At their October 9 meeting, Commissioners once again denied Villa Tuscany’s application for conditional use for a 31,000 square foot memory care facility at 1298 Howell Branch Road with a decisive 5 – 0 vote.
Villa Tuscany Revises Application for Conditional Use
In March 2017, after the Commission denied their application for a somewhat larger memory care facility, Villa Tuscany sued the City in an attempt to reverse the decision. The developer and the City entered into a mediated settlement process, overseen by a Special Magistrate. City Manager Randy Knight led the negotiations for the City. The result was the revised application for conditional use and variances presented October 9.
Applicant Still Seeks Variances
City Planning Manager Jeff Briggs explained in his presentation to the Commission that the developer had made three basic changes. The building was reduced from three stories to two stories, although the overall height of the building was dropped by only four feet, from 35 feet to 31 feet. The planned facility would accommodate 49 beds instead of the original 51 beds.
Second, the parking lot was moved from a 25-foot setback from Lake Temple to the 50-foot setback specified by City Code.
Third, the building was shifted eastward on the property to protect the view of the neighbors across Lake Temple. The shift in location put the building to within 15 feet of the sinkhole on the property. Code requires a 50-foot setback from any wetlands, so approval would involve a setback variance of 35 feet.
No Commission Guidance for Staff During Negotiations
“This mediated settlement process is certainly interesting from the staff’s perspective,” observed Briggs. Staffers who engaged in the negotiations were advised by City Attorney Kurt Ardaman that they were not allowed to speak with Commissioners about the project while the negotiations were underway.
“We had to base our decisions based on comments we heard from some of you at that March public hearing,” said Briggs, “and we had to kind of guess, to be perfectly honest.”
Briggs said he thought the reduction in number of stories and increased setback from Lake Temple might be sufficient for a staff recommendation of approval, but deferred to the Commissioners.
Well-Organized Community Opposition
The applicant then presented their case, followed by a brief Commission discussion, which consisted chiefly of Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel’s motion to deny and Commissioner Carolyn Cooper’s second.
Residents of the neighborhood, led by spokespersons Barry Render and Nancy Freeman, opposed the project on grounds that the structure is incompatible with the surroundings and is simply too large.
They acknowledged that while there are commercial buildings to the north and east of the property, those buildings are around 3,000 square feet – one-tenth the size of the proposed memory care structure. In fact, Freeman pointed out, the proposed Villa Tuscany project is larger than City Hall.
Freeman and Render said the neighbors did not object to the purpose of the project. They cited the example of Alabama Oaks, another memory care facility in Winter Park that is owned by the same applicant. Alabama Oaks is a series of small cottages that house the residents and staff of the facility, one which the neighbors feel would be suitable in their neighborhood.
Drone Photos Show Flooding at the Site
The citizens’ presentation included drone photographs taken several weeks after Hurricane Irma hit this area September 10. Photographs show the proposed building site would still have been under water as of the October 9 meeting. One can assume the additional impervious surface of a large building and 25-space parking lot would cause the water level to rise further.
Dr. Render concluded the neighbors’ presentation with a request. “We would like a project that is proportionate in size and scale, is compatible with our neighborhood, one that would preserve the charm and beauty of north Winter Park and one that would require zero variances.”
Thumbs Down 5 – 0
At the end of the day, the Commissioners unanimously denied both the application for conditional use and the Mediated Settlement Agreement.
The applicant still has the opportunity to seek relief in the court system.