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Orlando's hope of having the world's tallest roller coaster is one step closer to becoming reality.
Orange County's board of commissioners granted zoning approval Tuesday night for the $500 million Skyplex Orlando project. The unanimous vote means that developer Joshua Wallack and his family can move to the planning and construction phase on their project to build the 570-foot "Skyscraper" coaster and surrounding entertainment complex on Orlando's International Drive.
"We couldn't be happier with the board's decision," Wallack said. "Central Florida really needed a renaissance of North I-Drive. It had been decaying and shabby for the last 20 years."
International Drive, located about 20 miles outside of downtown Orlando, is an 11-mile strip of shops, restaurants and hotels situated between Universal and SeaWorld Orlando.
"We want to build the world's tallest rollercoaster as our anchor and, of course, Universal didn't want us to have such a competitive ride. Hopefully they've sort of seen the public sentiment is for Skyplex and for the rebirth of I-Drive, for prosperity and the renaissance of this year."
The Skyplex complex, scheduled to open in 2018, would include two other rides, a 350-room hotel, restaurants and stores. The current tallest roller coaster is the 450-foot "Kingda Ka" at New Jersey's Six Flags Great Adventure. It features a 418-foot drop.
Several dozen people voiced opinions about the project during Tuesday's standing room-only public hearing. The support included residents of some of International Drive's closest residential neighborhoods, as well as business owners who said Skyplex would help revitalize the area.
Opposition led by neighboring Universal Orlando argued the coaster, which would have a 450-foot drop, would be too tall and adversely change the culture of the tourist corridor.
Universal vice president of external affairs John McReynolds told commissioners that Universal's opposition was not about fears of competition, but did still have concerns about Skyplex's impact on the area.
"It has to fit into the community, and height is the issue," McReynolds said.
Skyplex did agree to some conditions as part of its zoning approval.
Since it is yet unclear exactly how high the roller coaster will eventually be, it agreed that it won't exceed 600 feet. In addition, it must follow a plan it worked out with officials regarding its impact on traffic and easing any potential light pollution.
Last month, the Orange County's advisory planning and zoning commission denied Skyplex's request that its nearly 12 acres be rezoned. The denial came even though Skyplex got a positive recommendation from county support staff and Federal Aviation Administration approval.
The Orlando city code restricts Universal's roller coasters to a 200-foot height limit because the park is bordered by a residential neighborhood.
Like Skyplex, SeaWorld falls under county jurisdiction, but Orange County planning administrator John Smogor told commissioners that the park probably would have gotten a larger height allowance simply by asking for it. Its Sky Tower observation deck is 400 feet tall.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said that she thinks Skyplex will help to bring more tourists to the area.
"I think this is the first critical piece of getting that started," she said. "Quite frankly a lot of what we hear in here when it comes to new development and bring change is negative by nature...To see so many people saying 'Hey, I-Drive is the place for this' is really exciting."