By Erika Webb
Last spring members of Save Osteen Now emerged victorious from a long-waged zoning battle. Last month the group received an award from the local chapter of the Florida Planning and Zoning Association for outstanding public-private partnership.
That's the kind of progress Osteen wants. Not the other kind.
They don't want their diner and their feed store sitting in the shadows of marts and depots, or worse.
They don't want burly neighbors with subdivision artillery encroaching on their land.
Save Osteen Now president, Sheryl Manche, said the group is happy with the zoning changes and grateful for recognition of the Osteen group's efforts but there is more to be done.
On the first day of a new year the Osteen Diner was busy, as usual.
Construction along State Road 415, outside the diner, served to illustrate some of the group's concerns. Neighboring Deltona ran pipes for water and sewer under the road as it was being widened from two to four lanes.
That keeps Osteeners wary.
In 2006, elected officials for Volusia County and the City of Deltona initiated the Osteen Joint Planning Area process "to proactively plan for growth anticipated within the Osteen area," according to the Volusia County website.
The resulting agreement between the two governments in 2008 would necessitate updating land use maps and changing zoning classifications for hundreds of Osteen properties, potentially opening the door to urban sprawl.
Deltona Mayor John Masiarczyk said he was not in office in 2006, but his understanding is the joint planning venture was precipitated by the differing views of Deltona's government and Osteen residents regarding future development.
"The county was lobbied for their side of the table, so to speak," Mayor Masiarczyk said in a phone interview. "Deltona had ideas and Osteen had different ideas. The county appropriately stepped in."
Ms. Manche simply wanted to start a tilapia farm in a nice, rural area. In 2011, she moved to Osteen.
"Thirty years in real estate and I've never seen land like Osteen," she said. "It's the best water source in Florida, literally. I had it tested."
But Ms. Manche said she wasn't there long when a neighbor approached her, asking if she planned to attend a meeting that night at Osteen Elementary School, concerning the expansion of State Road 415 and changing land use "into subdivision rules."
"It was a notorious meeting, just like you see on TV; people were yelling and screaming," Ms. Manche said.
That's where her past and future converged.
Ms. Manche had the credentials to become the beekeeper in the midst of a very disturbed hive.
"I'm a newcomer. I have a farm. I've been in real estate. I have a college business background. I could look at it from all perspectives," she said. "I came in on the tail-end. (Osteen residents) were so worn out from six years of battling it."
Osteen's concerned citizens listened and then began talking to her, Ms. Manche said. She told them to turn their land into bona fide farms and no one would be able to "take" the land. Some of them took her advice.
The day after that meeting, Ms. Manche said, she began to have thoughts of an initiative, which quickly became Save Osteen Now!
By last March the group was well organized and ready to talk with county leaders about solutions and alternatives to commercializing Osteen.
"Everybody got educated and found out what was going on," Ms. Manche said. We went to planning board meetings and got (zoning) turned around in 30 days."
Becky Mendez, the senior planner for Volusia County, worked to incorporate the group's suggestions into a new ordinance to present to the county council.
"They were concerned about the bulk and scale of buildings that could go out there," Ms. Mendez said. "At the end of the day they were in support of the final plan."
The council voted unanimously on May 3 to adopt an ordinance establishing seven new zoning classifications and an overlay zone for the 4,000 acre area known as Osteen.
The changes limit commercial growth, through size restrictions and a requisite special exception process, along the rural corridor leading to the St. Johns River and Seminole County.
"Volusia County was so happy because usually Osteen was yelling and throwing things at them. Now, we were like, 'We're sorry. Will you be our friend?'" Ms. Manche said.
Part of the cooperative effort was Save Osteen Now's willingness to be involved in the expansion of Osteen's feed store.
Osteeners do not want a cultural arts center, she said. But they welcome the idea of a "country village" center that promises a splash park for dogs, nature trails and "small-sized commerce."
She said the county was surprised when the group backed the proposed project.
Manche and other members of Save Osteen Now recently asked for the joint planning area of Osteen to be excluded from Deltona's water plan.
"That's the major thing we're dealing with now," Ms. Manche said. "That's the hot spot. The water language needs to be changed."
She said Deltona city officials are now trying to force annexation of Osteen lands through utility provisions.
State law mandates abutting properties must tie into the closest municipal water and sewer lines when existing wells and septic tanks deteriorate. Some cities require those lands to be annexed.
"It's forced voluntary annexation," Ms. Manche said.
Jim McRae, the environmental supervisor for Volusia County said, "If an existing septic system goes bad and the utility is going to force or mandate that the homeowner annex in, we will not be a part of that and we will issue a repair permit."
Mr. McRae said a municipality may require homeowners to sign documents acknowledging understanding that annexation may be required in the future. In that case, he said, the county would not issue a repair permit.
She faults Deltona with poor city planning and continued mistake making. Ms. Manche and the others do not want Osteen to pay Deltona's ransom.
"There was a boom and they weren't really forward thinking," she said. "They built as many houses as they could at the time with no jobs, no infrastructure. Deltona is one of the top 10 cities in foreclosures. They've lost half their tax base, and they're out of land. Now what do they do? Right down the street is Osteen."
Mayor Masiarczyk said if Save Osteen Now wants to discuss water language changes, they have a right to do that, but he said no one has approached the commission about the issue recently. And, he said, Deltona has not approached Osteen property owners to persuade them to annex.
"When I was mayor before, we as a commission said we wouldn't just annex land unless a landowner wanted it," he said. "They still have fears that a large landowner will annex and Deltona will, little by little, leapfrog into parts of Osteen."
If Save Osteen Now was the army, its non-profit spawn, Preserve Rural Osteen, is the moat.
Ms. Manche is president of that group, too. She said it was created to present unincorporated Osteen as a "legal structure," since the area's population of around 1,500 leaves it "too small to be a city."
"Since Osteen is not a city or a town, this (non-profit status) gives us a body. It's not disjointed. It's an approved government entity, and what you do to one member you do to the entire body," she said. "It gives us more power."
Between the water lines along State Road 415 and a sewage-treatment plant for Deltona looming, Ms. Manche is concerned Deltona's infrastructure development will impact Osteen's future.
"Deltona couldn't provide an infrastructure, but Deltona never stopped; they just kept planning and took the ammunition away from Volusia County," Ms. Manche said. "Deltona is desperate for water because they've used theirs. If our water and land goes to become a subdivision we've used the last of our resources."
Mayor Masiarczyk said if the city's existing sewage plant reaches capacity, Deltona will be required to build a new wastewater treatment plant -- on property the city owns along State Road 415.
"In my opinion, if there was a request by someone to annex in, we have to look at it from the position of what's best for Deltona," Mayor Masiarczyk said. "Nothing is happening right now, but they're concerned with what might happen in the future. I don't know of any major or minor issue out there right now."
Ms. Manche said Deltona cannot keep repeating an outdated city model.
"We're hoping with some of the new, fresh faces on the commission, that they're not tied into the 2007 way of thinking. Do not carry your mistakes from the past," she warned.