Following a controversial decision by Ocoee’s Code Enforcement Board, city commissioners have decided to divide authority regarding code-compliance matters between the board and a special magistrate.
Violations would be split by category, with a special magistrate overseeing commercial and industrial cases and the CEB presiding over residential cases.
The momentous vote was made 4-1, with District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilson opposing
During an Oct. 25 CEB meeting, the board made what commissioners termed a disastrous decision that would cost the city an estimated $70,000 to fix.
That decision granted Jim Sills, the owner of property located at 1 Taylor St., until Aug. 31, 2018, to bring the lot into compliance with proper zoning standards. City records show the lot, designated as light industrial zoning, has been used for outdoor storage for almost an entire 32 years since Sills bought the property in 1984. The problem is such zoning does not permit outdoor storage.
However, as per standard regulations and city staff’s recommendation, property owners with code violations regarding the nonconforming use of property are usually given a maximum of 30 days to clean up the lot.
Despite that regulation and legal advice presented by the city attorney, the CEB granted Sills the nearly two-year grace period.
“It was a kick in the face to the city that night," said Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson of the decision.“If you know what the law is and the legal people are sitting there telling you what the law is, why would you not do that?”
The commission’s discussion preceding the final vote first weighed different options. The first included an idea to dissolve the CEB entirely and replace it with a special magistrate. The second option proposed was to replace only certain members of the CEB judged unqualified with new, vetted members.
Wilsen, however, disagreed with both options. She instead proposed additional training workshops for the volunteer board members.
“I’m not interested in changing the code board at all,” she said. “It’s a slap in the face to say that our residents don’t have the necessary tools to make good decisions."
Commissioners Joel Keller, John Grogan and Richard Firstner all expressed views favoring the option of hiring a special magistrate. Keller and Firstner cited a special magistrate’s legal background and emotional detachment from Ocoee residents as their reasons, claiming it places them in a better position to make judicial determinations based on municipal codes and Florida statutes.
On the other hand, Ocoee resident Martha Lopez-Anderson argued the volunteer-based CEB was preferable to a magistrate because residents have a vested interest in the city. Anderson also spoke critically of the commission, implying commissioners put the CEB in a challenging position when asking them to handle a code violation that had gone unnoticed by city staff for 30 years.
“That meeting was painful to watch,” Anderson said during public comment. “And it was embarrassing for me as a citizen because I couldn’t believe that mistakes that have been made, basically by the city, are now being thrown at a volunteer board. You know, some things happened for a very extended period of time, and all of a sudden you expect the board to fix the mistakes of the staff, basically.”
Before the end of the meeting, commissioners passed a motion to reinstate the CEB until the official ordinance change. CEB meetings will continue as usual until city staff work through logistics for adding a special magistrate. Ocoee City Attorney Scott Cookson expects the process might take a few months, but most commissioners believed the wait worth it.
“As cities grow, some things have to change,” Grogan said. “And with this downtown, we’re going to be changing a lot of the zoning throughout the city. We’re going to do a lot of moratoriums. There’s going to be a lot of things going on, and I think it’s asking a lot for a volunteer to stay on top of that.”
Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected]