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Nicole Wilson enters Orange Co. Commission race

Split Oak Forest vote inspires Nicole Wilson to challenge Betsy VanderLey

Another candidate has been spurred to run for the Orange County Commission because of that body’s approval last month of a highway extension through the Split Oak Forest.

On Wednesday, public interest lawyer Nicole Wilson of Windermere filed to run for the commission’s District 1 seat to represent western Orange County.

Wilson, 49, is a Democrat in the nonpartisan election. She’ll be facing incumbent Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey, who is a Republican.

Wilson expressed concern about the dramatic growth and accompanying growth pains of western Orange County and how that impacts schools, traffic and the environment.

But it was her work as an environmental lawyer, watching the Orange County Commission approve a plan to extend Osceola Parkway through the Split Oak Forest Wildlife and Environmental Area about 15 miles east of District 1, which solidified her emerging interest to run for the commission.

“There is just a stark contrast between what it looks like people want and what leadership is doing,” she said.

She is the second candidate to file to run for the Commission while citing that Dec. 17 vote as a critical reason. Last week, former Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke filed to run again for his old District 3 seat, expressing criticism of the Split Oak plan.

“The catalyst really was Megan Sorbo’s public comments. I get choked up even talking about her public comments,” Wilson said, referring to the 13-year-old girl who spoke passionately about preserving Split Oak during the marathon Orange County Commission meeting.

“She spoke honest truths about what was going on with the decision and asked the Commission to take some time to think about it. And they just patted her on the head and moved forward,” Wilson said. “After that, I looked at her, and she said, ‘What is the point?’ and she was very upset. I said, ‘I don’t know if I can win, but I will try, because I think you deserve leadership that will listen to you. And her family lives in District 1.'”

Wilson already is involved in the Split Oak matter. She helped with the drafting of a proposed charter amendment being sponsored by the Orange County Charter Review Commission Vice Chair James Auffant. It would lock down the 500-acre Split Oak preserve and the adjacent 1,500 acres of other nature preserves in southeastern Orange County, protecting them from any further development.

A Florida native who got her undergraduate degree from Mercer University and law degree from Barry University, Wilson said she first got interested in public service as a mother when her three children were in elementary school, back when she was a PTO president, and not yet a lawyer. Even then growth in western Orange County was outstripping the development of new schools, a challenge that continues there today.

“There is so much frustration in this area that people feel they aren’t being heard. A lot of it is growing pains, as though growth was an alien that came from outer space. Growth is  [a product of] decisions that our leaders make,” she said. “I understand that growth is inevitable, but the way that we do it needs to take careful thoughtful consideration. And it should always include consideration for air, water, and what we’re doing even to our canopy, what we’re doing to our carbon footprint here.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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