Geri Throne - Guest Columnist

Entries by Geri Throne - Guest Columnist

Election Looms

Election Looms

City Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel will start her third term in office this March without opposition, but Commissioner Greg Seidel faces a challenge to his second term on Seat 1: Wes Naylor, whom Mayor Steve Leary appointed to the city’s Police Pension Board five months ago.

How those developments will affect the board’s future approach to zoning and planning is anyone’s guess. Even before the election, commissioners this week showed they can act unpredictably on such matters.

Unforeseen Zoning Votes

Sprinkel, who often agrees with Leary on zoning issues, did just that with most items on Monday’s agenda. But she joined forces with Commissioner Carolyn Cooper to oppose a relatively minor lot-split request, defeating it in a 2-2 vote from which Seidel abstained because the applicant was building him a home.

Later, Seidel, who often sides with Cooper on zoning matters, found a third ally to defeat a contentious request affecting a westside neighborhood.

The applicant, Morgan Bellows, wanted to rezone a single-family lot on Comstock Avenue to higher density R2 so he could build a large single-family house. R2 zoning would give him an extra 600 extra square feet so the house could be 4,300 square feet.
Seven residents made impassioned pleas against the project because of the cumulative effect such rezonings and larger structures would have on the small westside community.

Racism an Issue?

“Inch by inch, block by block, you start changing,” said Martha Hall about her neighborhood. She recounted the history of efforts to remove blacks from west Winter Park starting in the 1800s. “You all may look at it in a different manner, but when you look at racism, when you look at discrimination, it happens. I always say, there’s a zebra and can a zebra change its stripes? You all continue to make the same decisions” on westside development.

Opponents weren’t optimistic their arguments would be heard. The Planning and Zoning Commission had voted 2-2 on the request, with board member Randall Slocum abstaining because he was working for Bellows. On Monday, city commissioners also heaped high praise on Bellows’ application and design.

Commissioner Pete Weldon even chided Hall by name. “I am sick and tired of people coming here and associating the performance, the judgment, and the thought processes of the people who serve this community as racist, and I don’t want to hear it again, Miss Hall.” Leary agreed the racism words “disgusted” him.

“You will hear it again,” a woman in the audience called out.

Then Weldon did the unexpected. He said he was voting against the rezoning, “not because the neighbors are all against it, not because Miss Hall thinks I’m a racist, but because in my judgment it is an accommodation without strategic purpose for the neighborhood or the city.”

Interviewed after the meeting, Hall, surprised by the 3-2 vote, said, “I was pointing out history and what has happened through the years and what continues to happen. I didn’t call anyone up there racist.” She said it’s important to talk about issues like racism to address them. “When a person can’t sit down and talk about it, something is wrong.”

Parking Lot Nixed

Perhaps the most unexpected vote of the evening was the commission’s unanimous denial of Phil Kean Designs’ request for a parking area in a residential neighborhood. The Fairbanks Avenue business wanted to rezone a single-family lot behind the business, making the front portion R2 and the back portion parking for Kean’s business.
Planning and Zoning had voted 3-2 for approval, and city planners argued that fencing would shield neighbors from the parking. Commissioners also heaped high praise on Kean, a luxury home developer, but Weldon moved to deny the request, with Cooper seconding. The rezonings were defeated 5-0.

March Election

In addition to the Seat 1 election, the city election on March 14 will include a charter question changing the way the city handles multi-candidate races. Currently, the city holds a primary race in February when there are more than two candidates. The charter amendment would put the first ballot in March and hold a runoff, if needed, in April.
Seidel is on the ballot again after two years because he ran successfully for the remainder of Leary’s term after Leary resigned to run for mayor in 2015. Seidel previously served on the city’s Utility Advisory Board as its chairman. He is vice president of a Winter Park-based civil engineering firm and has lived in the city 16 years. Naylor, a retired Naval officer, is president and managing partner of an Orlando consulting group serving businesses seeking military contracts. He moved to Winter Park five years ago.

City Hall to Move Next?

City Hall to Move Next?

Now that Winter Park voters are on board to pay for a brand new library, the city is cautiously considering moving city hall into the current library building.

After city staff recommended exploring the idea Monday, city commissioners called for more information about the site’s strengths and weaknesses. A staff report said the building was in “good” condition with a “fairly new” heat and air-conditioning system and energy-efficient lighting. City Manager Randy Knight also said some current city-hall functions could be moved to another site if they didn’t need to be in a prime location.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea, however. Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel noted the city already knows about the existing library from the research done by the Library Facility Task Force. The task force nixed renovating the building after concluding it has too many challenges, including poor wi-fi connections and limited space and parking.

Commissioners Pete Weldon and Carolyn Cooper both stressed the importance of hearing from the public before making any decision about city hall or any other high-profile city properties valuable to residents. Cooper said it was “fiscally responsible to explore reuse of that [library] building,” but she would not support selling the property.

One staff option for city hall never made it into the discussion. Staff raised the possibility of another bond-issue to build a new city hall on the Park Avenue site, but Mayor Steve Leary said any discussion of that idea was “premature.”

Meanwhile, Winter Park’s new library seems destined to be built in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. The issue was never raised Monday except for a plea from former mayor Joe Terranova during the public-comment portion of the meeting. “You’re going to have to reconsider this,” he said, noting the close vote on the library bond issue. “You have a split community now.”

Preservation Rule: Friendly or Divisive?

Preservation Rule: Friendly or Divisive?

A new alliance of Winter Park commissioners is ready to thumb its nose at a historic preservation rule and return to the good old days of four months ago.

Mayor Steve Leary, Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel and newly elected Pete Weldon want to resurrect a rule that 67 percent of a neighborhood must agree to form a historic district.

Last December, when a former commission majority reduced that threshold to 50 percent plus one, Sprinkel and Leary opposed it. Now Weldon is in their camp and leading the charge as part of a new majority. He won his seat by defeating incumbent Tom McMacken, an avid preservationist.

City residents don’t want to be forced into historic districts, Weldon insisted, likening them to homeowners associations. Requiring a 67 percent vote would create “a more friendly attitude among the neighbors.”

Sprinkel and Leary blamed the 50-percent-plus-one vote for making things “divisive” in the city.

Commissioner Carolyn Cooper saw it another way. Weldon won by less than 51 percent and the library bond issue by only 51 percent, she said. “Fifty percent plus one is democracy.”

Commissioner Greg Seidel argued he has seen no negative effects from the lower threshold and, besides, no neighborhoods have sought to form a historic district since December. Raising the threshold back to 67 percent, he said, would surely be divisive and would keep the commission from addressing more important matters, such as traffic and underground power lines. “This will just distract us,” he said. He bluntly challenged the board. “If you guys really don’t like it [the historic ordinance] that much, why don’t you just vote it out? You’re going to have the same uproar.”

Later, Seidel questioned what the commission was doing to address residents’ biggest concern. “When I ran for election, the big campaign issue was, What was I going to do to save the character of the city?” he said. “What I see the vote doing today is going in the opposite direction.”

The mayor disagreed. Leary listed three projects – the current golf course refurbishing, the Rollins College Alfond Inn and the new civic center/library – as evidence of recent actions that save the city’s character. When Seidel noted that residents might see some of those as problems, Leary shrugged. “There you go. You’re going to have an argument on everything.”

Despite the meeting’s strongly worded exchanges, commissioners reached significant compromises on historic preservation. They rejected an “opt-out” clause that would have let homeowners off the hook if they didn’t like their historic district’s rules. Leary and Sprinkel said they were satisfied reinstituting the 67 percent requirement. Commissioners also agreed to include “voluntary preservation” as a way to achieve the ordinance’s objectives, and to develop a  more detailed process for deciding a structure’s historic value.

Most commissioners also agreed the Historic Preservation Board should keep its power to grant variances to historic structures. Weldon had wanted to give that power to the Board of Adjustment, which is tougher on allowing exceptions to the building code. He said some people list their houses as historic to “game the system” and more easily receive variances..

Several residents at the meeting objected to returning to the 67 percent rule.”Let the ink dry on the paper before we change it,” said Drew Krecicki. “Let’s chill out and give it a year.”

Frank Hamner, who assisted the task force that last year revised the preservation ordinance, said the only other times the city demands a 67 percent vote is when a neighborhood  decides whether to tax itself to make improvements, such as to put in sidewalks.

No dates have been set for the public hearings and formal votes on the proposed changes.

Historic Myth-Busters

Historic Preservation = Enhanced Property Values

Historic Myth-Busters

geri-2Dispelling one myth after the next, a panel of experts exposed the truth about historic preservation to a crowded room at the Winter Park Community Center.

The three panelists, who spoke October 29 at an event co-hosted by the Winter Park Voice and Friends of Casa Feliz, were Kathleen Kauffman, Historic Preservation Chief of Miami-Dade County, Christine Dalton, Historic Preservation Officer of the city of Sanford, and Richard Gonzalez, AIA, immediate past president of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. The panel was moderated by Senior Orlando Sentinel Columnist, Beth Kassab.

First came the news that Winter Park isn’t special in the struggle to save its heritage. Throughout Florida, rising land values are luring investors who gobble up older, smaller homes and replace them with massive, profit-making structures.

McMansions Thrive in Expensive Dirt

“It’s not just here,” said Kauffman. “It’s everywhere in the state.”

That news may have been small comfort to the more than 80 people attending the informational event. Most seemed concerned about protecting buildings that reflect the city’s heritage. The panel was held eleven days before the City Commission’s vote Nov. 9 to revise its historic preservation ordinance. Missing from the audience were the city staffers and most of the appointed board members, invited because they are involved in preservation decisions.

Property Value Fears Debunked

For those who did attend – interested residents, one member of the city’s Historic Preservation Board, Rebecca Talbert, and one City Commissioner, Carolyn Cooper – the panel had encouraging news, too. Fears about diminished property values and unhappy homeowners turn out to be myths. Cities with strong historic districts have healthy property values, satisfied residents and even happier real-estate agents, the panelists agreed.

Dalton, who described herself as “one of the most pro-development people you’re ever going to meet,” said she has heard claims that historic districts hurt property values, but she said, “That is not at all what we’re seeing” in Sanford.

“I get Realtors’ calls all the time asking, ‘When are you going to expand the size of the districts?'” she said, noting the strong demand for homes in Sanford’s historic districts.

No Documented Cases of Lowered Values

Kauffman said her research found “no documented case anywhere that [a historic district] lowers property values.” Instead, she found the opposite. “People are motivated to buy when they know their investment in a historic home will be protected from the whims of indifferent neighbors,” she said. “Historic districts also tend to get more attention from City Hall when it comes to services and amenities, like street lights and utilities.”

Still Plenty of Room for McMansions

Those who want to build homes not in keeping with historic guidelines still have plenty of choices, said Gonzalez. Most cities in Florida are like Winter Park, with only about five percent of its land considered historic, he pointed out. “So if you want to build a McMansion, go pick on that other 95 percent.”

When Kassab asked if people worry about having less control over their homes, panelists observed that preservation staff typically work closely to help homeowners. Ninety percent of requested changes in Sanford are minor ones dealt with easily by staff, Dalton said.

Preservation Staff Can Help Homeowners Save $$

“Most of the time we work with homeowners, we save them money,” said Kauffman, who regards historic preservation as “one added layer of value protection” for a property owner, rather than additional control. She noted that Miami-Dade doesn’t regulate a home’s interior or changes or additions to the back of a house.

Panelists identified several additional strategies for successful districts — creative incentives for property owners, an independent Historic Preservation Board with qualified members, and commitment to the importance of preservation.

“Getting the right people in positions of leadership is so important,” Dalton said.

Commission Okays Skinny Lots

Ignores Staff Recommendation

Commission Okays Skinny Lots

geri-2A snug row of four large homes soon will occupy what is now a vacant, tree-shaded lot on Pennsylvania Avenue. Lot frontages will average 60 feet, instead of the 75- to 85-foot minimum called for in city laws.

A majority of city commissioners at the September 28 meeting had no problem with that tight squeeze. They ignored city planners’ recommendation to deny the request and snubbed a formula that staff has used for some 30 years to come up with such positions.

Instead, commissioners agreed with their planning and zoning board’s unanimous recommendation for approval. The site’s location at the edge of a neighborhood and enthusiastic support from four nearby homeowners appeared to have swayed the advisory board more than the city’s subdivision rules, its comprehensive plan and staff’s opinion. The homeowners, who earlier had written almost identical letters of support, told the city commission they were glad to see the lot finally developed. No one spoke in opposition.

The .87-acre lot north of Tantum Avenue, owned by the Morse Genius Foundation, is more than big enough for three residential lots, but the request sought several exceptions to the rules. The applicant wanted to create room for four homes, each about 3,500-square-feet in size, to be marketed to empty nesters. Besides the narrower lots, the applicant sought a rear setback of ten feet instead of the required 15 feet to allow rear access. Rebecca Wilson, an attorney representing the applicant, noted the mixed zoning south of the site, including an industrial building, denser residential lots and the city golf course. She argued that nearby homes on Beloit Avenue had rear access and frontages less than 60 feet.