A proposed expansion of the Woodlawn Cemetery received pushback from residents at an official community meeting hosted by Orange County Government and District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson Wednesday, Aug. 31, at Gotha Middle School.
The request, by applicant Juan Rodriguez, of Sci Funeral Services, is an amendment to a special exception in the A-1, Citrus Rural, zoning district to allow the construction of a new 19,236-square-foot funeral home to replace the existing 14,000-square-foot funeral home.
The property sits on 103 acres and is located at 544 Woodlawn Cemetery Road in Gotha — on the west side of Woodlawn Cemetery Road, south of Old Winter Garden Road, west of South Apopka-Vineland Road and north of Florida’s Turnpike.
Kasey A. Feltner, from Shutts & Bowen LLP representing the applicant, said although the applicant did not wish to comment on the matter before press time, Rodriguez is “excited to work with the community to provide top-quality essential services to the community.”
Case Planner Laekin O’Hara explained the proposed development is to be completed in two phases.
Phase 1 will include the demolition of the barn and construction of the new funeral home with associated parking and access.
O’Hara said the existing funeral home will continue operation until the time of issuance of the certificate of occupancy for the new funeral home and then will be demolished.
Phase 2 will include the demolition of the existing funeral home and associated parking and construction of an additional parking area and access to the west, connecting to internal roadways.
O’Hara said the existing funeral home site will be reverted to a grass area and is intended to be used as an expanded cemetery area in the future.
The net increase in building area will be 5,236 square feet.
Vehicular access will be provided from Woodlawn Cemetery Road with the addition of two new points of access.
The landscape plan includes buffering with canopy trees and shrubs along the perimeter, meeting code. Existing trees are proposed to be removed, subject to Chapter 15 of the Orange County Code, and the existing buffers to the north and west are intended to remain.
The Orange County Environmental Protection Division has no objection to the request.
As far as parking requirements, the total parking spaces required for the funeral home is 80, which includes one parking spot for every commercial vehicle (18) and one parking spot per four seats with 245 in the chapel (62). There will be 187 parking spaces provided with 127 paved parking spots in Phase 1 and 60 additional spots in Phase 2.
Gotha resident Rick Arnold, who lives in the Spence Pointe Subdivision directly across from Woodlawn Cemetery, said many residents are not necessarily objecting to the concept of Woodlawn building a new building but rather the concerns that have not been addressed.
“Orange County continues to erode the meaning of property zoning,” Arnold said. “Every small approval continues to set a precedent for many others that have or are happening currently in Gotha.”
Other concerns include the increased services at the cemetery; the neighborhood safety because of inappropriate behaviors in the cemetery after hours; lack of explanation for the relocation of the barn; and the potential loss of one of the main attractions to Gotha — the dark skies and quiet.
Arnold said one of the biggest concerns is the continued lack of traffic enforcement.
“Orange County has continued to ignore the traffic issues on Woodlawn,” he said. “There is zero enforcement, and there are not only a lot of younger children (who) live along the road, yes, three of which are mine, but there are a ton more that travel this as a back entrance to Gotha Middle School.”
In addition, Arnold said the sidewalks in the area are destroyed from use and Woodlawn has a rating with the Florida Department of Transportation that is exceeded every day by semi-trucks that are diverted, lost or delivering to the cemetery, all of which exceed the limits by more than double.
“We as a community have repeatedly asked for some means of traffic calming and mitigation, and they placed two flashing signs that have become nothing more than a challenge for drivers to see just how fast they can go,” Arnold said. “We want a reasonable and sustainable solution to the traffic and speeding — the cemetery expansion does not help and only contributes to it. I believe that a roundabout or even two on Woodlawn would go a long way toward remediating this particular issue.”
Gotha resident A. Kurt Ardaman, a partner at Fishback Dominick and city attorney for Winter Garden, said he had a conversation with Feltner during which the two discussed lighting, outside speakers, amplifiers and sound systems, and security.
“I’ll defer to engineering on the lighting and sound system, but I would like to address the security,” Feltner said. “We are more than welcome to working with the community with regard to the security issues, but it’s not something that we can do as a condition of approval on this special exception under A-1.”
Ardaman said the cemetery used to close the gates one half hour after sunset and would reopen them around sunrise. He said there is persistent illegal activity the residents believe occurs on the property. In addition, he said SCI used to have a security guard who would patrol the property every night.
“They have discontinued the security guard, and they do not close the gates,” Ardaman said. “It allows for continued activities, traffic through there, cars racing, likely drug sales, sexual activity — it’s becoming a problem. So from a practical standpoint, I would think SCI would want to take some steps to at least close the gates, especially because you’re proposing two new entrances.”
Wilson said she was not invited to or made aware of the unofficial community meeting held by Feltner and the applicant Thursday, Aug. 25.
“I want to thank the applicant for being involved and concerned enough to do a community meeting independently of the county, but it does put us…we’re a little bit feeling on the back foot here not knowing that some of these things came up at a community meeting that we weren’t involved in,” she said. “The applicant didn’t reach out to us to speak about any of this ahead of time, and one of the things I probably would have said was that I disagree about the exaction in a gate closing as a condition. We have examples in the county of those types of conditions and could include that if that’s something that would help the process.”
However, despite resident concern, the Orange County Board of Zoning Adjustment approved the request to move on to the next step Thursday, Sept. 1 — fewer than 12 hours after the community meeting.
Hannah Gutner, policy aide to Wilson, said their BZA appointee, Thomas Moses, was able to receive the commissioner’s notes from the community meeting the night prior and work out updated conditions of approval before the BZA meeting.
In addition to the five standard conditions of approval, four additional conditions were added and approved.
The conditions include: specifications for lighting installation shall be restricted to downlighting, the current capabilities of the existing sound system shall remain, the security entrance gates shall be locked from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m, and the new entrance areas will be equipped with CCTV cameras and signage noting that recording is occurring.
The request will head to the County Commission for a hearing at the end of September.