private land owner in Florida with holdings of more than 2 percent of the state's acreage.

Even after the 133,000 acres are committed to development in Osceola, the church will still own close to 550,000 acres of ranch and timber land in the state. Who knows? If the Osceola project succeeds many decades from now, the church will have plenty more Florida land in hand for another development round or two.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

Why Tampa Bay should pay attention to Florida's biggest land development plan ever 10/19/15 [Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2015 9:38pm]
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