County, citizen groups working separately for purchase of Yarborough Ranch land

Following an at-times tense, marathon public hearing on Feb. 28, Seminole County and local citizen groups are working separately on how to move forward to purchase the 1,300 remaining acres of the Yarborough Ranch land in Geneva for public conservation purposes. How to get to an acquisition that makes sense, however, is proving to be a challenge. 

The Seminole County Planning and Zoning Board voted in December to approve a preliminary subdivision plan (PSP) that would allow for a 300-home development to be built on the land. Despite appeals by citizen groups Bear Warriors United and Geneva Citizens Association, the PSP was upheld in the February meeting. The groups have 30 days from the decision to file an appeal to the county circuit court.

While the Yarborough family hopes to see the remaining acreage end up in the public’s hands as conservation land rather than be developed, they have not yet received any official offers to do so. 

“Before we sought to contract with a home builder to sell this property, we approached the county to give them their shot of buying this and reconstitute a public lands referendum to fund it. And they declined to do it,” Yarborough family representative Dave Axel said. “And that was several years ago.

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“There was a lot of noise from, whether they be members of the public, elected officials or otherwise, that, ‘gee, we really wish there was an opportunity to make this acquisition’,” Axel said. “And so a decision was made by the family at a certain juncture they have their chance. Well, that was December. Well, it’s March now.”

As the family has been attempting to work with the county on a purchase — the listed price for the property is $34 million — Bear Warriors United says that they have been working with the state of Florida to line up a purchase for nearly a year.

“I am fully, fully 110,000% in support of the state buying the land, and it would be under the rural and family lands program,” Bear Warriors United founder Katrina Shadix said. “A lot of our farmers and ranchers are land rich and cash poor, so this state program would buy it, put it in conservation and get to continue the agricultural practices that they’ve been doing.

“I would be opposed to the county buying it because I just don’t trust the county to keep the land in conservation forever the way the state would under this better program. And, the state also has the money.”

Seminole County also hopes to make a joint purchase with the state, County Commissioner Jay Zembower said, utilizing the Florida Forever program, which has received an influx of funding to purchase land across the state, much of which is in the Florida Wildlife Corridor — where the Yarborough Ranch property would sit. 

“If we were able to bring this property into that whole ownership of the state and/or county, it makes that corridor much wider, much more robust and will ultimately encourage more wildlife to stay and thrive throughout this whole region,” Zembower said. 

Zembower made the motion at the February meeting for the county to begin exploring a purchase, and has staff working on a report to determine if a purchase is feasible and if the county has the funds available for one. The report is expected to be submitted within the next week, he said. 

Keeping the land as a public entity through the county would add a key connection point between the Little Big Econ State Forest and Charles H. Bronson Wildlife Management Area.

“I think it is a pretty good chance that we could pull this off,” Zembower said. “It’s all about timing, because with state dollars, you‘ve got to know that the state is looking at many tracts of property around the entire state, not just in Seminole [County]. But the fact that we would have a willing seller that’s willing to sell it, and if we can meet each others’ needs as far as price point and the government’s regulations to be able to gain that property, I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of getting there.”

The timing, however, could prove to be an issue.

The citizen groups’ appeal to the PSP, which Shadix believes is “an illegal development order,” led to a delay in any decision until the February hearing. If the group appeals, it could delay the county process indefinitely — something Shadix isn’t shying away from.

“When we’re suing the county on an illegal [development order], that’s not going to be very appealing for developers,” she said. “I don’t think they’re going to want to touch that until our case is settled. And, if we want, we can tie it up in court for years.”

Having the PSP on the property does not mean that it will definitely be developed on, just that it allows for the option, which is in the best interest of the seller, Zembower said.

“You don’t give up your rights because someone says they might buy your property,” Axel said. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Removing the PSP through appeals would be difficult, if not nearly impossible, as it is an entitlement on the land, Zembower said. It can, however, be removed once sold.

“If the county [or] state buys it, those entitlements are still there and still are part of that property,” Zembower said. “Anybody, including the county, can then remove those rights from the property through the legal process if they want.

“There’s no question if that state or county purchases [the property], it will not be purchased for development,” he said. “So, therefore, as soon as that purchase would take place in the county, we would put it into what’s called our natural lands program, and our natural lands program requires a zoning change text amendment to the code, which would remove those [PSP] rights from that property.” 

While the potential litigation could handcuff the county in moving forward, the state would still be able to purchase the property if it deems it worthy. That, however, is not a given.

“If the appeal succeeds or fails, neither one of them precludes the state from making an acquisition,” Axel said. “But go look at the Florida Forever [project] list, then all the properties already on it. Go look at the price of those properties. Look at the price of this one. This is no minor thing.”

Continued delays could also lead to other buyers deciding to make offers.

“Right now, [the Yarboroughs] will entertain an offer for public acquisition and will enter into discussions if somebody wishes to,” Axel said. “Right now, the state or county or whomever has their chance. … We’re not done giving them a chance. At some point we will be done. When that is, I don’t know.”

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