Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | The Orange City Council Tuesday night unofficially agreed to a developer’s plan for one of the city’s last tracts of open space, an issue that has badly divided area residents and likely will lead to a referendum on the November ballot.

“It was a sad, sad night,” said Tom Davidson, president of the Orange Park Association, which represents many of the surrounding homeowners. “It flat-out says one word: referendum.”

Developer John Martin and his investment partners, with support from many of the area’s horse owners, have for more than a year sought permission to build 39 houses on one-acre lots in the northern part of the city. The development, called Ridgeline, would include equestrian trails.

The 52-acre site is in the horse-heavy neighborhood of Orange Park Acres. Opponents of the development have argued the land should be retained as recreational open space for the entire community. Failing that, they said, the developer should be required to deed the the city 7.6 acres that include a horse arena.

The council agreed with the developer that only about half that acreage, including the actual horse arena, should be granted for perpetual use as an equestrian center.

Davidson said that if the council votes to approve those terms at its June 14 meeting, opponents are ready to begin collecting the more than the 7,200 signatures needed to put the issue before the voters.

For five hours Tuesday night, council members slogged through one point after another in the proposed agreement between the developer and the city.

Normally city staff negotiates most of such agreements, but each side on this issue has developed such deep distrust of the other that “the issue has become personal,” said Mayor Carolyn Cavecche.

“The council was put in almost a Solomon-like position,” she said.

While opponents of the development plan are angry and Cavecche feels like the biblical King Solomon, whose kingdom was torn in two, a representative for the developer thought the meeting went well.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome of the meeting,” said Diane Gaynor, spokeswoman for the developer.

Davidson was particularly angry at what he saw as council members’ deference to the developer throughout the meeting, even though the Orange Park Association has been managing trails in the area for 40 years.

The referendum process could begin within days of the council officially adopting the conditions it laid out Tuesday night.

Orange, like most cities in north Orange County, has a shortage of park space.

The 52-acre Ridgeline site formerly was home to tennis courts, a swimming pool and a nine-hole golf course that residents could pay to use. But the developer said the recreational uses became unprofitable and turning the site into homes would create less neighborhood traffic than recreational activities. The site now is closed and padlocked.

Opponents of the project argued at earlier City Council and Planning Commission meetings that the horse arena and trails don’t fully compensate city residents for loss of the open space.

They wanted to conserve the entire 7.6 acres that include the horse arena. But during Planning Commission hearings last year, the developer proposed using half of the horse arena site — about 3.7 acres — as an incentive for the city to approve a separate development called Rio Santiago across the street from the horse arena.

Using the donation of the extra 3.7 acres as a way to tie the Ridgeline and Rio Santiago projects together was strongly opposed by planning commissioners, who said it appeared to be a backdoor beginning to approval of the Rio Santiago plan.

It’s not known whether the developer will offer the 3.7 acres to the city as part of his Rio Santiago project.

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