When the definitive history of Horizon West is written, there’s little doubt that 2015 will be remembered as the year when the region’s largest-ever master-planned development really hit its stride.
At the beginning of 2014, there were 19 active neighborhoods across Horizon West’s 23,000 acres. Today there are 52 active neighborhoods, with more on the way. Even during its most extravagant boom years, Central Florida’s real estate market has never experienced anything quite like this.
“During the time I’ve been in office, Horizon West has gone from growing at a snail’s pace to becoming the hottest submarket you can imagine,” says S. Scott Boyd, a native of Winter Garden and county commissioner for District 1, which encompasses the southwest sector.
Of course, Boyd’s first term began in 2008, when the economy collapsed and new-home building came to a standstill. Because of term limits, he’s unable to seek a third term in 2016.
“But I knew the growth was coming,” says Boyd, whose family has grown citrus in the region for six generations. He recalls as a youngster scrambling around the groves, helping to light smudge pots when freezes threatened. The pots were intended to provide enough warmth to save the delicate fruit.
It’s sizzling in Horizon West these days — and smudge pots are nowhere in sight. It’s the accumulated heat from an unprecedented flurry of construction — homes, commercial centers, roads and schools.
Although Horizon West’s individual components will be intimate and walkable, the overall scope is eye-popping. The area will ultimately be home to more than 60,000 people, which is three times the size of Winter Park.
A CHILLY PROLOGUE
Remarkably, the concept behind this history-making project was dreamed up in 1992 by a cadre of property owners — many of them growers — who regularly met for breakfast at a local diner. Over coffee and eggs, they pondered what might be done with tens of thousands of acres that hadn’t been practical for agricultural use since a ruinous Christmas Day freeze in 1989.
Why not sell it to developers, like so many other growers had done? In this case, it wasn’t quite so simple. The county’s land-use plan called for the vast tracts upon which groves had once flourished to remain rural.
Under the plan, which placed a large swath of southwest Orange County outside the urban service area, housing would be limited to one unit for every 5 or 10 acres. Property now unsuitable for citrus would be unsuitable for subdivisions, too.
Without water and sewer lines, the county’s theory went, developers would be forced to find land within the urban service area’s boundaries, thereby minimizing sprawl.
In fact, developers simply leapfrogged the rural expanses of southwest Orange and began building thousands of new homes in Lake County to the west and Osceola County to the south. Many buyers of those homes worked in Orange County.
Further vexing to the property owners — dozens of them, who cumulatively held more than 38,000 acres — was the fact that their land abutted Walt Disney World Resort to the south. With more than 52,000 jobs, Disney was, and remains, the largest single-site employer in the U.S.
Clearly, keeping southwest Orange rural didn’t make sense. Still, the property owners knew that to get the designation changed, they’d have to propose something more comprehensive, more carefully thought out and more cutting edge than anything county officials had seen before.
Not-for-profit Horizon West Inc. was formed in 1993 with the mission of putting a development plan forward. The organization hired the land-planning firm of Miller, Sellen, Connor and Walsh (now VBH MillerSellen) to craft an approach that regulators would buy into.
AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH
Company President Jim Sellen, who was Orange County’s planning director in the late 1970s, knew that county officials would never agree to extend the urban service area for piecemeal projects.
He also knew that the county had been pushing growth east, not west, because of the University of Central Florida and the Central Florida Research Park as well as Orlando International Airport.
However, Sellen agreed that saddling the decimated groves with a rural designation was counterproductive under the circumstances. The land was adjacent to major employers and it was high and dry, ideal for building. Plus, far from discouraging sprawl, the situation was actually making it worse.
“I encouraged the landowners to think beyond their individual parcels and present something unified,” says Sellen.
In devising a master plan for Horizon West, Sellen and his colleagues drew in part upon the pioneering work of Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), whose 1898 publication Garden Cities of To-Morrow described self-sufficient communities linked by road and rail. Those “garden cities” would surround a larger, central city.
But the planners also looked at current trends in New Urbanism, Disney’s Celebration development being a prime local example. In addition they studied well-established communities such as Winter Park, which remained a model for smart planning a century after its founding.
Says Sellen: “What we came up with was so simple that it was powerful.”
IT TOOK A VILLAGE
Horizon West, as it was originally envisioned, would contain six to eight Howard-style villages consisting of two to four neighborhoods. Schools and community parks would be within walking distance — a half-mile or less — of the homes, and the size of each neighborhood would be pegged to the capacity of its school.
Each village would have its own Village Center with such essentials as a grocery store and a drug store. A major mixed-use Town Center encompassing homes, shops, offices and public areas would serve all the villages.
Bicycle and pedestrian paths would line every street and connect Village Centers and neighborhoods to one another. Thousands of acres of greenspace would be preserved.
“We looked at everything that made great communities,” says Sellen. “We created, basically, a city of short distances. It’s not one master-planned community, but several master-planned communities working off each other.”
Commissioner Bob Freeman, whose district encompassed southwest Orange, pushed hard for the project, in part because he knew that the prospect of large-scale development would expedite extension of State Road 429. (Today the limited-access toll road, formally known as the Daniel Webster Western Beltway, runs from U.S. Highway 441 in Apopka south through Horizon West to Interstate 4 near Disney.)
Commission Chairperson Linda Chapin was also supportive, and even pressed the county to pitch in money and staff time to help finalize the presentation. Dozens of community meetings were also held to get feedback.
The next task was to convince the state Department of Community Affairs, which had the authority to approve or reject changes to local land-use plans. (The agency is now called the Division of Community Development and is part of the Department of Economic Opportunity.)
Charles Gauthier, then the DCA’s director of community planning, was initially skeptical — but changed his mind after seeing what Sellen and company had cooked up.
“Our thought was, ‘Boy, now’s the time to get out ahead of this,’” Gauthier said in a 1998 interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “In 20 years of experience, this was the most sophisticated planning I’d seen.”
To facilitate the project, the state and the county adopted an innovative, two-tiered approach that allowed Horizon West to bypass the cumbersome Development of Regional Impact review process.
The Optional Sector Planning Program, a pilot to accommodate Horizon West and four other demonstration projects throughout the state, called for the creation of a conceptual buildout plan for the entire area.
Once the larger-scale sector plans were vetted and approved, they’d be augmented by more targeted specific area plans for the individual villages and the Town Center.
Orange County approved the conceptual plan, entitled A Village Land Use Classification and Horizon West Study Report, in July 1995. In the years that followed, specific area plans have been submitted and approved as new phases have gotten underway.
A LIFESTYLE TO LOVE
The appeal of Horizon West is further enhanced by two major amenities immediately to the northeast and the southwest.
In 2010 ground was broken on Phase 1 of the Horizon West SportsPlex, which is off Tiny Road and abuts the development to the north and the northeast. The 220-acre site, operated by Orange County Parks and Recreation, is now used for passive and equestrian use.
But Boyd wants to see the tract transformed into a multiuse center that features indoor and outdoor facilities for a variety of sports, including dozens of fields for baseball, softball, soccer and cricket.
Part of the funding for improving the SportsPlex will come from one of the largest capital investment projects in the history of Orange County, a $300 million initiative called INVEST in Our Home for Life.
INVEST funds will be spent on roads, parks, pedestrian safety projects, public and fire safety facilities and affordable family housing throughout the county. The SportsPlex has laid claim to $17 million, says Boyd, who is also pushing for various public-private partnerships.
Abutting Horizon West to the south is the Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge, which was opened in the 1990s and has now enabled the development to offer world-class golf as an amenity without having to build a golf course.
Orange County National consists of two 18-hole courses — the Panther Lake and Crooked Cat courses — as well as a 9-hole course, a 42-acre practice facility, a 22-acre lighted putting green, an on-property lodge and a beautifully appointed clubhouse with a restaurant and meeting/event facilities.
HEALTHCARE AND EDUCATION
Southwest Orange has two premier hospitals, Health Central Hospital and Dr. Phillips Hospital, both operated by Orlando Health, as well as urgent-care centers operated by Health Central and Florida Hospital. Orlando Health also owns a parcel within the Horizon West Town Center, although plans for it have not been announced.
Adventist Health, which operates eight Florida Hospital campuses across Central Florida, is building a ninth campus across from Winter Garden Village, between Daniels Road and State Road 535.
In March local leaders and hospital officials held a “topping out” ceremony when the facility reached its maximum height of three stories. “Florida Hospital is excited to be Winter Garden’s partner in health,” said Amanda Maggard, administrator of Florida Hospital Winter Garden, during the festivities.
The 75,000-square-foot hospital, slated to open in January, will feature a state-of-the-art emergency department staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Other highlights will include imaging equipment, lab facilities and an outpatient surgical center as well as rehabilitation and sports medicine. A multispecialty physician practice will also be on site.
In addition to an expanding healthcare scene, educational opportunities are more abundant than ever in southwest Orange. The area is home to highly rated public and private elementary and secondary schools as well as Valencia College’s bustling 180-acre West Campus. Valencia, like Orlando Health, owns a parcel in the Horizon West Town Center for future expansion.
Although Horizon West is served by a number of public schools, perhaps none was more needed — or more hotly debated — than a new, as-yet unnamed high school just getting underway within the West Windermere Rural Settlement, on County Road 535 and Ficquette Road.
The 350,000-square-foot high school, which will accommodate 2,776 students, is meant to relieve crowding at West Orange High School, which has 4,100 students on a campus designed for just 3,000.
As part of a compromise to pacify neighbors who opposed the project, the new school will be more architecturally sophisticated than most high schools, reflecting a charming Florida vernacular style and sporting a spiffy tin roof.
An eight-foot concrete wall at the rear of the property will provide a buffer between the school and an adjacent neighborhood. The football stadium will be about a mile south of the campus — on a 20-acre parcel, owned by the county, which will be developed as a public park. Officials expect the school to be open by 2017.
Independence Elementary, on New Independence Parkway, opened earlier this summer, while a Sunset Park Elementary relief school, in the Lakeside Village area west of Reams Road and south of Winter Garden Vineland Road, is slated to open in August of next year. Another elementary school, in the Summerlake neighborhood south of Lake Hancock, is expected by 2017.
TOWN AND COUNTRY
Southwest Orange has always been both rural and urban. It’s wealthy and middle-class. It’s defined by internationally known attractions and picture-postcard small towns. It’s forward looking and steeped in history.
And, of course, it’s dotted by shimmering lakes — more than 200 of them — along with pristine natural areas where wildlife still thrives.
Today southwest Orange is also a regional shopping and dining mecca. For example, Central Florida’s famed “Restaurant Row” stretches along Sand Lake Road near the upscale Mall at Millenia, with its world-class department stores — Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus — and premium boutiques.
Southwest Orange is also home to much of Walt Disney World, including the Magic Kingdom, Downtown Disney and Epcot as well as Disney’s resort properties and its four championship golf courses.
Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando are also in southwest Orange as are major shopping destinations such as the Winter Garden Village at Fowler Groves and West Oaks Mall.
The sector encompasses three incorporated areas, Winter Garden, Windermere and Oakland (see the article about Winter Garden on page 26). Windermere proper is nestled on an isthmus between several lakes on the beautiful Butler Chain, which includes lakes Butler, Tibet, Down, Sheen, Louise and Chase as well as Pocket Lake, Lake Blanche, Wauseon Bay, Lake Isleworth and Little Fish Lake.
Few areas of Central Florida are more beautiful and unspoiled than the parks and preservation areas found in southwest Orange. The Tibet Butler Preserve, for example, contains more than four miles of interpretive hiking trails and elevated boardwalks radiating from the Vera Carter Environmental Center, which features wildlife exhibits and hosts a special environmental studies series for fifth graders.
The Oakland Nature Preserve encompasses 128 acres of natural shoreline on Lake Apopka, Florida’s third-largest lake. The boardwalk to Lake Apopka is the centerpiece, offering dramatic views along the lakeshore.
The preserve’s Green Trail is a loop off the boardwalk through a shady oak hammock, where you might see antelope or emus on an adjacent wildlife preserve. And its Uplands Trail is a network of short pathways through the sandhills that connect to the West Orange Trail.
Also key to the area’s appeal is its convenient transportation network. In addition to State Road 429, which opened in 2005, interchanges and local roads have been completed to make getting in and out of Horizon West a breeze.
The New Independence Parkway interchange (Exit 15) was created when New Independence Parkway was extended from State Road 429 east for nearly a mile to Schoolhouse Pond Road, which leads to the community of Independence.
A four-lane road, Hamlin Groves Trail, parallels State Road 429. It originates at New Independence Parkway and runs south to Summerlake Park Boulevard, which leads to the community of Summerlake.
These roads jump-started development of Hamlin, a major component of the 3,700-acre Horizon West Town Center, by creating easily accessible tracts for big-box commercial development. Now plans are being made to extend Hamlin Groves Trail north, where it will veer to the east and tie into Tiny Road, near the SportsPlex.
The extension will be about a mile-and-a-half in length, and will help accommodate traffic that new commercial development around the interchange — including a Walmart Supercenter and a Publix — will generate.
A yet-unnamed “main street” will originate on the Publix tract, in the southwest quadrant of the interchange, and run east about a half-mile to Hamlin’s waterfront lifestyle center.
In May, about two miles to the south on State Road 429, another interchange was opened at Schofield Road (Exit 13). That interchange, which marks the southern boundary of the Horizon West Town Center, is about six miles north of Western Way, which leads to the Magic Kingdom and Disney World.
Orange County National, which attracts as many as 50,000 people during a PGA event, is on Schofield Road. And in the general vicinity, some 60,000 new homes could be built in the next decade, according to Boyd.
Schofield Road also connects U.S. Highway 27 to State Road 429 roughly halfway between State Road 50 and U.S. Highway 192. That gives residents of burgeoning south Lake County a quicker route into southwest Orange County.
In short, Horizon West, in addition to being a self-contained community rich with its own amenities, has the added advantage of a location squarely in the center of Central Florida’s most dynamic and exciting region.
Horizon West in Brief
SIZE: Nearly 23,000 acres.
FOUNDED: Horizon West Inc. was formed in 1993; the conceptual plan was approved by Orange County in 1995.
LOCATION: Southwest Orange County, north of Walt Disney World, west of the Butler Chain of Lakes and south of Johns Lake. State Road 429 (the Daniel Webster Western Beltway) runs through Horizon West, connecting Ocoee to the north with Four Corners and Interstate 4 to the south.
NUMBER OF ACTIVE NEIGHBORHOODS: 52 as of October 2015, up from 19 at the beginning of 2014 and 13 at the beginning of 2013.
NUMBER OF VILLAGES: Six, including Lakeside, established in 1997, 5,202 acres; Bridgewater, established in 1999, 4,223 acres; Town Center, established in 2004, 3,624 acres; Village F, established in 2006, 2,551 acres; Village H (Hickory Nut), established in 2006, 2,975 acres; and Village I, established in 2008; 2,129 acres.
NUMBER OF RESIDENTS: Could ultimately be more than 60,000; currently at least 40,000.