WEST ORANGE — Although the recognition that relief high schools are necessary for West Orange High School seems universal, how and where to proceed remain issues of debate and legality, with no relief likely to occur before 2017.
Ninth Circuit Judge Alice L. Blackwell ruled that a special exception must be allowed for a relief school on a 66-acre site on County Road 535 owned by Orange County Public Schools in the West Windermere Rural Settlement, but that the terms of an exception are dictated by Orange County.
A point of contention some members of the school board, county commission and rural settlement are trying to work out is how a school developed on this site would comply with Florida Statute 1013.33, part of which states:
“If the site is consistent with the comprehensive plan’s land-use policies and categories in which public schools are identified as allowable uses, the local government may not deny the application but it may impose reasonable development standards … and consider the site plan and its adequacy as it relates to environmental concerns, health, safety and welfare, and effects on adjacent property.”
With about 1,100 first-year students at West Orange High School this year and more growth on the way in communities such as Horizon West, a relief school is necessary as soon as possible, said Pam Gould, Orange County School Board District 4 representative.
“Each year, we know that as the economy gets healthy, we will see more people desire to live on the west side of town,” she said. “It’s just not sustainable to keep sending students to West Orange. I’m holding hope that we can open a relief school for 2017 by coming to a compromise in the next few weeks. (District 1 Orange County) Commissioner Scott Boyd and I continue to talk about what we think it should be, but now we have to go back to the ruling. The legal departments are trying to figure out how we proceed as a county and school board, getting discussions back open on the back side.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The rural settlement parcel is a proper distance from West Orange High to support growth in south Winter Garden and Horizon West, Gould said.
“I’m told it was the land most central and available at the time they chose that site,” she said. “The majority of the growth is west, and it’s been north and south of there.”
A high school in that location seems to be agreeable for all sides, but the problem is that the school plans do not fit the comprehensive plan of the rural settlement.
“The rural settlement says our high school is too big for a rural settlement, because of when they bought it as zoned rural settlement, even though it’s been greatly encroached upon,” Gould said. “They would support a middle school or extremely small high school, but that doesn’t meet the need of the growth in the area, and that is where we are having a rough time with the county. The county was kind of siding with them on the size of the school, so we went into mediation last spring, and Commissioner Boyd and I have continued to talk to the community.”
Gould said she and Boyd had agreed to make the site plan more compatible for a rural settlement, including moving a stadium off-site, but the size of the school remains an issue.
“Our schools are usually 2,700-2,800 students, and they were wanting us to bring it down to 1,800, but that does not meet needs of our community,” Gould said.
June Cole, a resident of West Windermere Rural Settlement and member of Citizens United for Sensible Growth, believes a plan for a school exceeding 2,000 students would be incompatible with the comprehensive plan of the rural settlement and set a bad precedent for the other 21 rural settlements in Orange County. Moreover, she said Windermere Prep had to follow compatibility rules in 1998, when it was approved for development in the rural settlement.
“It’s zoned mostly one house per acre, so if they want to change, it still needs to be compatible,” she said. “A 350,000-square-foot facility with three stories, 50 feet tall, almost 3,000 students and a lighted stadium is not something we believe is compatible with the rural settlement or comprehensive plan. If I bought that property in 2004 with no contingency, do you think anyone would feel sorry for me? No, they would have thought I made a very poor decision.”
Cole was adamant that a school on that parcel of about 1,000 fewer students would be compatible and welcome for the rural settlement, but OCPS has continually demanded its way on this issue, she said.
“The compromise we offered them was 1,800 students,” Cole said. “We also in that compromise offered them 200 additional students temporarily, until the next high school opens. They could have 2,000 here and then go back to 1,800 when the next opens. They’re not serious when it comes to truly getting down to a table and talking compromise. OCPS wants what they want and don’t want to answer to anybody.”
Gould also said at least one more relief high school would be necessary for West Orange, pointing to a parcel on Seidel Road near the 429 Beltway and the northwest corner of Walt Disney World that OCPS also owns.
“We’re going to need at least two high schools when Horizon West is all planned out,” Gould said. “We’re going to have 9,000 high-school students in the WO footprint, by our projection.”
This makes Cole wonder why the Seidel site cannot be first, when it is already owned by OCPS and zoned for a school.
“Everything is already developed there,” Cole said. “There’s going to be a lot more rooftops there by the time that high school would open in 2017.”
Gould said the Seidel site was not as close to current growth and would be the next step.
“It is the only other viable property, but it is not the best-case scenario right now,” she said. “No matter what, we need two schools, so we need to figure out how we can have two schools, so a settlement is needed now between the county and the property, because there is no other site. They had talked about some other sites, and the community has submitted other sites. They would have been too expensive, wouldn’t fit the roadways, couldn’t use the infrastructure — it’s come back to the rural settlement every time.”
Cole said she believed those concerns were invalid.
“They’re including additional costs for roads, saying it’s going to cost $21 million,” Cole said. “When has Orange County ever been concerned about roads for a school? As far as I’m concerned, their numbers are inflated. Truth be told, with all this growth of Horizon West, they’re probably going to need three high schools, so they’ll probably have to look at Tiny Road, anyway. Commissioner Boyd would bend over backward to help them. They could already be in the ground there and Seidel Road. But they’re obsessed with the rural settlement and don’t feel they can go down that road until this site is solved. Who knows how long this takes?”
The Tiny Road site is several miles directly north of the Seidel site, east of the 429 Parkway, with Foundation Academy at the north end of the road and Bridgewater Middle at the south end.
A Horizon West site also could have been possible if the county and school board were more proactive, Cole said.
“Do you know how much land was out there they could have gotten in Horizon West cheap?” she asked. “Now it’s skyrocketed. We could’ve worked on this and had an answer back in 2008. We could’ve had teams and committees fighting where the next school would go, but they sat on their rear for almost five years, waited until West Orange reached near capacity. Then they filed an application when they knew there was already a problem. Why did they wait?”
In addition, Cole wants better cooperation than the two joint meetings the school board and county commission have had since 2011, in which they did not address the site, despite concerns from Gould, Boyd and Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Cole said. She is sad for parents who believe the school is set for the rural settlement, too, she said.
“That’s not what I read in the judgment,” Cole said. “OCPS put out a robocall telling people they won. They released their press release with all of the favorable aspects but took out negative ones. I’m very sorry to say I don’t think this is anywhere close to being solved. Maybe we can build a specialty school or a magnate school for this site that they can use, maybe more of a half-school. Think outside the box.”
“Unfortunately, OCPS moved fast after hours, so the ‘facts’ are not the facts,” a statement from the Orange County Communications Division about the Jan. 20 court decision said. “There is still another pending lawsuit. … OCPS could always have built a school on that site, just not the school they presented to the Board of County Commissioners. The proposed school did not meet the special exception for the rural settlement — it failed to meet four of the six criteria. So that ‘win’ is really misrepresented.”
Among the criteria, the site plan met only two: meeting performance standards of the district and proper landscape buffers. It failed to meet the other four: consistency with the comprehensive plan, use similar to surrounding area and consistent with surrounding development, not acting as a detrimental intrusion and similar characteristics with the majority of uses permitted in the zoning district.
As for the pending lawsuit, the school board must show the county commission deprived the board of procedural due process, departed from essential requirements of law or failed to use competent substantial evidence in its Nov. 5, 2013 decision to deny the special exception.
At 4:30 p.m. Jan. 27, after press time, a pre-agenda meeting on a relief school featured community speakers, including builders’ associations and the West Orange Chamber of Commerce.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].