Townhome development planned for Chelonian Research Institute land

Amidst overgrown grass, a canopy of large trees and the unmistakable nearly 100-year-old yellow house sit the relics of a former Oviedo staple: the world-renowned Chelonian Research Institute.

The Institute, which had been home to the world’s largest private collection and third largest overall collection of turtle and tortoise specimens — more than 14,000 — closed in 2021 following founder Dr. Peter C.H. Pritchard’s death in February 2020 at age 76. But the site holds sentimental value for Oviedo residents. 

“When I first moved here to work with my uncle, his daughters were always very interested in nature and animals,” said Michael Provost, vice president of Ovation Construction Company, which is just down Central Avenue from the Institute’s former land. “We would regularly go and tour the Chelonian Research Institute and go see [the tortoises], and we’ve met with [Pritchard] many times. 

“It was a great thing there, but without the patriarch, it’s kind of tough to go on.”

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The majority of the land the property sits on is in the process of being turned into a 70-townhome subdivision following the approvals of the Non-Statutory Development Agreement, Master Land Use Plan, and Preliminary Subdivision Plan by Oviedo’s Local Planning Agency on June 6 and architectural designs by the City Council on June 19. It will be developed by Pulte Homes, pending the final sale of the land and approvals.

“We’re trying to do efficient development, which provides for, yes, more townhomes, which makes it more potentially affordable,” David Axel, the applicant for the project, said at the June 19 meeting. “That’s really the last realm of ownership opportunity left in Oviedo. There’s just not a whole bunch of single-family land here.

“I believe this is a good project for the city.”

The project site is on Central Avenue in Oviedo's historic downtown, which allows for a higher building density. Image courtesy of the City of Oviedo.
The project site is on Central Avenue in Oviedo’s historic downtown, which allows for a higher building density. Image courtesy of the City of Oviedo.

The project is expected to be done in three phases. Phase one includes the townhome construction, the shared infrastructure and off-site road improvements to Central Avenue. Phases two and three involve the construction for non-residential uses for lots along Central Avenue, including the Chelonian Research Institute’s yellow building, which could be turned into office space, and attorney Margaret Wharton’s office building, which was built in 1885, and will remain as such for the time being, Axel said.

“I’m very glad to hear that the Chelonian Institute and Ms. Wharton’s office, that some of the more historic buildings, are going to stay there,” Oviedo Mayor Megan Sladek said. 

For now, at least, the intent is to have the two historic buildings remain in place, Axel said, as the land they are on are currently for sale as part of the larger project. 

“[They] are not part of the townhome project,” he said. “The intent of mine, at the direction of the current owner of the two-story yellow building, is to try to save it. 

“There’s deferred maintenance, there’s been some vandalism, [but] hopefully somebody sees it for what it is, sees value and just restores it,” he said. “That’s my hope, I kind of like that building. I kind of like what it does for the character of that road.”

The Chelonian Research Institute closed in Oviedo in 2021. Photo by Eric Orvieto.
The Chelonian Research Institute closed in Oviedo in 2021. Photo by Eric Orvieto.
The Institute once hosted visitors who wanted to learn about the 14,000 turtle and tortoise specimens housed there. Photo by Eric Orvieto.
The Institute once hosted visitors who wanted to learn about the 14,000 turtle and tortoise specimens housed there. Photo by Eric Orvieto.

A rich history

The Institute, located at 402 S. Central Ave. in Oviedo, was opened in 1997 by Pritchard, a celebrated turtle and tortoise conservationist who, in 2000, was named a “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine, and contained a research facility, library, sanctuary, museum and residence for scientists. The hefty collection was moved to the Turtle Conservancy in Ojai, California, and is expected to open in 2025. 

“I was very happy that there was a place as important as the Turtle Conservancy to send it to,” Pritchard’s widow, Sibille, said. “That was very important to me that it went to the right place. 

“They were able to absorb the whole thing and keep it in the same vein in which Peter had intended, which is the research institute for everybody,” she said. “It [is] an institution that had an international reputation, so it was important to maintain that.”

With the closure of the Institute came the loss of a site that provided unique experiences for many.

“It was so cool, it was [one of] the world’s largest tortoise museum[s],” Sladek, a lifelong Oviedo resident, said. “And it was hidden right here in Oviedo.”

Inclusion of right-of-way causes concerns

The full property, which is owned in parts by Wharton, the Chelonian Institute and Chelonian Research Institute Corporation, is approximately 11.5 acres. About 2 acres of city right-of-way property, containing a privately built stormwater pond and pipes, will be included in the development, which has raised concerns from some residents.

Plans submitted to the city show townhomes, the two historic buildings and the project's infrastructure. Image courtesy of the City of Oviedo.
Plans submitted to the city show townhomes, the two historic buildings and the project’s infrastructure. Image courtesy of the City of Oviedo.

Sladek posted about the acreage on her Facebook page prior to the meeting, saying in part, “Wow….just WOW! On the agenda for the council meeting for Monday, June 19, a developer is proposing the City GIFT (for free) 2 acres of land to the developer.”

The post generated 67 comments, the majority of which were critical of the decision. 

A city right-of-way is land “dedicated, deeded, used, or to be used for a street, alley, walkway, boulevard, drainage facility, access for ingress and egress, or other purpose by the public, certain designated individuals, or governing bodies,” according to the Florida Legislature’s website

The right-of-way acreage cannot legally be sold, as the city does not own it.

“This idea that it is some sort of giveaway is just not true,” Axel said. “It’s usually the goal of a local government, if there’s no harm to the citizens at large, to facilitate the most orderly, cost-effective development for the benefit of everyone. And that is, kind of, a long-standing city policy.”

The developer plans to expand, relocate and maintain the pond, covering all costs. Additionally, the developer said they will consider expanding pedestrian lanes for future mobility use, including golf carts.  

“We can’t get money out of this, but I can see the benefit of getting paid maintenance out of it,” Councilmember Natalie Teuchert said. “We can actually encourage some cross-connectivity here.”

The future use for the land is designated Oviedo downtown transition, which allows a maximum of 40 housing units per acre and one floor-to-area ratio (FAR) for office and commercial (which means that the plan takes up the entire buildable lot), fanning out from Central Avenue, north of Broadway Street. 

“We had big discussions, community involvement, and our intent, I get it, was to have a pretty intense use,” Sladek said, referring to the passage of the city’s 25-year comprehensive plan last year. “It’s up to the developer what to do with the engineering and the water and the swamps.”

The project was approved with only Sladek dissenting. Councilmember Keith Britton was absent from the meeting. 

While the loss of the Institute has also been a loss for Oviedo, those in the neighborhood understand why the townhome project is moving forward. 

“It’s the nature of the beast,” Provost said. “If you don’t have the figurehead … it comes down to dollars and cents. If there’s nobody there that’s going to run the Institute, or run it to the level that it was operating at in its heyday, I totally understand that they probably want to cash out and do something else.

“That’s incredibly valuable real estate.”

And while Sibille, who still lives across the street from the landmark yellow house, is excited for the future of the Institute’s specimens to live on in California, the move is bittersweet.

“I’m sad that it’s not here in Oviedo, but change happens,” she said. “But I’m here. I stay here. I love it here.”

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