Controversy surrounding the city’s new library project dominated the January 28 City Commission discussions, even though it wasn’t on the agenda. This time around, criticism came from state officials, who aren’t happy with the City’s plans to build its new library and civic center at Martin Luther King Park. The state has even warned that the city could lose future grant money for parks if it doesn’t comply with the rules.
None of that is stopping the City from going full speed ahead with the project. Plans are underway to tear down the Rachel Murrah Civic Center this week and take the chainsaw to 60 trees at the park between now and April.
City Out of Compliance with State Grant Rules
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection notified the City Manager in a letter dated March 6, 2018 that the city had failed to follow the rules governing a grant it received in 1994 for improvements to Martin Luther King Park. Commissioner Carolyn Cooper and several citizens pleaded unsuccessfully with commissioners to hit the pause button to resolve the issue.
Seen in this context, and taking into account the City’s failure, so far, to come up with a clear plan to bring the Canopy project back in line with the $30 Million budget approved by the voters in 2016, the decision to proceed with such haste gives one pause.
Playing the Blame Game
“There is a small group that continues to protest this project and has gone to the State and has asked the State to overturn previous State grants, once again costing the citizens of Winter Park money,” said Leary. “If we have to pay back the State . . . uh, this is a small group who are shooting people in the foot. It’s an absurd request.”
FL Department of Environmental Protection
The notification of non-compliance came from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and concerned the 1994 grant for improvements to MLK Park under the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP). The grant required the City to dedicate the park, in perpetuity, “as an outdoor recreation site for the benefit of the general public.” [emphasis added]
City Version of Deed Restriction Unacceptable to FDEP
A March 6, 2018, letter from FDEP General Counsel’s office warned that the Public Dedication recorded by the City in January 2018, “does not meet the requirements of the rule and is not acceptable to the department.” The letter went on to state, “Failure to comply with the department’s rules can result in the City being declared out of compliance and therefore ineligible for further grants from the department.”
This could affect the City’s application for a FRDAP grant for improvements to the wetlands around Howell Branch.
But Wait – There’s More
A January 16, 2019 letter from FDEP stated, “It has also come to our attention that some or all of the City’s previous land and recreation grants do not have restrictive covenants recorded for the parks funded by our grants.” In addition to MLK Park, the letter contains a list of other FRDAP grants for locations such as Lake Baldwin Park, Mead Garden, Phelps Park and the Howell Branch Preserve, requesting the City to provide copies of the declarations of restrictive covenants for each within 60 days.
To read the full text, click here.
What’s a Deed Restriction?
A FRDAP grant to the City carries with it the requirement to publicly record with Orange County a covenant restricting the park to outdoor recreation, in perpetuity.
If the City converts this dedicated land to another use, according to the January 16 FDEP letter, the City must “. . .replace the removed property with property of similar size and value and replace any facilities (such as the walking trails around the current civic center that were part of the FRDAP grant) that will be removed by the new construction.”
Citizens Urge Caution
During public comment, several citizens urged the Commissioners to move cautiously with their demolition plans until the way forward is clearer.
“I see a tendency by the City to insulate itself from opposing views and from citizen input,” began Beth Hall. She pointed out that the original Library Task Force had considered multiple sites for the new library, MLK Park among them. “But I don’t see where the FRDAP grant was pointed out or considered by the Task Force,” she said. “Thus a major restriction on the viability of the site was ignored.” Hall pointed out that the City had made no attempt to inform voters of this issue at the time of the bond referendum.
Who Knew about the Grant?
In a January 30 email responding to a public records request from Beth Hall, City Clerk Cindy Bonham confirmed the City has no records of communications or materials about the MLK Park FRDAP grant being provided to the Library Task Force, to the Commission, to the Planning & Zoning Board, the Library Board, the Library Staff or to the trial court that heard the bond validation suit.
Road Not Taken
Referring to the FDEP requirement to replace all converted lands with land of similar value, Hall asked the Commission to remember the bowling alley property. “That it is gone is a failure of long-term vision and strategic thinking,” she said. “Maybe hearing other voices would have taken us another way, but we will never know, for that was the road not taken.”
When is a Canopy Not a Canopy?
Charley Williams displayed the City’s tree demolition legend, which identifies more than 60 trees that will fall victim to the chainsaw this spring. He suggested the City Communications Department might keep citizens abreast of what will transpire in MLK Park. He showed before and after pictures of mature live oaks that were removed January 26 to make way for the Civic Center demolition.
Williams urged Winter Park to “show some leadership” by heeding the advice of the Winter Park Forestry department to save mature specimen trees by root pruning and moving them to safety within the park. He pointed out that other cities have done this and that there are Winter Park residents ready and willing to privately fund the project. “We’ve already named it the Canopy,” said Williams. “Now I think we ought to walk the walk.”
‘We Keep Whittling Away Amenities While the Price Goes Up’
Kim Allen enumerated ways in which the Canopy project has changed since it started in 2016. The square footage of the library is significantly reduced. Elements of the buildings, like the porte cochere at the entrance, have either been eliminated or declared ‘alternatives,’ which the City can build only if it raises additional money. The $30 Million budget cannot accommodate many elements that would seem integral to the success of the project.
Sarah Sprinkel: “It Makes Me Mad”
In her closing comments, Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel decried having what she called “an issue that some people in this community have created for us.”
Cooper reiterated her suggestion to put the matter of the grants on the City Manager’s report so that people could see periodic updates of how the City is working through the issue. Cooper’s desire for this kind of transparency was not supported by her fellow Commissioners.
Leary: “It Just Seems to be One Thing After Another”
In his concluding remarks, Mayor Leary said, “Whether it’s trees outside, or whether it’s water . . . I mean, it’s one thing after another.”