Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Ranchland to rooftops in central Florida

One of Florida’s biggest open spaces — the massive property in east-central Florida owned by the Mormon Church — is opening itself to development. Plans envision more than 200,000 homes, 25,000 hotel rooms, 100 million square feet of commercial space and a network of toll roads.

The Big Picture: How Deseret Ranch Came Into Play

In early 2007, just as the real estate market was beginning to collapse, the owner of a 2,000-acre industrial park in east Orlando was forced to put the property on the market. The tract of land, built not far from a coal-fired power plant, had sat mostly empty for years. But it was becoming an increasingly attractive target for residential developers as Orlando sprawled closer.

The owner of the property struck a deal to sell the industrial park for a little more than $100 million to Tavistock Group, the privately held investment company founded by billionaire Joe Lewis that is developing the Lake Nona community.

But before the deal closed, Tavistock surprised the seller — and Orange County leaders, who were watching the deal closely — by assigning its acquisition rights to another buyer: A corporate entity associated with the Deseret Ranch, the 300,000-acre cattle ranch owned by the Mormon Church that straddles three counties in central Florida.

Tavistock says it concluded that it was still a bit too early to develop the property, so it offered the land to Deseret, which Tavistock had been courting as a future jointventure partner.

The deal turned out to be the beginning of a new union between Tavistock, Orlando’s most influential developer, and Deseret Ranch, Florida’s largest landowner. And the eastern half of central Florida — an expanse of cattle pasture, pine flatwoods and wetlands between metro Orlando and the Space Coast — will never be the same.

The Mormon Church has been raising beef cattle east of Orlando for 60 years. As the effects of regional sprawl began to nibble at the edges of their property, church leaders felt they needed to organize fu- ture development with a long-range plan. Much of their vast holdings will remain agricultural, but they are now preparing to develop more than half of their property over the next 60 years. The plans are on a scale unlike anything central Florida has ever seen: Long-term blueprints outline development across an area spanning nearly 250 square miles. Those plans envision 220,000 homes, 100 million square feet of commercial and institutional space and close to 25,000 hotel rooms — almost as many as Walt Disney World has.

If the plans come to fruition, Deseret’s land, currently home to about only 50 families who work on the ranch, will have a population of nearly 500,000 people by 2080.

The church has contracted with Tavistock to develop the first phase of its property: 24,000 acres at Deseret’s northwestern edge. Construction is expected to begin in 2018 and continue for nearly 30 years.

The larger portions of the ranch aren’t likely to develop until much further into the future, perhaps between 2040 and 2080, according to Deseret’s current pro jections. But much of the groundwork is being laid now. In Orlando, Deseret is helping to finance an interchange on the Beachline Expressway that will eventually serve as a major gateway to its properties, while Tavistock is designing a four-lane arterial roadway that will begin to open up the land. In Tallahassee, Deseret and Tavistock lobbied for legislation to create a developer-controlled, municipal-financing district to help fund the first project and to allow Orlando’s toll-road agency to build expressways in Brevard County where the ranch also owns land.

Most significant, Deseret, Tavistock and other leaders in central Florida are planning what could eventually be an $8-billion network of new toll roads through the region, reaching all the way from I-4 in the west to Melbourne on the Atlantic Coast. Urging transportation planners to be visionaries, Deseret has contributed $12 million toward a $70-million fund to begin buying right of way for the first piece of the system. The Florida Department of Transportation has pledged $35 million, and another $23 million will come from All Aboard Florida, the developer of the Brightline passenger rail line between Miami and Orlando.

Under a deal with Deseret, the Central Florida Expressway will begin a feasibility study this fall for an even bigger piece — a 22- to 24-mile-long, north-south highway that would cut right through the center of the ranch.

There are many challenges ahead. Deseret will have to coordinate its plans with those of A. Duda & Sons, the agribusiness and developer that is building the community of Viera in southern Brevard County. Viera already has more than 20,000 residents and expects to add another 50,000 over the next two years — potentially complicating Deseret’s roadbuilding plans.

And Deseret’s property, in large part because it is so big, has enormous environmental value. It provides habitat for more than 300 species of wildlife, from wild turkeys to wood storks. The rain that falls onto the ranch feeds both the St. Johns River and the Florida Everglades. Some environmental groups have clashed with the ranch already, and further conflicts are inevitable.

With Deseret’s lands now in play, and so much new infrastructure in the works to serve it, the east-central Florida region is poised to be the state’s next big growth frontier. In fact, real estate experts say there isn’t anywhere else in Florida where a single landowner controls so much developable land so close to a rapidly growing metropolitan area. (The closest parallel might be timber company Rayonier’s holdings near Jacksonville.)

Erik Jacobsen, president of all of the Mormon Church’s cattle operations across the United States and Canada, says Deseret Ranch did not set out to stimulate development. But he says growth is coming whether Deseret wants it or not. The church and the ranch, which traditionally have taken a very long-range view of planning, must be prepared.

“We sincerely care about this place. We really love it. What we’ve tried to accomplish is just some good, long-term planning both for the ranch and the region,” Jacobsen says. “We intend to continue to operate this as a big cattle ranch for well beyond my lifetime. But we dealt with the reality that this region is going to double in size in the next 50 years, and we couldn’t just leave the ranch a completely blank slate. We needed to put some kind of framework in place because there’s going to be an awful lot of people planning around us.”

Erik Jacobsen President Deseret Ranch, St. Cloud

Growing up in Lakeland, surrounded by family cattle ranches and citrus groves, Erik Jacobsen thought farming looked like a respectable way to make a living. He went to the University of Florida to study animal sciences and got a job as a cowboy at Deseret Ranch. Today, he oversees the Mormon Church’s entire cattle operation, which includes calf-cow ranches in the U.S. and Canada, as well as stocker operations in Oklahoma and Texas and a feedlot in southwest Kansas. The church’s flagship operation is the Deseret Ranch of Florida east of Orlando, of which Jacobsen also serves as the general manager. Over the past decade, Jacobsen, who holds a master’s in business administration from Brigham Young University, has added land-planning to his responsibilities, overseeing Deseret’s efforts to craft a longterm development framework for its property and to steer the infrastructure that will eventually serve it.

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