It’s unusual for the Oakland Town Commission to be divided on a topic, but such was the case at the June 13 meeting. The issue is the new lights on the water tower that stands in the town center.
The tower has stood dark since 2015, but the town added outrigger lights after the iconic structure was painted with the new town logo last fall. However, the new lights were deemed too bright by residents and town staff and were temporarily turned off until a solution could be found.
At the March 28 commission meeting, Commissioner Rick Polland shared his concerns about birds being affected by the lights and suggested the lights be turned off permanently. The commission decided to continue the discussion at a later meeting to give Polland a chance to gather more information on how the lights might affect migratory and song birds.
In the June 13 meeting agenda packet, Polland included a recommendation to the commission to keep the lights off permanently. In his memo to commissioners, he wrote: “To date, the town of Oakland has been a good steward of the environment with our very own Oakland Nature Preserve, supporting St. Johns River Water Management District and (Friends of Lake Apopka) in the cleanup of Lake Apopka, adopting the town of Oakland’s Dark Sky Ordinance, and, most recently, proclaiming May 13 as World Migratory Bird Day. The town has expressed interest in attracting ecotourism. Leaving the water tower lights off would confirm our commitment to protect the environment. Orange Audubon (Society) is working on making the town of Oakland the first municipality in Orange County to be designated a ‘Bird Friendly’ City. This would coincide with everything we have done to date.”
Polland also included a letter from Deborah Green, president of the Orange Audubon Society, and three articles documenting how lighting affects environment and wildlife.
Mayor Kathy Stark asked Polland to compromise.
“We have left the lights off until we came to an agreement,” she said. “I have talked to a couple (of) people. I talked to an environmentalist, who said birds have way better eyesight than we do.”
According to Green: “Birds navigate by the stars and moon … and the articles (Polland) gathered show they hit buildings with lights. … Birds are under such stress already with loss of habitat, and what you do here in the town by keeping the trees, any native plantings (is important). … You’ve already taken an important step with the dark sky ordinance. I understand the marketing that you want your town up in lights. But marketing of being environmentally friendly is more powerful and unique.”
Stark responded: “I am all for following dark sky, and I am all for making sure we lower lights, turn them off during the migratory season, but I think we have to really be pragmatic about the fact that we’re going to have birds, this is an iconic piece of our town, and I would like to light it when we can and follow dark sky. … It becomes difficult when you’re trying to help the environment but you’re not able to take into consideration other things.”
Part of the solution could be to turn the lights off at a specific time each night. Stark said she didn’t have an opinion on what time the lights should be turned off.
“If we could just light it during the times that people are driving home and can see the water tower and turn them off during the migratory patterns,” Stark said. “We’ve got to find middle ground.”
Polland told the mayor people can see the water tower during daylight hours.
In response, Stark said to Polland: “We come to the table and say we’re willing to work with you on this. What are the things we can work together on? … I think we’re offering great solutions to start. This is not where I want to be. I do want dark sky, no question. But I do want that tower lit when we can, and I want to be cognizant of the environment.”
Polland questioned how the town would be able to turn on the tower lights and still be compliant with the dark-sky ordinance.
Commissioner Sal Ramos pointed out the four-story The Avenue on Oakland apartment complex has lights on their buildings, and Polland said the lights shine downward and are dark-sky compliant.
The commission voted to research lighting that can be placed at the top of the water tower and shine directly on the logo and away from the sky.
“I think this is a good start, and hopefully we will figure it out,” Stark said. “I would like us to move forward in some fashion.”
FIRST COMMISSION MEETING FOR NEW MANAGER
Town Manager Andy Stewart is settling in after several weeks in his new position. He thanked the commission, staff and residents for making him feel welcome and for helping him get acquainted with Oakland.
“I’m glad to be back doing what I love to do,” he said. “Oakland’s going to be a good fit for me, and I’m glad to be part of the community.”
“We are, I would say, thus far very pleased with the choice we made,” Stark said.
Bobby Green, former city manager of Auburndale, attended the meeting to support Stewart, his former assistant city manager. He said he had the opportunity and the privilege to work with Stewart and wanted to attend the meeting to congratulate his former colleague.
“I had seven assistants in Auburndale,” Green said. “I let them know I wanted to work with them for four or five years and then they get their master’s (degree) so they can become a manager. … When he left to go work for the city of Dundee, we knew that was a good beginning for him.”
IN OTHER NEWS
• The Oakland Town Commission approved spending $53,416 for a mobile diesel generator set to be in compliance with Florida Department of Environmental Protection rules that specify lift stations that repump wastewater must have a permanent generator or be able to quickly connect to a portable generator. Lift Station 1 falls under that category.
The purchase is partially funded by a grant, and the remainder will be paid from the 2022-23 Enterprise Fund budget.
• The commission passed the second reading of an ordinance that allows existing combined platted lots to be split back out to their original configuration.
• The commission appointed Mayor Kathy Stark as a voting delegate for the Florida League of Cities’ 97th annual conference.
• Stark wants to bring the town’s houses of worship together to create a Coalition of Churches that would work in unison to feed and assist folks in need in Oakland.
• The town proclaimed June 19 through 25, 2023, Pollinator Week and June 19, 2023, a day to celebrate Juneteenth.