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Winter Garden commission opens with first non-religious invocation
West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Sep. 4, 2014 7 years ago

Winter Garden mayor removes man who refused to stand for the pledge

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by: Peter Gordon

WINTER GARDEN — Mayor John Rees asked police to remove a man from the Aug. 28 City Commission meeting for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

More than 50 people attended the meeting, which featured a budget workshop and what was expected to be a vote on the new downtown parking garage. The man, identified as Joseph Richardson, 51, has asked the city several times to change its invocation policy. 

Rees, as is customary, asked everyone to stand for the invocation. Richardson sat in the first row, looking at his cell phone. As Commissioner Bobby Olszewski started the prayer, Rees interrupted him and said not everyone was standing. 

Richardson said, “I don’t think I have to.” 

Rees said he could sit during the invocation but that Richardson would be expected to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

After the invocation, Rees said, “Now, sir, please stand while we do the pledge. You don’t have to say it, but please stand. It’s just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.” 

When Richardson did not stand, again stating that he didn’t think it was a requirement, Rees asked Police Chief George Brennan to escort him out of the meeting until the pledge was finished. Brennan approached Richardson, who rose and left. 

Brennan said Richardson was offered the option to return to the meeting after the pledge, but he left the building instead. He was not arrested.

Later in the meeting, Community Development Director Ed Williams said he wanted to make a personal comment before he presented his business to the commission. He thanked the mayor for the respect he showed U.S. veterans by escorting Richardson out of the meeting. 

DOWNTOWN PARKING GARAGE

City commissioners took a big step toward shaping the future of downtown Winter Garden at their Aug. 28 meeting.

They voted 5-1 to authorize spending $6 million of Community Redevelopment Association funds to build a three-story, four-level parking garage on the site of the downtown parking lot on Tremaine Street between Boyd Street and Lakeview Avenue. Rees voted against the project.

Because the commission was acting officially as the CRA at the time of the vote, CRA Chairman Larry Cappleman was allowed to vote, which accounts for the six votes. More than 50 people attended the meeting, and many applauded after the measure passed.

“It’s a great thing for the city and will lead to economic development for decades to come,” said Commissioner Bobby Olszewski.

During the commission meeting on Aug. 14, City Manager Mike Bollhoefer and Cappleman cited the lack of easily available parking as one of the biggest obstacles to downtown’s growth and sustainability. The CRA board unanimously recommended the Tremaine Street location prior to the Aug. 14 meeting, and the Downtown Merchants Association and Garden Theatre sent letters of support. 

Rees originally favored a location for the garage on the north side of downtown. In response to a question from Olszewski, Bollhoefer outlined some obstacles in that area. The city does not currently own the land and would have to negotiate with the property owner or use eminent-domain power to take it. The site also may have environmental issues that could delay construction. Winter Garden already owns the Tremaine Street location, and because a parking lot already exists on that site, Bollhoefer said there likely would be no environmental issues that could derail development. 

Commissioners Bob Buchanan and Kent Makin spoke in favor of the Tremaine Street location. 

Resident Tim Maddalena, who lives near the Tremaine Street location, spoke against the garage at both commission meetings. 

“The garage will be as big or bigger than City Hall,” he said,. “It will be the south side’s largest building. Who is the CRA? There are two people in the CRA that own buildings bordering the north side of the parking lot. This may be legal, but this smacks of a conflict of interest.” 

Maddalena also argued that the city didn’t need the additional parking.

Nick Farrell, who lives on Lakeview Street one block away, said he was concerned that the garage would be a “large, not frequently used structure.” He said he expected there would be more light and noise but that he understood that “we all bought into this when we bought near downtown.” 

Bollhoefer said part of the plan for the garage included alterations to the surrounding streets to improve traffic flow while minimizing light, noise, and impact to local residents. Bollhoefer said if the street improvements were bundled with the garage, the total cost would be in the $10 million range, and the city would be eligible for up to $2 million in tax credits from the state. The plans include active community spaces in and around the garage to attract pedestrians. 

Walker Parking Consultants will be hired to prepare and distribute the design/build documents and help the city manage the bid and construction process. 

Commissioner Makin said a growing downtown will bring more revenue into the city and enable the commission to keep millage rates low. 

CITY BUDGET

The meeting opened with a workshop on the proposed fiscal year 2014-15 budget, conducted by Finance Director Laura Zielonka. The city expects revenue to rise to more than $28 million in the next budget year — mainly due to increases in ad valorem tax revenue and increased intergovernmental revenue resulting mainly from increased sales tax revenues. The city did not increase taxes.

Orange County’s property appraisals showed property values in Winter Garden increased by about 10%. Sales tax revenue also increased.

Bollhoefer wrote in his budget summary to commissioners that the 2014-15 budget was projected to be $28,040,890. Winter Garden spends 50% of its budget on public safety. Bollhoefer plans to hire four additional police officers next year and build another fire station to serve its growing population. The city also plans a 3% cost-of-living increase for its employees. Employees can expect a 6% rise in their health insurance costs. Parks and recreation had the largest percentage increase of any department, due to the capital expenses required for the Tucker Ranch Heritage Park and improvements to Little League fields, Braddock Park and other sites.

IN OTHER NEWS

• Commissioners approved unanimously a site plan for Plant Street Market at 426 W. Plant St. Community Development Director Ed Williams said, “This is a project we’re all very excited about.”

• The commission postponed until Sept. 11 the second reading of an ordinance to rezone about 14.14 acres of West Orange outparcels near Winter Garden Vineland Road to planned commercial development. The developer agreement wasn’t signed in time for the commission to consider the matter at this meeting.

• Commissioners passed on its second reading an ordinance to rezone about 10.475 acres south of SunRidge Boulevard, north of Black Lake, east of Avalon Road, and west of Siplin Road from city No Zoning to city R-1 single-family residential. Williams said it wasn’t financially feasible to develop more than one house on the property. It contains some environmentally protected wetlands, and it’s very difficult to run sewer and water lines there. The developer intends to market it as an estate.

• The commission approved unanimously to enter into a fair-share agreement with Tilden Groves Holding Corporation to help fund the cost of making SunRidge Boulevard a four-lane road. 

• Commissioners approved unanimously entering into a mitigation agreement with the Orange County School Board and Sift Oaks Investment LLC for Canopy Oaks Subdivision. The developer agreed to pay $98,813 in mitigation fees and $319,500 in capacity reservation fees over time because West Orange High School is over-capacity.

• The commission approved unanimously a site plan for the Shoppes at Lake Butler to build a 3,288-square-foot retail/bank building and a 2,000-square-foot restaurant with drive-thru. 

• Commissioners approved granting the contract for Phase II of the Southwest Reuse Expansion Project to TB Landmark. This is the next phase of a project to make it possible to use reclaimed water for irrigation. Assistant City Manager for Public Services Don Cochran said the project’s estimated cost was $2 million, and the commission approved an amount of $1,944,650 that included a 15% contingency. Assistant City Manager Cochran said the St. John’s Water Management District offers grants that can cover up to 40% of these types of projects. However, they also cap those grants at $479,000, which the city should expect to receive to defray some of the project costs.

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