by Jason Garcia
Updated 4 yearss ago
The fate of Cocoa Ranch was probably sealed 60 years ago.
The cattle ranch and sod farm in southern Brevard County was purchased in the 1940s by A. Duda & Sons, the familyowned agribusiness founded by a Slovakian immigrant, Andrew Duda, and his three sons, John, Andrew Jr. and Ferdinand [“Keys to Survival,” September 2006, FloridaTrend.com]. But it was divided in two a decade later when I-95 was built.
In the 1980s, after the third generation of Duda children had risen to leadership positions in the company and as growth moved inland from the Atlantic coast, the company began transforming the ranch into a new town. They called it Viera — the Slovak word for “faith.” It was an early attempt at long-range master planning, overseen by family members who had grown up hunting and camping at the ranch. “We wanted it to be developed responsibly,” says Tracy Duda Chapman, a fourth-generation family member who is the company’s chief legal and administrative officer.
Covering nearly 21,000 acres — more than 5,000 of which are set aside in a wilderness park that provides habitat for species such as the Audubon-crested caracara — Viera today is one of the fastest-growing population centers in central Florida, with about 23,000 residents, 10,000 on-site jobs and 100-plus miles of trails. As with Lake Nona, government investment has helped: Brevard County has moved its commission meeting chambers, courthouse and school board offices to Viera, and the community will eventually be served by four I-95 interchanges.
For Oviedo-based Duda, the venture has also served to help balance its portfolio and insulate the company against the vagaries of agricultural prices. About a decade ago, as Viera began to accelerate, the company launched its own home building subsidiary, Viera Builders, which focuses on mid-market homes. Duda expects Viera Builders will ultimately build about 70% of the homes in Viera. The company also added a real estate investment arm, which holds leased commercial properties such as restaurants, drugstores, warehouses and office buildings.
Viera, launched in 1989, is still only about one-third complete. Duda projects the community will be home to more than 70,000 people and more than 25,000 on-site jobs upon buildout, which is expected to be in 20 to 30 years. That’s about the same time that Deseret Ranch forecasts development to begin on its North Ranch sector plan on the other side of the St. Johns River.
Tracy Duda Chapman
Senior vice president/chief legal and administrative officer A. Duda & Sons, Oviedo
A fourth-generation Duda who has been with the family company since 1992, Tracy Duda Chapman is the chief legal and administrative officer for the agribusiness. She’s the door into Duda for top business and government leaders around the state, serving on everything from the Florida Chamber of Commerce board of directors to a highway-planning task force that Gov. Rick Scott created a few years ago to study central Florida (Deseret’s Erik Jacobsen served on the same commission). Duda Chapman is also a driving force behind Viera; the company appointed her CEO of the development company, Viera Co., in 2007 until her promotion to her current job in June 2016. Her importance extends well beyond Viera and central Florida. Duda has also completed another sector plan for roughly 26,000 acres it owns in Hendry County southwest of Lake Okeechobee.
Deseret vs. Duda
The single-most expensive piece of infrastructure on the drawing board of the Central Florida Expressway Authority right now is a 30- to 35-mile toll road running from the Orlando International Airport/ Lake Nona region in south Orlando to southern Brevard County. The road, which carries a preliminary price tag of between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion, is crucial to Deseret’s long-term plans, as the highway would serve a number of the dense urban centers in both Sunbridge and the larger North Ranch sector plan. Ranch leaders have pushed for a route that would end at I-95 just to the north of Melbourne. But A. Duda & Sons has objected because such a road could run into its own Viera development, which is much further along than any of Deseret’s plans, and dump extra traffic onto I-95. Tracy Duda Chapman, Duda’s chief legal and administrative officer, says the company doesn’t object to a new toll road, provided planners can find a way to build it without interfering with Viera. But she also notes, “Our development doesn’t need a connection” to Orlando. Erik Jacobsen, who runs Deseret Ranch, predicts a compromise will be found. “There’s been a little bit of work done on that,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult to work through to figure out how to make that connection on the east side.”
The St. Johns River
Even if there’s a route that satisfies both Deseret and Duda, an Orlando- Melbourne expressway will still involve building a bridge over the St. Johns River, which slithers 310 miles north from its marshy headwaters in Indian River and Brevard counties to Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean. Right now, the St. Johns flows unimpeded for nearly 20 miles between U.S. 192 to the south and S.R. 520 to the north. A road and bridge would impose another wildlife barrier and consume valuable habitat for retention ponds and associated infrastructure. An environmental lawsuit seems certain. “That’s going to be a big battle,” says Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida.
One of the biggest challenges to developing Deseret will be ensuring it doesn’t isolate wildlife or choke off larger ecosystems. Environmentalists generally agree that large-scale, long-term sector planning like Deseret Ranch has done is much better, ecologically, than piecemeal development. “But with that said,” says Audubon’s Charles Lee, “no matter how good it is compared to the rest of what’s already developed in central Florida, it still sacrifices a
A large number of governments exercise some form of growthmanagement jurisdiction on the eastern half of Orlando — three counties, two roadbuilding agencies and several municipalities among them. And they don’t always cooperate. An example: One of the first major infrastructure expansions to happen in the eastern half of Orlando will likely be an eastern extension of the East-West Expressway — the region’s busiest toll road. The Central Florida Expressway Authority was moving forward with plans to extend the road along the existing S.R. 50 corridor. Until, that is, the Florida Department of Transportation announced last year that the expressway authority couldn’t use the state-owned corridor. Now FDOT is looking at having Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise build some sort of tolled extension in the corridor — dubbing the project Colonial Parkway — while the expressway authority has begun moving forward with another possible route for its own extension that, instead of using an existing corridor, could cut across valuable conservation land.
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