Windermere High School’s off-campus football stadium — built more than a mile down the road from the campus — has resulted in a multitude of complications since it opened in 2018.
Most recently, Orange County revoked the school’s ability to park on the grass at Deputy Scott Pine Community Park after field damage from a surplus of storms, causing a series of ongoing concerns and questions to arise again. That decision forced Windermere to postpone its Sept. 16 game against Dr. Phillips — and relocate it to DP Monday, Sept. 19.
However, once repairs are made — and if rain stays away — county officials hope to reinstate field parking for Homecoming Friday, Sept. 23.
Parents say the myriad problems — including lack of parking, insufficient seating in the stadium and safety concerns in the event of bad weather — all were anticipated before the stadium was built.
And this year, in particular, it seems the Wolverine community has had it.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Windermere High, a $93.5 million project, opened in 2017, providing relief to West Orange High, which at the time had about 4,200 students on a campus meant for 3,000.
In 2013, when Scott Boyd served as District 1 county commissioner, Orange County Public Schools moved forward with a rezoning of 70 acres. That land was purchased years prior by OCPS within the West Windermere Rural Settlement.
Orange County is home to 21 designated Rural Settlement Communities. Boyd said the challenge at the time was a rezoning request for a high school within the settlement.
He said numerous members of the 21 communities, along with residents of the West Windermere Rural Settlement, collectively opposed the now Windermere High being built at its current site. Those in support of the school included West Orange residents who were experiencing overcrowding conditions at West Orange High.
The school site was denied by the Orange County Commission in a 6-1 vote, causing both OCPS and the BCC to meet through two joint board meetings, as well as with a court-appointed mediator to work through many of the issues.
However, the two were not able to come to an agreement, and after a legal appeal, the court granted the school to be built while also allowing Orange County government the ability to add conditions to the approval.
Arguably the most controversial decision: locating the stadium off-site.
The stadium was approved by the County Commission, with OCPS and the county splitting the cost of the facility and its ongoing maintenance through a joint-use agreement. The pair collectively built the stadium, field and track, along with the concession building.
The Windermere stadium is one of only two off-campus high school stadiums in Orange County. The other is Winter Park High School’s Showalter Stadium, which is owned by the city of Winter Park and offers more amenities than most high school facilities.
Clarissa Howard, communications department director at the city of Winter Park, said the stadium is a full football field with an Olympic-sized track. The stadium hosts 4,474 seats with 751 parking spaces available and the potential of using two more fields for parking depending on the weather.
In contrast, Windermere’s stadium seats 1,500 spectators and has 205 paved parking spots, according to Matt Suedmeyer, manager of the Orange County Parks and Recreation Division.
In 2016, As Boyd was nearing his final year in office and the stadium was starting design, he contacted a neighboring landowner about a possible purchase of an additional 100 acres, with 40 usable upland acres for parking and park expansion.
Betsy VanderLey, who took Boyd’s place on the commission, was acting commissioner when the stadium opened in August 2018.
“It quickly became apparent that there were a couple of issues — one was stadium seating, and the other was parking,” VanderLey said.
As a temporary measure, she asked Orange County staff to install a crosswalk for those parking on the opposite side of the road to the stadium.
“While we were developing the park and taking into consideration the wetlands, the size of the stadium, the parking, the multipurpose field and the need for community recreation, we realized that there wasn’t going to be enough parking,” Deputy County Administrator Chris Testerman said. “The paved parking area we knew was insufficient, and the School Board knew it would be insufficient. We relied on the School Board as far as how many parking spaces they would need, because they know better than we do. We relied on them (about) the (amount) of bleacher seating that we would need. Everything about the stadium and its associated infrastructure was decided on by (OCPS).”
Suedmeyer said the county offered use of the multipurpose field as overflow parking, with the understanding that there would always have to be parking at the high school with participants bused to the stadium.
VanderLey picked up where Boyd left off with county staff discussion on the possible land purchase. She was navigating through discussions with the property owner, county staff and Duke Energy.
“I identified available funds for the purchase and asked staff to properly vet the property to determine if it could be used in such a way (i.e. a Geotech report to show that it was stable enough and ensure that there were no environmental impacts, etc.),” VanderLey said in an emailed statement. “It was discovered as part of that process that Duke Energy had an easement for their power lines, which impacted access to the land, and they were reluctant to allow any activity that would impact their easement. I was working with them to craft a solution when they had a personnel change, then COVID impacted the timeline, and finally, I was not re-elected, and the issue was left unresolved.”
Orange County School Board District 4 member Pam Gould said she worked with Boyd and then VanderLey on the stadium improvements and said they had brought in extra stadium seats. However, parking has been an issue since the day the stadium opened.
“It’s not ideal; it’s just not,” she said. “It’s not ideal for the community, because of the traffic, the lack of shelter and constraints of that site, but it would take the county changing and amending their rule in order to allow the stadium to move to the site of the campus. Without them willing to do that, we have to keep kind of creating these band-aid fixes.”
VanderLey said current Commissioner Nicole Wilson did not speak to her about the stadium issue when she took office.
“As such, I cannot speak to her interests,” VanderLey said. “When I took office, I requested some time with Commissioner Boyd to go over any unfinished projects. Commissioner Wilson did not request such a meeting. It is, obviously, up to each commissioner to determine what they will focus on and what level, if any, of coordination and information they require in order to accomplish their objectives.”
As commissioner, Wilson spoke about the Windermere stadium issues after the parking problem surfaced last week.
“It just makes me sad that the students don’t have the opportunity to play on their own field because of decisions my predecessors made,” she said. “The idea was that it was going to be a negotiation and settlement with other neighbors, but quite frankly, since then, there have been many different developments that were approved that increased the density. Now, we have more kids there, we have more families that want to participate, and they never revisited allowing them to have the stadium on campus. It is unfortunate that we inherited the kind of bad decisions of our predecessors, but also, I’m not giving up on at least trying to let our OCPS partners know that if they want to pursue getting the zoning for that, I would not oppose it, although I cannot speak for the rest of the board.”
Parent Julie Sadlier said the reality of the stadium does not match what the community had envisioned.
“From the parents’ perspective, we were all under the impression it was going to be this wonderful facility, since it wasn’t just an OCPS stadium but also a county property that the community could use,” she said. “So we were envisioning a stadium more like West Orange, or a complex, if you will. We were very upset when not only was it nothing like that … it was not as promised.”
Sadlier said the biggest concern always has been safety. She cited a past event hosted by the school’s Student Government Association during Homecoming week at the stadium where students had to evacuate because of bad weather. The students were attempting to walk home and back to school in the storm as parents rushed to pick up their children.
Sadlier and other Windermere parents gathered petitions and created a Facebook page, “Move Windermere High School Stadium on campus,” aiming to revisit the issue when Wilson took office.
Jill Evans Chase, whose 10th-grade daughter is a member of the color guard/band program, echoed Sadlier’s concerns.
“Scott Pine Park is a very nice facility but was not built to fit the needs of Windermere High School or to be able to host the visiting school and their band and performance programs,” Chase said. “There isn’t adequate parking. The cellular network in that area is terrible, and mobile tickets can take upwards of 30 minutes to pull up on a phone, if they pull up at all, to be able to enter the football games.”
Most important, there isn’t enough space for attendees to shelter in the event of a thunderstorm and lightning, she said.
Tamara Weigel Hass, whose 11th-grade student also is in the marching band, runs the concession stand for the football games at the park and has witnessed many of the stadium complications.
“The off-campus stadium has been a tragic inconvenience for students, parents, athletes and band members,” Hass said. “The fact that we have a field at the high school that cannot be utilized is ridiculous to say the least.”
To perform at its home games, the marching band has to rent two to three large U-Haul trucks to transport the instruments, guard equipment, sound equipment, props and other show needs.
“Every season, this cost is in the thousands,” she said. “And that does not even take into account the parent volunteer time required to reserve, load, pick up and drop off the trucks. This would not be an issue if there was a football stadium on campus like other OCPS schools. Now, with parking not allowed to the general public, this means that even more people need to be transported by bus back to the school. There aren’t enough buses running to be able to do this quickly in the case of a weather emergency, and the park does not have the capacity to shelter everyone.”
The problem that has been bubbling for four years boiled over last week, when Windermere High Principal Andrew Leftakis announced Orange County’s had revoked the school’s ability to park on the grass at Deputy Scott Pine Community Park for the Friday, Sept. 16, game.
Until the county reinstates field parking, all spectators for varsity football games will have to park at the school in the student and visitor parking lots. Then, they will have to walk the sidewalk in front of the school to the bus loop. There, they can catch a shuttle to the stadium.
According to Leftakis’ message, parking at the park will be reserved for volunteers, law enforcement, officials, coaching staff, media personnel, vendors and staff workers. Spectators with a disabled driver hanger will be allowed to park at the stadium. The message did not include operating procedures for leaving the stadium in the event of lightning or other dangerous weather activity.
According to Suedmeyer, the division revoked grass parking because of the damage done to the field during the last home game, Aug. 26.
He said if the county did not protect the field and allowed it to be damaged, then other people would not be able to utilize the field.
“The Parks and Recreation Division made the decision to close the multipurpose field to car parking due to the amount of damage the fields received during the last football game,” Suedmeyer said. “With all the rain we have had lately, the field is just not suitable for parking. Per the agreement between the county and OCPS, the county has the right to stop utilizing the multipurpose field for parking if the field is damaged.”
Wilson said she was “blindsided” and that she was never notified by parks or anyone else before the principal made a call to Windermere families.
Wilson said she contacted County Administrator Byron Brooks, Testerman and other Orange County administration to examine the use agreement relating to the field.
Less than a week after the county changed the parking policy, the Wolverines’ second home game of the season turned into an away game. Because of the evening thunderstorms Friday, Sept. 16, the game between the Wolverines and the Dr. Phillips Panthers was postponed to 7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 19. The game was hosted at Dr. Phillips’ Bill Spoone Stadium.
Boyd said he recently reached out to the owner at the property near the park and learned the 100 acres is still available, but discussions with the county have stopped.
He said funding sources for the additional acreage are available through Orange County Park Impact Fees funding along with Orange County Green PLACE program dollars — $99,000,000.
However, he said this option would require Wilson to engage in further discussion with all parties involved.
“The joint-use agreement between the county and OCPS could only sever if both agencies agreed to do so,” Boyd said. “It is highly unlikely that this would take place, as each agreed to share the ongoing operational costs of the facility. However, the current District 1 commissioner could bring the item back up for discussion and have the county attorney’s office render an opinion of the prior BCC approval and if the stadium could be built at the Windermere High campus given the prior approvals. In the event OCPS approves of this change and funds the stadium improvement, it would be possible to relocate.”
Although there are both challenges and benefits to either improving the current location or moving the stadium onto the school campus, Boyd said he believes an expansion could work.
“Personally, I believe that a well planned expansion of Jonathan Scott Pine Park with lighted parking and lighted trail connectivity to Windermere High, Summerport, Independence and future Overstreet Road would work well,” Boyd said. “That was the vision then and may not be so today.”
Gould said she is open to renegotiations.
“Maybe, now that we have been living with it for a few years, it would be a more informed discussion,” she said. “This (the stadium) was built in order to try to make a compromise for the community as a whole. But I don’t know if they see it as a compromise anymore, because of the strains it puts on traffic, safety and the other challenges it creates.”
Gould said having an on-site asset is always the preference, and her desire is to always have all the assets on the campus.
“This is a joint-use facility, but it is managed by the county, ultimately,” she said. “They are the gatekeepers of the property, and that’s fine. But it’s making it challenging to really have the camaraderie and the full-blown experience for our high school families and even the community members who like to come.”
Wilson said she is hoping to meet with her school district counterparts and new Superintendent Dr. Maria Vazquez. She said there is a meeting set for the first week of October.
“As far as what I’m hearing from residents and understanding what the community needs and wants right now, if there’s a possibility of revisiting putting the football field on the campus, then we should do it,” she said. “It should be at the school.”
Wilson said OCPS would have to file for a substantial change to reopen the issue.
“You have a school in our community that has proven to be a very wonderful school,” Sadlier said. “Windermere is in a community where you want to have community support, but when you have a facility that can’t hold the community, you can’t expect the community to come and support it.”