How Mormon plans for a new city could transform central Florida

The Guardian posts the first half of a two-part series exploring Mormon city planning and the Church’s vast investments in land and real estate in the U.S. and across the world. The first installment looks at the Church’s plan to convert its 290,000-acre Deseret cattle and citrus ranch in Florida into a new urban development that could be home to as many as 500,000 people by 2080.

Claire Provost:

Everything about the Deseret cattle and citrus ranch, in central Florida, is massive. The property itself occupies 290,000 acres of land – more than nine times the size of San Francisco and almost 20 times the size of Manhattan. It is one of the largest ranches in the country, held by the one of the biggest landowners in the state: the Mormon church.

On an overcast weekday afternoon, Mormon missionaries give tours of the vast estate. Fields, orange trees and grazing animals stretch as far as the eye can see. While central Florida may be best known for Disney World, the ranch – roughly an hour’s drive away – is nearly 10 times bigger. It is home to a jaw-dropping 40,000 cows and has grown oranges for millions of glasses of juice.

Now there are ambitious, far-reaching plans to transform much of this land into an entirely new “city”, home to as many as 500,000 people by 2080. Deseret has said that while nothing will be built here for decades, its plans are necessary because urban growth in the area is inevitable and the alternative is “piecemeal development”. A slide from a 2014 presentation explains: “We think in terms of generations.”

Deseret’s plans, which were given the green light by local county commissioners in 2015, are thought to be the largest-ever proposed in the state and have attracted high-profile attention. Critics have accused the plans of putting already stressed natural habitats and critical resources, such as water, in further jeopardy.

“This is not a typical housing development. It is an entire region of the state of Florida – and it is the last remaining wilderness,” said Karina Veaudry, a landscape architect in Orlando and member of the Florida Native Plant Society. It is, she stressed, a plan on an unprecedented scale: “This project impacts the entire state, ecologically.”

For years, environmental groups protested that it was too risky to build so much on such ecologically important land – particularly in one of the few areas of Florida that hasn’t already been consumed by sprawling developments. “We fought it and fought it and fought it,” said Veaudry, who described it as nothing less than a “David and Goliath” struggle.

Except this time, Goliath was part of the property empire of the Mormon church.