After months of discussion, the town of Windermere voted 3-2 to deny an ordinance revising the pool setback requirement for canal front lots from 50 feet to 35 feet, at the Town Council meeting Monday, Nov. 14.
The proposed ordinance outlines seven requirements to qualify for the setback including the lot being identified as a canal front lot, the lot must have a seawall and no encroachment into the 100-year floodplain or wetlands is permitted.
Town Planner Brad Cornelius said whether the ordinance was approved or not, residents could still come through the variance process and council members still could condition variances with specific requirements.
A handful of residents spoke during public comment on both sides of the issue.
Lori Bradford, Brandi Haines and Stephen Withers all spoke against the ordinance, stating the preservation of the lakes is paramount.
Bradford said the Butler Chain of Lakes is an Outstanding Florida Waterway and is worthy of all the special protections including the setbacks.
“These 50-foot setbacks help to keep the lakes clean … the key point that I’ve learned in all of my years in advocacy is if there’s not a net environmental benefit then you don’t do it,” she said. “The answer is no … unless they can prove to you guys that there is some kind of net environmental benefit. So I just ask you guys tonight to please rule against that and protect our lakes.”
Withers does not believe the concept of swimming pools exploding or catastrophically failing, where they have a potential to leak harmful contaminants into the lakes, has anything to do with the current 50-foot setback.
“I do think a seawall is a great addition, but I think when you take away that natural filter system, that 50-foot … you’re taking away 40% of that filter, which I don’t think is good,” he said. “I think we have an ordinance in place that is fine, and I wouldn’t see why we would change it.”
On the other side of the ordinance, Ashley Walker, Mark Ausley, Ben Mase, Mary Oakes and Dale Walker spoke in support of the new proposed setback.
Ausley, an environmental consultant and current chairman of Orange County’s Environmental Protection Commission, said he believed the town should approve the ordinance.
Walker said the town of Windermere makes up less than 1% of the Butler Chain of Lakes and that if she was just in Orange County and not under the town, based on the size of her lot, she would qualify for a reduced setback for a pool. She said 14 of the 31 homes on the canal already have pools.
In addition, she has collected more than 80 signatures from residents who approve the ordinance change and also think it will better protect the Butler Chain of Lakes.
“Fifty feet versus 30 feet — there is no market difference in impact on the Chain of Lakes as a whole,” Mase said. “Several of us along the canal who would like to build in the future … what would prevent us if this variance gets voted no on, what would prevent us from requesting 36 feet, 34 feet, 30 feet, what is that cut off? How many times do we need to do this? I fully support my neighbor in this effort.”
Town Council Member Tony Davit believed the ordinance should be supported.
“Going back to the comment earlier of if it doesn’t better the environment don’t pass it, I would argue that the engineering solutions provided in this ordinance … is why we should support this,” Davit said. “Retaining the water behind the seawall in a retaining swale, I would argue, as I have in the past, is a better engineering solution than a 50-foot setback.”
However, Town Council member Bill Martini disagreed.
“There’s great arguments on both sides, and I can see how having further restrictions would certainly help with water retention and that type of thing but until our experts, the people we rely on, agree or there’s any proof that that’s the case then I’m opposed to changing the setback,” he said.
The Town Council voted in denial of the ordinance 3-2, with council members Davit and Molly Rose requesting approval.
The pool setback discussion caught the attention of the town in February after Walker, who lives at 11 Main St., met with the Development Review Board, which recommended a 5-1 denial of a variance to allow a reduced setback from the Normal High-Water Line for a swimming pool
Unlike the surrounding areas of Ocoee, Winter Garden and Clermont, which have a setback of 25 feet, the town has a 50-foot setback for waterfront lots, although its standard lot setback remains at 25 feet.
According to the town, all structures must be at least 50 feet from the Normal High-Water Line elevation.
The variance was tabled to March, with the agreement of bringing in the town’s lake consultant to review.
Cornelius gave a detailed presentation on other cities’ requirements and the DRB’s unanimous recommendation to keep the setback at the May Town Council meeting.
Lakes consultant Amy L. Giannotti recommended keeping the setback.
Giannotti said the setback is important to keep any pool water from being discharged into local surface waters. She said swimming pools are a known source of pollution to lakes and wetlands because of the chlorine and other pool chemicals that are harmful to aquatic plants and wildlife — even at low levels.
David Hansen, senior environmental specialist at the Orange County Environmental Protection Division, agreed.
“Pool water is not lake water, and the greater (50-foot) distance should be there to allow for infiltration of pool water into the ground rather than run to the lake in case of an accidental discharge,” Hansen said in a letter to Cornelius. “There may be options like a berm and swale, but these would have to be maintained for the life of the pool.”
Hansen explained the Butler Chain also is subject to several feet of rise and fall in water levels, particularly post tropical events, and the greater distance may help prevent pool flooding and introduction of treated water into the lake.
He said his concern with a reduction would be that there is nothing to prevent further reductions.
Cornelius said he looked at how many lots in town were impacted by the regulation. His analysis found there are 398 waterfront lots impacted, measuring to about 10% of all the lots in the town. Of the 398 lots, 52 are one acre or greater of size from the Normal-High-Water line. The average lot size of the local waterfront lots is 22,780 square feet.
Cornelius said over a seven- to eight-year period, the town has only processed five variances related to the setback, and of the five, only three were for pools. Of the three, two pools were denied and one was approved for a pool deck.
After several discussions by the DRB and Town Council, the council directed staff to prepare an ordinance to amend the town’s waterfront pool setback requirements for canal-front lots from 50 feet to 35 feet with conditions to protect the waterway and other potential impacts.