Debate over zoning of 15-acre Orange County property pits farmer against farmer

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — A 15-acre piece of property in Orange County is pitting farmer against farmer.

A farm that caters to special needs adults bought the land near Mount Dora to expand, but it needs a change in zoning to put housing on the property.


A berry farmer next door worries that change could put his business at risk now and in the future.

Special Hearts has called 3 acres of land in Winter Garden home for five years, but they say they need these 15 acres because the needs of their farmers have grown. But it’s smack in the middle of another farmer’s property.

In the middle of the debate for what this land should become are adults like 53-year-old Deanna Blitch.

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“I never thought anybody would care about me as much as these people do,” she said.

Blitch trains and works at Special Hearts farm during the day with dozens of special needs people.

Founders Jennifer Elliott and Kathy Meena bought the 15 acres in Mount Dora to expand. They said they would employ, train and house special needs adults, but the farmer next door has a problem with the farm moving in.

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“My concerns are that it’s right in the middle of our operation,” said Michael Hill, a multi-generational blueberry and strawberry farmer with H and A Farms.

His farm surrounds the 15 acres that Special Hearts wants to move to.

“There was no due diligence. They didn’t get asked about what we do. It was just purchased,” Hill said.

Hill said the requirements to run his business might not work with people on that property.

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“We have to run air cannons for birds to keep them out of the fields because they can take 20% to 30% of the crop, we have to run power units on freeze nights, we have to spray if we have things like fungus and pathogens that get on the fruit to keep it from losing the crop,” Hill said.

But the owners of Special Hearts said there have always been tenants living on the property, so they’re not sure why their proposed set up is any different.

“There’s just lots of pieces of property that would be better suited for these people and this organization for such a great project,” Hill said.

Hill said he worries if the zoning is changed to allow housing, that someone else could come in later and build more homes.

Orange County commissioners are expected to vote on the issue in August.

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Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.