Vote on proposal pushed back two weeks for further review of packet, still boasts strong support.
By Peter M. Gordon
More than 50 people attended last week’s Winter Garden Commission meeting, anxious to see which way the elected officials would vote on the Community Redevelopment Association's (CRA) recommendation to build a three-story, four-level parking garage on the site of the city's parking lot south of Tremaine Street. City Manager Mike Bollhoefer called this vote "a critical decision for the city." The garage would help make downtown "big enough to be sustainable yet small enough to maintain small-town character and charm."
Bollhoefer and CRA Chairman Larry Cappleman cited the lack of easily available parking as one of the biggest obstacles preventing downtown Winter Garden from achieving sustainability. The CRA board unanimously recommended the Tremaine location and agreed to provide $6 million to help fund the project. The Downtown Merchants Association and Garden Theatre sent letters in support.
Bollhoefer cited several advantages for the Tremaine location, including traffic flow superior to other potential sites, the highest percentage of businesses within 400 feet of the location and known environmental costs.
The city manager said the garage must be well-designed and safe and fit the character of downtown. The garage would provide a net gain of 400 spaces and promote infill of downtown. He showed pictures of Winter Garden's blighted downtown in 1992, and reminded everyone how much conditions have improved since the CRA started.
“We are very proud of our downtown,” Commissioner Bobby Olszewski said. “It is our crown jewel.”
Mayor John Rees asked to postpone the vote until the next commission meeting because he received the current information packet on Tuesday and wanted more time to review it. Commissioner Bob Buchanan said, "We started three years ago, got hot and heavy two years ago. I don't see that waiting two more weeks is unreasonable."
Commissioner Colin Sharman said he would like time to study the packet longer, as well.
The commission voted unanimously to postpone the matter.
Even though a vote was not called and therefore the commission was not required to ask for public comment, commissioners gave citizens time to voice their opinions. Tim Meddalena, who lives near the Tremaine location, said the parking garage wasn't needed. He said better crowd control and placing employees near the garage to direct visitors to other parking would alleviate any parking problems.
Some members of the audience applauded after he asked commissioners, "Does everyone want to live in an attraction?" He then said, "This is our backyard."
Some citizens supported the garage. Johnny Gough, of Boyd Street, spoke at the meeting: "I think this will help growth in Winter Garden. I think we're heading in the right direction."
A few residents who live near the proposed garage but did not speak at the meeting expressed concerns that a three- or four-story garage would reduce their property values, significantly increase traffic and reduce privacy by providing opportunities for people parking to look into their backyards.
CRA Board member Alan Haughley, who has an office in Winter Garden and lives in Orlando, said to Mayor Rees: "I'm surprised you're looking for another two weeks. The best way to help everyone in Winter Garden is to get critical mass downtown."
Mayor Rees said: "I'm not saying I'm against the parking garage, but I want more time to study the issue. I don't need two weeks, but I need a couple of days."
The next commission meeting is Aug. 28, and the issue will be on the agenda.
Bollhoefer said two weeks wouldn't substantially affect the plans but waiting longer than that could result in a significant increase in construction costs. He estimated a cost of $7.2 million to build the garage. The current plan calls for design to begin as soon as possible and construction to occur during summer 2015. The garage would open September 2015. Pushing the decision past the next meeting would make it difficult, if not impossible, to meet that schedule, he said.
On another matter, Bollhoefer asked Anthony Peterson, organizer of the Unity in the Community event in East Winter Garden, to address the commission. This would have been the seventh year of the event had city staff not denied Peterson's request for a permit. Peterson requested time to state his case directly to the commission, saying his event was "full of positive people" and brought visitor and sponsorship money to the city. Bollhoefer said the permit was denied after Police Chief George Brennan, Pastor Xerxes Snell of the Citizens Advisory Board and Parks and Recreation Director Jay Conn expressed concerns about reported drug use in the crowd and foul language from some of the music performers.
Bollhoefer said: "Philosophically, it's a good event. We proposed a partnership this year where we focus the event on Winter Garden and not advertise outside of town."
Mayor Rees suggested that Peterson meet with the city manager again to discuss the proposal and the concerns raised about the event.
In other business, commissioners:
• passed on its second reading an ordinance to make approximately $3,605,601 of revenue-neutral changes to the Fiscal Year 2013-14 budget. The largest expenditure adjustments were for $1,213,596 in road improvements and $1,156,063 in water and wastewater improvements.
• postponed for the third time an ordinance to rezone approximately 34 acres at 562 Beard Road south of the Florida Turnpike and east of Daniels Road from single-family residential to Planned Unit Development (PUD) at the request of city staff, pending an evaluation by the Planning and Zoning Board.
• unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance to rezone roughly 14 acres of West Orange outparcels near Winter Garden Vineland Road to Planned Commercial Development (PCD). The second reading will be Aug. 28.
• passed by unanimous consent the first reading of an ordinance to rezone approximately 10.5 acres south of SunRidge Boulevard, north of Black Lake, east of Avalon Road and west of Siplin Road from city No Zoning (NZ) to city R-1 Single-Family Residential. Community Director Ed Williams said it was difficult to connect sewer and water to the property, which included some wetlands. The developer plans to build one house and market it as an estate. The second reading will take place Aug. 28.
• unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance rezoning approximately 64 acres east of Avalon Road on the north and south side of SunRidge Boulevard at 505 and 807 Avalon Road to City Suburban Residential. Community Development Director Ed Williams said this is one of the last vacant pieces of property near the schools on SunRidge. The rezoning is subject to developer Iota Sessions LLC's agreement to make fair-share payments and abide by other conditions.
This rezoning is subject to state review. Therefore, the second reading will be scheduled after that review is completed. Commissioner Bob Buchanan asked what the state review will consist of and if the Orange County School Board had reviewed the impact of the project on local schools.
Williams said the state will mostly check to make sure there's sewer and water available to the development and that "we wouldn't be bringing the project to you if it did not receive approval of the school board."
Iota Sessions also owns an additional parcel of approximately 4 acres at 14966 Siplin Road, adjacent to the 64 acres of land rezoned to City Suburban Residential. That parcel can be rezoned without a state review. The commission also passed the first reading for rezoning the entire 68 acres at 505 and 807 Avalon Road and at 14966 Siplin Road to PUD from Single-Family Residential and No Zoning (NZ). Iota Sessions plans to build 106 single family residences on the property, along with five recreational parks and 10.18 acres of open space. The commission will schedule the second reading of the ordinances on the same date in the future, after the state review.
• approved city staff recommendation to enter into a fair-share agreement with Iota Sessions, LLC, the SunRidge developer. Director said the developer's payments were based on the 68-acre parcel. The developer agreed to make its payment within 60 days after the completion of the road.
• approved the site plan for Baer’s Furniture store located at 12105 W. Colonial Drive, subject to some conditions. Williams said the location is already zoned commercial. The site plan includes an 82,000-square-foot furniture store and 14,000 square feet of retail space.
Mayor Rees said, "I'd rather see a nice store on that property than a barbed wire fence around it."
• continued consideration of the site plan for 426 W. Plant St., the Plant Street Market, until the next meeting.
• approved Police Chief Brennan's request to utilize funds from an Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant to purchase 10 officer-worn body cameras for $10,343.
• approved the interlocal agreement for fire-dispatch services with Orange County from Oct. 1, through Sept. 30, 2019. Fire Chief Matt McGrew said the "agreement is cost effective and beneficial to Winter Garden." Providing a similar dispatch service entirely in-house would require the city to hire seven dispatchers; sharing costs with Ocoee and Maitland requires the city to pay the cost of only three dispatchers.
• approved extending the agreement with Rural/Metro Emergency Ambulance Transportation to provide ambulance service for the city for one year. Bollhoefer said that in thirty days the city will receive the results of a study to determine if it would be cost effective to provide ambulance service directly to residents. Even if the study supported that conclusion, it would still take the city about a year to get ready. Therefore, it made sense to extend the current arrangement for the next year.
• learned from Olszewski that the recent back-to-school backpack giveaway distributed nearly 300 backpacks to students.