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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Battle Over Incorporation Stirs Few In Often-Placid Buenaventura Lakes
By Susan Jacobson | Sentinel Staff Writer
November 3, 2003
BUENAVENTURA LAKES -- The soccer, football and baseball fields hum with activity as the sun sets over Archie Gordon Memorial Park. Around the corner, two dozen teenagers shoot hoops at an after-school pickup game. Nearby, the Robert Guevara Community Center is about to host salsa-dancing lessons.
The suburban tranquillity and feeling of community belie a bitter battle between two factions that want to control the future of this neighborhood of about 22,000 people. One wants Buenaventura Lakes, which has one of the highest concentrations of Hispanics in Central Florida, to become a city. The other wants it to stay part of unincorporated Osceola County.
The question is, does the rest of the community know or care about the controversy?
Debbie Thacker doesn't. Thacker, 32, is typical of many BVL residents. Reasonable real-estate prices and the chance to own a house with a nice yard and a pool attracted Thacker, who wasn't aware of the incorporation conflict. She just likes the family atmosphere in Buenaventura Lakes, where she and her husband are raising their 3-month-old son.
"There are lots of kids in my cul-de-sac," said Thacker, who commutes about five minutes to her job at Target in Hunter's Creek. "Just about everyone has children."
One of Buenaventura Lakes' prime assets is its location. It nudges Orange County on its north side and Kissimmee to the south. Florida's Turnpike is a hop, skip and a jump to the west, near a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Convenience and affordable prices also lured many Hispanics to the region. The developer of Buenaventura Lakes, Landstar Homes, hooked more by marketing heavily in Puerto Rico. Once one family moves in, brothers, sisters, parents and cousins aren't far behind. Census figures for 2000 show nearly 55 percent of BVL residents are Hispanic. About 6,500 -- or 30 percent -- are white, and about 2,200 -- or 10 percent -- are black.
Hispanics had cause for pride in 1996, when Robert Guevara became the first Hispanic elected to the County Commission. He represented the district that includes BVL until April 2000, when he died of a heart attack at age 60.
Michael Morris, who is Hispanic, lives just outside Buenaventura Lakes and said he likes hanging out in the community precisely because so many people like him live there.
"It's little Puerto Rico," said Michael, 17, a Gateway High senior who moved to Central Florida from New York's Jamaica, Queens. "If I go to St. Cloud, I feel uncomfortable. Here, I feel more comfortable."
That doesn't sit well with everyone. Some whites and blacks say the large number of Hispanics overwhelms them -- not because they are prejudiced, but because cultural differences can create a strain.
But school-bus driver Marie Pelerin, 34, said everyone pretty much gets along. She said it's comforting to go the supermarket, gas station and other stores and greet the same faces, who also know their customers.
"The people, they're nice," said Pelerin, a Haitian-born mother of two who moved to Central Florida from New York's borough of Brooklyn to be near her mother in BVL.
Two groups are tussling over incorporation. One, led by Buenaventura Lakes Community Association president Beulah Farquharson, wants BVL to become its own city. The other, led by resident Claire Dempster, wants the community to stay part of unincorporated Osceola.
Last week, Farquharson pleaded her case before Osceola's legislative delegation.
She says she's just looking out for the best interest of Buenaventura Lakes, which means "good fortune" lakes in Spanish. Why should taxpayers pay Osceola County to run their community when they could do it better themselves and save tax dollars?
"The bottom line for most people is self-determination and control," Farquharson said. "We want to spend the money we generate in BVL in BVL."
Privately, some say her passionate, dogged -- style turns people off to her ideas. Others complain about Farquharson's perennial candidacies for public office, including the state Senate, Osceola County supervisor of elections, School Board and County Commission, saying she's just looking to grab power. Many worry that taxes will go up if BVL becomes a city -- a concern Farquharson vehemently disputes.
Dempster's supporters showed up at the legislative delegation meeting clutching signs that said "NO" to incorporation and standing as Farquharson spoke. Meanwhile, Farquharson said she plans to conduct a study and turn it in to the state by Dec. 1, a first step required by Florida law to incorporate. Residents eventually would have to vote on the measure.
"The residents of BVL and the surrounding areas don't want to become a city," Dempster told the delegation. "We don't need another level of government to deal with and support."
Government officials said Farquharson's effort to turn BVL into a city, which she has been pressing for a decade, has little chance of success without the backing of the legislative delegation. The delegation's chairman, state Rep. John Quiñones, R-Kissimmee, hasn't taken a position, and Farquharson said she wasn't asking for an endorsement.
County Commission Chairman Paul Owen disputed Farquharson's claims that Buenaventura Lakes doesn't get its fair share from county government. For example, the county is scheduled to break ground today on $1.1 million ballfields at Parkway Middle School in BVL.
"I think it's just a few disgruntled people there who want to incorporate for their own personal gain," Owen said.
Residents have been arguing about their status almost since the development was created in the mid-1970s. In 1994, voters shot down an effort to annex Buenaventura Lakes into Kissimmee.
Scot Schraufnagel, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida's Daytona Beach campus, said disputes in small towns often are based on personality conflicts.
"Most of this goes on below the radar of the public," Schraufnagel said. "It borders on the petty."
People in this working-class neighborhood were too busy last week picking up their mail after work, washing their cars, doing errands and looking after their children to mull potential cityhood.
Christopher Killorin, 23, for instance, breezed into town three months ago from Merrick, N.Y., but he doesn't plan to make BVL his permanent home.
"I'd recommend this area for anyone that speaks Spanish," said Killorin, a courier and guitarist who trades music lessons for Spanish lessons.
Dalis Guevara, widow of the man for whom the community center is named, said BVL needs beautification, from planted medians to stepped-up code enforcement. She also would like to see more programs at the center and a communitywide Neighborhood Watch.
"BVL is a great community," said Guevara, who lives just outside BVL but owns several homes there. "We need to get more pride instead of fighting over incorporation."