The battle for where Winter Park’s new library will stand could reach an end in the coming weeks. It could all be over if a judge utters just five words: Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
Winter Park’s ongoing legal battle over the location of its new library/civic center went before Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schreiber last Thursday as residents, the library, the city of Winter Park and the state of Florida made their cases for whether the project was really set in stone for the existing Rachel D. Murrah Civic Center site in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
The hearing that came before Judge Schreiber was the first step of a bond validation process – a measure taken by the city of Winter Park to ensure the bond referendum process for the new library money approved by the voters in March was moving forward appropriately.
Winter Park began the bond validation process after controversy arose over the March ballot language for the bond referendum of up to $30 million. The location of the proposed library project was not included, leaving some residents feeling deceived when the city pressed on with the Martin Luther King Jr. Park site after the bond referendum passed.
A packed courtroom in downtown Orlando was split between two sides: those who wished to see the library come up from the ground in the northwest corner of MLK Park, and those who wished to see it elsewhere.
But despite there being two sides to the issue, there were four entities represented in the courtroom last week. The city of Winter Park and the Winter Park Public Library both had attorneys present to push for not only the approval of the bond validation, but a court order from the judge designating the bond validation for a library project “in Martin Luther King Jr. Park,” establishing its final location once and for all.
On the other side, a group of residents pushing against the library in the park was represented by resident Michael Poole, who pushed for the bond validation to be approved but without a set location attached to the court order. Such a ruling could allow residents to fight another day with the city in an attempt to change the location.
Also supporting Poole and the residents’ case was a fourth party, Chief Assistant State Attorney Richard Wallsh, who believed the city of Winter Park was looking to bootstrap a location to the bond validation order as a way of correcting their mistake when they excluded the location from the original ballot language.
Attorney Chris Roe, representing Winter Park, argued that the city had made it very clear that MLK Park was the established site for the project all along, including a vote during the Oct. 26, 2015 City Commission meeting where the general location was approved in a vote. Roe also added that the ordinance that set the bond referendum in motion mentions the “demolition and removal of the existing civic center,” thus implying that the project will be constructed at that the Rachel D. Murrah Civic Center.
“There would be no need to demolish and remove the existing civic center, which is otherwise fully functional, but for putting the project on that site,” Roe said.
Wallsh meanwhile contended that the city still never established the location of the library in a city ordinance or the ballot language that went before the voters. The language regarding the “demolition and removal of the existing civic center” was also never on the ballot, he added, and the city even rejected the motion to place the location on the ballot in November.
“The city chose to not put [the location] in the ballot and not put it in the ordinance,” Wallsh said.
“The only thing they can rely on is the demolition language.”
Roe told the judge that the project must move forward in MLK Park, as that was the original will of the voters and was made clear to the residents through numerous public meetings and media coverage.
“The city doesn’t have any authority to put [the library] anywhere else besides that site now that the referendum has taken place,” Roe said.
“If the city finds out that it cannot put [the library] at that location, the project’s dead. They’ll have to start all over from the beginning.”
Poole responded before the judge that if her bond validation ruling included MLK Park as the site, all of the residents’ efforts to have a say in the library’s location will have been for nothing.
“We think we followed all the rules,” Poole said. “If we don’t get it here, we’re over.”
Judge Schreiber instructed Roe to write two orders – one validating the bonds with language setting it for Martin Luther King Jr. and another validating the bonds without a location named.
Both orders are due to be submitted by Nov. 15, after which a final ruling will be held.