Among four stops on a preliminary tour of Orange County, the Orange Preservation Trust (OPT) met with local residents in Winter Garden City Hall for a community preservation planning workshop Monday night, Oct. 27.
The meeting was a means of gauging public interest in historic preservation, which had been high, said OPT organizer Susan Omoto.
“We’re finding out there is a real need for this, and people are enthusiastic,” she said. “Once we get opinions, we’ll start putting together a true program. We’re not activists — we’re advocacy people. Preservation used to be antigrowth, but we’re not against growth. It is a vehicle for economic development. Our goal is not to take away from what people have, but to add to all of these preservation groups in Orange County. They may take the lead on a project, and we’ll provide resources from financial to political to you name it.”
OPT’s mission is to provide leadership for the preservation and revitalization of the diverse historic resources of Orange County, Florida and advocate for their appreciation, protection and use, according to the group website, OrangePreservationTrust.org.
The purpose is to serve as a resource for preservation-minded citizens to learn how they can preserve and revitalize historic properties in Orange County.
“The point is trying to get the word out to everybody what the importance of historic preservation is,” Omoto said. “We’re hoping it’s not just people wanting to save the house across the street but also people who want to market around preservation as a whole. And we think there are enough assets out there to draw on. We’ve got real estate agents who could be specifically trained how to sell and market an older home. We could place people and help them with upkeep.”
The organizers formed the group last February, not for a particular preservation issue but to ensure the group could be ready to handle future battles for preservation many steps in advance, Omoto said.
“When a group forms specifically for something, it’s always a day late and dollar short,” she said. “By the time you’ve organized, the building could be gone. We’re not for a specific project but organized so we can know when something comes up and be way ahead of the game.
“There hasn’t been a concerted effort for the entire county. We need a group to advocate on behalf of all the other societies in place. We feel we need a larger resource to teach people the value of historic preservation. We’re asking people how they see us fitting in. Chief among them, we desperately need someone who can take over education of historic preservation.”
In the West Orange area, the Henry Nehrling Estate in Gotha is an example of a potential OPT partner, said Jodi Rubin, a member of the board of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and another organizer of OPT.
“We’d like to partner with Winter Garden and historical societies around Winter Garden to raise awareness of the value of historic properties,” Rubin said. “There’s a lot of great historic buildings in Winter Garden. It’s done a great job of highlighting that with building in downtown.”
Rubin said protecting the grand, old historic houses in the area would be a primary objective, including an endangered or watch list.
“They really are threatened by subdivisions, or families don’t want them anymore, or they’re just too big to upkeep,” she said. “West Orange seems unique with many of those houses still intact. For the Luther Tilden House on Tildenville School Road, Crescent Communities developed a new Oakland Park subdivision and kept the old house. There’s a row of beautiful old houses. There’s another in Zellwood. People have really respected those big old houses in this county, which doesn’t happen much anymore.”
In saving these historic structures, OPT hopes to avoid drastic measures, Omoto said.
“When we were young, preservation had always been chaining ourselves to bulldozers,” she said. “But we’re being reasonable, researching how it can be saved, how it can be an economic asset. If it’s really worth saving, we’ll advocate that. We realize not everything is worth saving, but we think these decisions are worth talking about.”
Along with economic and research specialists, the board of OPT has a historical person, a fundraising person, a political specialist and others with knowledge in a variety of areas, Omoto said.
The group remains in its infancy, receiving tax-exempt status just two weeks ago, Omoto said.
“We’re not ready to take action now,” she said. “I’m anticipating we’ll put together a larger board of directors, put together a larger agenda and then see us doing things next year. We’re not a big enough group yet to make an impact.”