Not much has changed in the past 50 years for the eastern portion of UCF’s expansive 1,415-acre campus, but that may all soon change if university officials get their way.


Just a stone’s throw away from UCF’s bustling campus core sit 500 acres of untouched Florida wilderness that look more like a nature preserve than the nation’s second largest university by enrollment, home to more species of wildlife than some zoos.


Playful otters propel through the amber waters of Lake Claire; cautious deer dart off into a seemingly impenetrable pine thicket; and elusive rattlesnakes find shelter in subterranean tunnels carved out by gopher tortoises.


The UCF Arboretum, east of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, is among the institution’s most recognizable and accessible areas of undeveloped land, and in recent years this unspoiled oasis has been shrouded in controversy.


UCF’s comprehensive master plan for 2010 to 2020 illustrates a bleak future for the 82-acre reserve, which boasts four native ecosystems: pine flatwoods, scrubby flatwoods, a cypress dome and an oak hammock.


A project list and map of UCF’s Urban Design and Capital Improvements show a proposed building site dubbed “Partnership Campus” in the heart of the Arboretum’s scrubby flatwoods ecosystem.


There are also two projects proposed for the 8-acre segment of the Arboretum within Gemini Boulevard. The projects, both labeled “Sustainability Center,” are estimated to cost a combined $7.5 million, according to the master plan.


For interdisciplinary studies senior Cameron Percia, taking advantage of the Arboretum’s three miles of trails, 9-hole disc-golf course and one-acre community garden is more than just a way to connect with nature — it’s a lifestyle.


The 24-year-old Massachusetts native travels from his home near Universal Orlando to the Arboretum almost on a daily basis to volunteer in the community garden, where he cultivates about a dozen organic crops including peaches, onions, collard greens, sorrel, carrots and cilantro.


“A deer got a hold of that cabbage,” Percia said, pointing to another plot. “That’s why you plant within the fence.”


Percia said he fears the development of the Arboretum is inevitable, and he may be right.


Hank Largin, a public communications coordinator for the St. Johns River Water Management District, said that while no construction is currently authorized for the Arboretum’s eight acres that were released from the conservation easement, future projects could take place with the proper permitting.


“All new construction on campus requires an environmental resource permit,” he said. “Environmental resource permitting rules are not intended to prevent development, they are intended to protect water resources in the context of development.”


The district has granted 121 such permits to UCF over the years, he said. The university currently has a pending application for a permit to widen Libra Drive, which will trace a wetland conservation easement referred to as the “Pond Pine.”


According to a consent order between the St. Johns River Water Management District and UCF, following a string of hurricanes in 2004, the district granted the university authorization to clear tree debris from an 8-acre segment of the Arboretum nestled between the CREOL building and Gemini Boulevard. One problem: Workers didn’t stop there.


Despite not having the proper permitting, the university proceeded to flatten an acre of protected forest, build a bridge and alter the drainage of the parcel’s wetlands.

That didn’t sit well with the water management district, which regulates the region’s water resources. So in 2008, the agency warned UCF it would face financial penalties if it failed to restore the protected tract to its unaltered state.


The consent order reveals that UCF not only managed to avoid coughing up the $23,000 in penalties, but it also convinced the water management district to lift the conservation easement from the “degraded” 8-acre site and reassign it to 17 acres of remote land in the northeast and northwest corners of campus.


Elsewhere on campus, UCF’s Florida Solar Energy Center is partnering with other institutions to erect a solar park and support building commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy. The regional test center will be built on 20 acres in the southeast corner of the property in an area known as the “East Parcel” — a 226-acre habitat home to threatened gopher tortoises and one of the university’s last remaining undisturbed cypress domes.


“It’s a great idea to have a solar farm, but do you really need to knock down a bunch of trees to build it?” Percia said. “It should be built on empty rooftops or on all that open land near the school’s entrance.”


The center will be funded by the federal government and others and is expected to require an overall five-year investment of about $300 million.


The Future Land Use Map in the university’s comprehensive master plan discloses that a sizable piece of the undeveloped conservation land surrounding the proposed solar farm is zoned for mixed use development, meaning it can be developed for a mixture of land uses including parking, residential facilities or even retail and commercial space.


The map also shows that most of the eastern portion of the Arboretum is zoned for future academic and research buildings.


“This land must be preserved,” Percia said. “Where do you draw the line in terms of development?”


He said he detects inconsistencies between the university’s message of environmental stewardship and its actual actions.


“If UCF was committed to sustainability, the price of a hangtag would be equal to the cost of a parking decal in order to encourage carpooling,” he said. “This school is just out there to make profits.”


Will Chorvat, 20, is an environmental studies junior who serves as co-president of IDEAS, a student-run organization that advocates environmental sustainability.


Chorvat said that developing the Arboretum and other natural lands on campus will not help the university achieve its commitment of becoming climate neutral by 2050.


He’s said UCF’s conservation lands are one of its greatest assets, and that they draw students to the university.


“This is one of the only campuses in Florida that is in tune with the environment. This campus has it all,” Chorvat said. “People like walking through nature; it gives them a sense of community and pride in their school.”


Chorvat often runs miles on the sandy trails that carve through the green, geometric palmetto fronds that carpet the Arboretum’s pine flatwoods.


“Just the other week, I was out there with my ecology lab seeing how ecosystems fit together,” he said. “You can look at something on a computer, but it’s not the same.”


Chorvat said that science must always come first — even when it’s inconvenient for the university’s development plans.