DAYTONA BEACH — Less than a decade ago, the local economy here was still in the grips of the Great Recession with real estate development activity practically at a standstill. New development was largely viewed as a sign of hope and optimism.
Today, a flurry of new home construction, apartment projects and commercial development throughout Volusia County has some citizens and elected officials alarmed that area is quickly becoming over-developed.
Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower is one of them.
“The flood gates have come open,” said Brower while standing on a grassy field along LPGA Boulevard that is set to become the site of a retail center called Tymber Creek Village. “The pendulum has swung the other way. Now, it’s at the point where people daily are telling me ‘Stop all growth.’ We can’t stop all growth, but what we could do is try to slow things down. It’s like we’ve been on a sprint.”
The site just west of Interstate 95 is directly across from the new Publix-anchored Latitude Landings shopping center as well as the entrance to the fast-growing Latitude Margaritaville 55-and-older community.
Just to the east of where Brower was standing is the two-lane bridge over the Tomoka River on LPGA — a bridge that is now the site of weekday traffic backups. As growth has exploded north and south of it, there are still no definite plans to widen the bridge.
Brower noted that the LPGA area on both sides of I-95 is poised to see thousands more new homes and apartments as well as more shopping centers in the coming years.
That wasn’t the case a few years ago.
County used to struggle to attract developers
“When I got here in 2011, there was absolutely no growth and when talking to apartment developers they’d say to me, why would I build there,” recalled John Albright, the CEO of CTO Realty Growth Inc.
The Daytona Beach-based company formerly known as Consolidated-Tomoka Land Company owned 11,000 acres in the LPGA area and was the city’s largest private landowner when Albright became its chief executive. Today, its land holdings locally are down to 1,600 acres. Most of its land sales have occurred in the past six years.
They include the sites of what are now a regional distribution center for Trader Joe’s and the side-by-side Tanger Outlets and Tomoka Town Center shopping malls along the east side of I-95.
On the west side of I-95, land sales by CTO have resulted in the Latitude Margaritaville community, which has completed more than 1,300 of its planned 3,900 homes in just three years and the Latitude Landings shopping center which is set to begin construction soon on more retail buildings. Next door, ICI Homes has completed 200 of the planned 1,200 homes at its Mosaic “full life” community on former CTO land just west of the Florida Tennis Center.
And to the north, Orlando developer Beat Kahli plans to break ground later this year on the first phase of his planned 10,000 home Avalon Park Daytona Beach community along the south side of State Road 40/West Granada Boulevard. The development, which he said will be like a town with its own downtown as well as parks and schools, is slated to include 1 million square feet of commercial space.
Albright said the opening of the massive 700,000-square-foot Trader Joe’s complex in 2015 and the Tanger Outlets mall in November 2016 were the catalysts for the surge in new development since then.
“I wouldn’t say it was any one project that was the turning point, but Tanger and Trader Joe’s worked together to spark interest in the area,” he said.
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Projects abound throughout county
The LPGA area isn’t the only area seeing an explosion in construction activity — and corresponding increased concerns that the area is growing to fast to adequately plan for it.
In southwest Volusia County, the Deltona City Commission is considering declaring a six-month moratorium on new home construction because of concerns that the growth is happening too fast.
In Ormond Beach, a number of citizens were outraged a couple years ago when a local developer clear-cut a wooded area along West Granada Boulevard to make way for a Wawa gas station/convenience store. Current plans by another local developer group to turn the closed golf course at the Tomoka Oaks community off of Nova Road into a new home development have also sparked strong opposition from area residents.
In north Volusia County, a citizens group has been rallying to protect the Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail area from encroaching development. They successfully persuaded the Volusia County Council in April to approve the $988,000 purchase of a 36-acre tract of trees along The Loop from Parker Mynchenberg, the developer of the Plantation Oaks of Ormond Beach master-planned community along the east side of I-95, between Old Dixie Highway and U.S. 1. That tract will now be permanently preserved as a buffer along The Loop.
And in southeast Volusia County, some citizens have expressed concerns about Chicago-based Miami Corp’s plans to begin construction early next year on the first phase of a development called Deering Park North in Edgewater. That project will ultimately create 23,000 new homes and 4 million square feet of commercial space. The 59,000-acre site is known as the Farmton Tract.
While Miami Corp’s project is massive in scope, it includes 43,000 acres that the developer has agreed to permanently set aside as a conservation area and wildlife habitat, said Glenn Storch, a Daytona Beach land-use attorney who represents the developer.
“The whole Farmton Tract previously had been subdivided to be sold as ranchettes. It would have been thousands of five-, 10- and 25-acre (house) lots on dirt roads and there would have been no habitat corridor,” he said.
Instead, Miami Corp., which has owned the Farmton site since 1926, agreed to work with the county as well as local environmental groups to come up with a plan that would allow the development of its planned Deering Park North project while also setting aside conservation land that connects with conservation areas in other counties.
That has resulted in the creation of a wildlife habitat corridor that runs through much of the state, Storch said.
“We have something we’re very proud of,” he said.
Ormond Beach resident Suzanne Scheiber does not share Storch’s view.
“That’s too many homes in that area. It has an impact on the local nature and wildlife,” said Scheiber, founder of Dream Green Volusia, of the Farmton project. The citizens group is involved in efforts to protect the environment throughout the county.
“We’re definitely headed in a bad direction. Development is happening everywhere: whether it’s Plantation Oaks and Avalon to the north, Farmton to the south, as well as what’s going on in Osteen and the LPGA area,” Scheiber said. “When do we ever say enough is enough? In my opinion, we’re slowly, but surely chipping away at our green spaces and paving them.”
Volusia’s growth mirrors rest of state
It’s not just Volusia County that is growing rapidly. The entire state is bursting with new home construction activity and commercial development projects as Florida continues to draw a steady stream of newcomers from other states. Many are fleeing more densely populated urban areas in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
Florida added 2.7 million residents between 2010 and 2020, a 14.6% increase, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The state’s population is now estimated to be more than 21.5 million people.
The state’s growing population is making the need for infrastructure improvements more acute than ever. A recent report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers found 13% of the state’s roads were in “poor condition.”
The ASCE also found that since 1984, Florida has increased its highway system by 25% while the number of vehicles using those thoroughfares has increased by 84%.
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‘We’ve done pretty well’
Pat Northey is a former Volusia County Council member who now chairs the Echo Volusia Forever Alliance and has been actively involved in efforts to preserve key conservation and wildlife habitat areas throughout the county.
Northey said she does not believe the county as a whole is becoming over-developed.
As a County Council member, she was involved in coming up with a comprehensive land-use plan for Volusia County that protects the conservation corridor that includes both a large portion of the Farmton Tract as well as land further to the north that is part of the so-called “Palmetto Curtain” that separates the county’s east and west sides.
“Twenty years later, I think we’ve done pretty well in preserving the corridor,” she said. “Of course, there is some land that still needs to be acquired to close up some of the holes in the conservation corridor.”
What has so many people alarmed, is “the shock of seeing these development sites finally being built all at once,” she said.
Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry, who lives in the LPGA International community west of I-95, echoed Northey’s comments.
“When we as a community allowed the LPGA subdivision and golf course to be developed in the ’90s, it was part of a long-term plan for developing the western part of the city,” said Henry. “A lot of people would prefer development to be slow and steady, but markets catch fire and Daytona has become a place people want to be.”
“I would say we are not currently over-developed in Daytona Beach, but we continue to monitor the progress,” Henry said.
Carl Lentz IV is a former Daytona Beach City Commissioner who is now managing director of SVN Alliance Commercial Real Estate Advisors in Ormond Beach. He and other commercial Realtors with SVN have been involved in helping to broker a number of the land sales in the LPGA area in recent years.
“The LPGA area was planned for this kind of growth,” he said. “People are getting sticker shock at seeing it all at once as opposed to gradually. Had it been gradual growth over the years people wouldn’t be complaining about it.”
Daytona Beach City Commissioner Stacy Cantu represents Zone 4, which includes the LPGA area.
“The LPGA area was always planned to be developed,” she said. “And once the Dunn Avenue extension is built, it’s going to alleviate traffic (west of I-95).”
Dunn Avenue is an east-west thoroughfare that was extended over I-95 a few years ago but currently ends on the west at North Tomoka Farms Road, just south of the Daytona International Auto Mall. Cantu said plans are in the works to extend Dunn further west through the LPGA International community to connect with LPGA Boulevard.
“There’s no timeline established for it yet, but I’m hoping it can be done in the next couple of years,” she said.
‘They’re just clear-cutting all the trees’
But Volusia County Council member Heather Post, who lives in the LPGA International community, disagrees with those who contend the rapid development is nothing to be concerned about.
The growth occurring in the LPGA area is extending all the way west to the edge of Tiger Bay State Forest. Much of the land being developed had been wetlands and trees.
“I definitely think we’re in danger of becoming over-developed,” she said. “I would like to see more focus on filling the spaces that we have before we build in the wildlife and open space areas.”
And while Northey said she believes most of the development activity in the county is in accordance with the agreements the county made with developers in the 1990s and early 2000s, as a Deltona resident she doesn’t like what she’s seeing in her own city.
“What’s most frustrating is to see developers build on 30- and 50-foot-wide lots. That means they can’t save the trees,” she said. “Hampton Oaks is being developed in the center of Deltona. They’ve stripped it of the trees. There’s no oak trees there. It’s a moonscape.”
Deltona City Commissioner Dana McCool said she is in favor of temporarily “putting the brakes on” new home construction. The commission is set to vote on the proposed six-month moratorium at its meeting on Monday. “It would start July 1 and run through the end of December,” she said. “We need to understand where we’re going as a city. We’ve been putting in communities at a fast pace, a hundred homes here, 200 there. The one that really got me concerned was the Hampton Oaks project off of Saxon Boulevard, behind the Walmart Neighborhood Market. They’re just clear-cutting all the trees. They say they’ll replant, but that’s not really conservation, is it?”
Growth is ‘good news’ for area
Albright said critics of the growth now occurring throughout Volusia County forget that it was not that long ago that the area was struggling to attract developers.
That is no longer the case. Last year, builders in Volusia County applied for and received building permits for 3,564 new homes, a 22% increase over the previous year and the most since 2005, according to the county’s economic development division. That’s a big improvement from the 451 permits for new homes issued in 2011.
“The good news for Daytona is the city is growing again and thriving with new housing being built for people who want to live and work here,” he said. “It’s actually becoming a healthier city. We’ve averted the population declining.”
‘You can’t create an artificial wetland’
Still, it’s fair to question whether the rapid growth the area is experiencing is being adequately planned.
Brower said he is not opposed to growth, but believes it needs to be done responsibly in a way that does not erode the quality of life for area residents.
“We can say you want to preserve the wetlands, but if you drive through (Latitude) Margaritaville, you see what that means,” he said. “They’re completely covered up, but we have these ponds everywhere. It does absolutely nothing to clean the water, which is what a wetland does. It’s the kidneys for the water before it hits the river and keeps the river clean so we can fish in it, (water)ski in it, swim in it. You can’t create an artificial wetland that does that.”
The Florida Legislature’s recent passage of a bill that limits how much counties and cities can increase impact fees for new development means there will be even less money available to pay for new roads, fresh water and sewer systems and other infrastructure needs to accommodate the area’s growing population, Brower noted.
Voters in Volusia County overwhelming rejected a ballot initiative in May 2019 that would have raised the county’s sales tax by a half-cent to help pay for new roads, and a variety of other infrastructure needs — including street, sidewalk and sewer needs in many of the older neighborhoods of the county’s cities. A total of 57,170, or 55%, cast “no” votes, compared with 46,235 who voted yes. The half-cent increase would have generated an estimated $42 million annually.
Brower said he remains opposed to the idea of increasing the county’s sales tax to help pay for roads and other infrastructure needs.
“I’m not sure that the answer to the problem is just continuing to build more roads,” he said. “I think that we have to pause and look at Volusia County and say what do we want to look like? Do we just keep building more and more roads which brings more and more people? We never get out of the cycle of traffic congestion and urban sprawl.”