Sheila DeCiccio to run for Winter Park mayor

Sheila DeCiccio to run for Winter Park mayor

Sheila DeCiccio to run for Winter Park mayor

Jason Johnson announces run for DeCiccio’s remaining term

Oct. 3, 2023

By Beth Kassab

Winter Park Commissioner Sheila DeCiccio announced this week she is running for mayor, triggering a special election for the remainder of her term that has already attracted at least one contender: local attorney Jason Johnson.

DeCiccio, who was elected in March to a second commission term without opposition, said she will make improving the city’s infrastructure and preserving Winter Park’s small town feel the central focus of her campaign.

“We’ve made great headway, but there’s still a lot to be done to maintain the heart and charm of the city,” she said. “Hurricane Ian laid bare a lot of our problems such as pipes that need maintenance, brick streets that need attention. Infrastructure is the No. 1 issue and we can’t kick this can down the road anymore.”

She pointed to the water basin studies ordered by the current commission and priorities set out in the transportation master plan, including more bike paths and extending sidewalks, as foundations for taking the city to the next level.

Winter Park is a city manager form of government, which means Randy Knight oversees the day-to-day operations of the town of about 30,000 people and a more than $200 million budget. But the mayor and commission hire the city manager and set policy and the mayor can be highly influential when it comes to driving an agenda or steering debate, particularly at public meetings.

DeCiccio, who moved to Winter Park more than 40 years ago after working as an assistant district attorney in Massachusetts, became the first woman partner at the Lowndes law firm in the 1980s. She went on to practice law with her husband, Dan, at DeCiccio & Johnson and has served on the city’s Planning & Zoning and Code Enforcement boards. The couple has two adult children.

She was first elected to the City Commission in March 2020 as the world was shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then two years later as the pandemic finally eased, Winter Park experienced some of the worst flooding in its history as Hurricane Ian brought record-level rain across the region.

She said those tumultuous events have sharpened her focus on keeping the city financially strong and prepared for the next emergency.

“We’ve learned from all of it,” she said. “That’s why infrastructure is my No. 1 priority.”

Mayor Phil Anderson, who is not seeking a second term, said he supports DeCiccio’s campaign and wants to see the long-term planning he helped initiate as mayor carried forward.

Mayor Phil Anderson gives the state of the city address earlier this year as commissioners Marty Sullivan, Sheila DeCiccio and Kris Cruzada look on.

“I supported her in her first election and we really got to know each other,” Anderson said. “I’ve continued to enjoy working with her as she runs for and hopefully serves as mayor.”

So far, DeCiccio is the only candidate to announce for the March 19, 2024 election, though the official qualifying period for the ballot isn’t until December. In order to run, she announced she would resign from her commission seat on April 10, the date she would take office as mayor if she is elected.

That means there will be a special election for the final two years of her three-year term as Seat 2 Commissioner.

Jason Johnson

Jason Johnson, candidate for Winter Park City Commission, with wife, Lori, and daughter, Molly.

Jason Johnson, an attorney in the Winter Park office of the Byrd Campbell law firm, announced this week he will run for the seat. He is a first-time candidate who has lived in Winter Park for 13 years with his wife, Lori, and their daughter. He is also chairman of the city’s Board of Adjustments, which rules on homeowner applications for building variances.

“My north star in all of this is to preserve the charm of Winter Park, but I’m also a rule-of-law guy and I recognize that landowners have rights and due process exists,” he said.

Johnson is the only announced contender for the seat. Justin Vermuth, also an attorney, said he explored the idea of running but told the Voice this week he does not plan to enter the race.

The qualifying period for candidates to enter the contests for mayor and the commission seat ends Dec. 11.

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Winter Park passes $208 million budget

Winter Park passes $208 million budget

Winter Park passes $208 million budget

Mayor also provides update on the city’s plan to extend and expand the CRA

Sept. 29, 2023

By Beth Kassab

Winter Park City Commissioners gave final approval Wednesday to a $208 million budget, a $9.5 million increase over last year.

City Manager Randy Knight  proposed a last minute change, which won consensus from the board, to drop the city’s federal lobbyist and hire a grant writer, a move that he said will bring “more bang for our buck.” The city’s $6,500 per month contract with Thorn Run Partners will end.

The second and final budget hearing brought little public debate. Two residents complained that the commission is too “progressive” with “out-of-control spending.”

Gigi Papa, who frequently attends the public meetings, urged more people to run for office, noting that the two commissioners up for re-election earlier this year — Sheila DeCiccio and Marty Sullivan — did not face any opposition.

Mayor Phil Anderson, who is up for re-election in March, but is not expected to run again, addressed some of the concerns. He explained that inflation and increased labor costs are the biggest drivers of the budget increase as the city sought to add positions such as in the police department in order to maintain the same level of service to residents.

One person complained that the city’s efforts to underground powerlines are still not complete even as spending has increased on the library and other projects.

Anderson noted that the undergrounding is still underway and delays are not related to a shortage of funds, but long supply lags for transformers and other in-demand equipment.

“We’re not undercapitalized, we can do it,” Anderson said. “We just don’t have the materials to allow us to complete it.”

Anderson and Knight also provided a short update about a recent meeting with Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla, who represents Winter Park.

They said she was receptive to the city’s proposal to extend and expand its Community Redevelopment Agency or the special tax district centered on downtown that is scheduled to end in 2027.

Winter Park leaders want to continue the district beyond that and expand its boundaries (see above map for proposal), but that plan must be approved by the county. The decision will be critical to the city’s future considering the CRA is a key source of budget revenue such as providing $350,000 additional dollars next year to expand the hours and services at the library.

Anderson noted that Bonilla and county officials will want to see solid proposals to address affordable housing and transportation needs with those dollars. A consultant is preparing a report for the city and the application for the extension is expected to be considered by the county in the Spring.

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Winter Park Police budget jumps nearly 8% with more officers, equipment

Winter Park Police budget jumps nearly 8% with more officers, equipment

Winter Park Police budget jumps nearly 8% with more officers, equipment

New tasers designed to give officers better odds at subduing combative people as the department also looks to more cameras and technology to improve efficiency

Sept. 29, 2023

By Beth Kassab

[Note: This story has been updated to include additional context about crime statistics.]

New tasers, a central dashboard of surveillance cameras and two new positions are driving increased costs at the Winter Park Police Department, which accounts for the largest piece — nearly a quarter — of the city’s $77 million general fund.

The department’s budget will grow nearly 8% to more than $18 million, up from $16.8 million this year.

Chief Tim Volkerson said the changes will allow the department to maintain its high standards and improve how  officers respond to calls or conduct criminal investigations as call for service shot up 14% from 2021 to 2022 and nearly 20% since 2020, when calls lagged significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Traffic crashes are still below pre-pandemic levels, but are trending up again. Calls related to Baker and Marchman acts, which are related to individuals who are struggling with mental illness or drug addition, are up  nearly 7%.

A key enhancement will be the addition of a sworn officer position, bringing the department’s total to 83 sworn positions. A second civilian community service officer will be hired in 2024.

Volkerson said the department will maintain its quality benchmarks even as his agency and others across the country are struggling to find good candidates for the job.

That means WPPD will not, for example, drop its requirement for officers to complete a timed physical agility test as other departments have done.

“We haven’t changed our hiring standards,” he said.

Four positions are currently unfilled, though Volkerson said candidates are being processed and he expects to make new hires in the next month or so.

A second civilian community service officer, part of a program that started last year, is slated to begin in the Spring.

Volkerson said that program has been a “tremendous success” because the officer, who doesn’t carry a firearm, can respond to minor traffic incidents or nonviolent calls. That frees up sworn officers to handle other cases.

Officers are also carrying new tasers with upgraded features that make it easier to aim the electronic prongs at a subject because the taser projects two laser dots — one for each prong — onto the target instead of just one. A flick of the officer’s wrist can adjust the aim of the prongs based on how close the officer is to the subject.

The tasers also provide two chances for the officer to fire at the subject rather than a single shot followed by a cumbersome reloading process.

“If you miss with the first one, all you have to do is pull the trigger again,” Volkerson said, noting that the new technology also means an officer’s body camera automatically turns on when a taser is drawn.

That technology could mean life or death for some people who are being confronted by police. In 2022, a Winter Park officer shot and killed Daniel Knight, 39, after the officer attempted to fire his taser, but missed and the confrontation continued to escalate. Knight, who was intoxicated and refused officer’s commands to step away from his sister before striking an officer, died at his niece’s wedding reception at the Winter Park Events Center.

Volkerson would not comment on whether he thought the upgraded tasers could have made a difference in the case of Knight because the family told the city it plans to file a lawsuit and the internal affairs investigation is still incomplete.

In another move to improve safety and aid criminal investigations, the department is continuing to upgrade a network of camera feeds, both public and private, from across the city into a real-time crime center.

The project, which Volkerson said started during the pandemic, is undergoing a $600,000 upgrade to overlay map data along with computer-aided dispatch information across 16 monitors.

“It will expedite intelligence gathering and provide greater efficiency of response to critical incidents and criminal investigations as they unfold,” stated the budget proposal.

So far the system includes the city’s cameras that monitor public spaces as well as cameras from the Orange County Public School System, Rollins College and private businesses who opt into the program. Businesses and residents can register their cameras with the police department and select the level of access and monitoring they want — such as only during emergency calls or more frequently.

Volkerson said the video network has already aided responses. For example, officers were able to monitor a vehicle fire at a public housing complex and guide crews to the exact location. In another case, patrol officers spotted a stolen car and it happened to stop in front of a camera. The feed allowed the department to watch as officers conducted a felony stop and monitor the wider scene, which enabled the officers making the stop to focus on the driver.

Red light cameras will also continue to be part of the city’s traffic enforcement. Six cameras at intersections are in place today and the department plans to add two more in coordination with the Florida Department of Transportation. The new locations are not yet available.

This summer a new state law took effect that allows speed cameras in school zones that would trigger mailed tickets similar to the red light cameras. Winter Park plans to begin using those as well, though the exact locations and timing are not yet finalized, Volkerson said.

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Isle of Sicily homeowner fined $260k for tree removal and shoreline damage

Isle of Sicily homeowner fined $260k for tree removal and shoreline damage

Isle of Sicily homeowner fined $260k for tree removal and shoreline damage

City said violations are “egregious” and “irreparable.”  Homeowner says he will appeal the Code Compliance Board’s decision

Sept. 22, 2023

By Beth Kassab

A photo dated from 2014 shows the lakefront lot at 6 Isle of Sicily lush with mature bald cypress trees, laurel oaks and other native plants.

But flip through a series of photos collected by the city of Winter Park from 2015 to 2023 and the same property appears increasingly barren of trees as an artificial white sand beach spreads over the shoreline, smothering native aquatic plants.

The changes at one of the 11 palatial homes nestled on the Lake Maitland peninsula at the north end of the Winter Park Chain of Lakes is the subject of a long and contentious code compliance case over two of Winter Park’s most cherished assets: its tree canopy and lakes.

A 2014 photo shows the property before trees and other vegetation were removed.

“It is difficult to imagine a more egregious set of willful, knowing and repeated violations that attack the essence of what our city code is intended to protect,” said Rick Geller, the attorney who represented the city the Sept. 7 Code Compliance Board where the case was presented.

The board approved fines totaling more than $260,000, including $150,600 related to the unpermitted removal of 13 bald cypress trees and one laurel oak. Another $110,500 in fines are related to importing sand without a permit that altered the shoreline and improper grading of the property in a special flood hazard area.

Some of the trees removed were replacement trees that the homeowners were ordered to plant in 2016 after they were found to have violated the tree ordinance the first time.

Homeowners Oliver and Rosemary Dawoud did not appear at the hearing or send a representative. Oliver Dawoud, chief executive officer of Aventus Health, which operates pharmacies, laboratories and other medical services, alerted the city attorney on the day of the hearing that he would be unable to attend.

Dawoud told the Voice that he plans to appeal the board’s decision. He has 30 days from Sept. 7, the day of the meeting, to file a court challenge.

He said two of the trees were removed because of lightening strikes and he understood he had permission to remove them. As for the sand, he said he thought he was placing the sediment above his property line — rather than in the lake — and didn’t understand the ramifications of the water level rising and wave action or storms sweeping the sand away from his property where it can harm native plants and contribute to water discoloration, erosion and algae blooms.

“I felt horrible when they told me that,” he said, recalling a conversation he had months ago with a state environmental officer and said he has since had some of the sand removed.

Geller said during the public hearing that Dawoud has not taken action to address the violations.

Winter Park Urban Forestry Superintendent Josh Nye testified at the hearing and estimated it would take 40 years to grow new bald cypress trees to the point of maturity of those lost on the property.

Gloria Eby, the city’s director of natural resources and sustainability, noted the importance of the trees, other vegetation and a healthy shoreline for the city’s larger ecosystem.

“The plants act as kidneys for your lake,” she said, explaining that they soak up nutrients from runoff and play an important role in keeping the water clean.

Dawoud and his wife purchased the property in 2015 for $4 million, according to property records. They tore down the existing house and began new construction. They moved into the new home this year.

“In 2014 the property was mostly lined with beautiful trees and vegetation,” Geller noted. “Today the property is stark and denuded. A mansion, however imposing or impressive you may find it, does not fix a barren or denuded landscape.”

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McCraney Property wants to build headquarters on land city wanted for park

McCraney Property wants to build headquarters on land city wanted for park

McCraney Property wants to build headquarters on land city wanted for park

The property management company is under contract to buy land on Orange Avenue owned by Bank OZK

Sept. 22, 2023

By Beth Kassab

After city officials learned earlier this month that Bank OZK accepted another offer on two acres the city tried to buy to expand Seven Oaks Park, speculation swirled over the identity of the buyer.

This week representatives of McCraney Property Company reached out to city staff and said they plan to purchase the land and are proposing to build an office to serve as the company’s headquarters, a city spokeswoman confirmed.

The city has not yet received any documents related to the plans. A call to the offices of Steven McCraney, the company’s president and chief executive officer who also lives in Winter Park, was not returned.

McCraney Property has offices in Orlando, West Palm Beach and Charlotte, N.C., according to its website.

“Since its founding in 1989, the company has grown to be one of the most active developers of high-finish industrial real estate – e-commerce fulfillment and distribution facilities – and private acquisition in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina’s major markets,” the site states.

It’s unclear when the sale of the land will close or how soon the company is looking to start construction.

The city offered Bank OZK (formerly Bank of the Ozarks) about $6 million for the property on top of waiving impact fees on a site at mixed-use development Ravaudage, where the bank apparently now intends to build a branch.

The Winter Park Land Trust offered $500,000 in private funding to help the city purchase the land and convert it to park space. The above renderings show the site as it exists today compared to how it could have looked as greenspace.

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