Candidates offer views on parking and development at Chamber forum
Two candidates failed to show (again) to face voters
Feb. 7, 2024
By Beth Kassab
Mayoral candidate Sheila DeCiccio and Commission Seat 2 candidates Jason Johnson and Craig Russell met Wednesday afternoon at the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce to answer questions that largely centered on future development. (You can watch a recording of the debate here.)
Michael Cameron, a candidate for mayor, and Stockton Reeves, a candidate for Seat 2, declined to attend. Both also failed to show up for public forums for their races at the Winter Park Library.
Reeves told the Voice this week he does plan to attend forums at the Mayflower and Westminster senior residential complexes, but those are not open to the public. Turnout among senior voters is reliably strong and considered crucial in Winter Park elections.
The Chamber forum offered an opportunity for Johnson and Russell, two first-time candidates for the seat vacated by DeCiccio because she is running for mayor, to draw some clear distinctions about what they would bring to the office.
Topics that highlighted those differences included the Orange Avenue Overlay, a special zoning district that was put into place by a previous commission and overturned in 2020 after DeCiccio was elected. The district allowed for taller and denser development along Orange Avenue roughly between Rollins College and U.S. 17-92.
The effort to overturn the OAO became the subject of a contentious lawsuit brought against the city by major property owners Mary Demetree and the Holler Family. The city prevailed in the lawsuit last year.
Forum moderator Fred Kittinger asked the candidates if they had any appetite to revisit the original provisions to help encourage investment along the corridor.
Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High School, was the only candidate who said yes and the only candidate on Thursday whom the Chamber announced it would endorse this year through its political action committee known as Winter Park PAC.
He noted a lot of time and taxpayer money was spent on the original overlay and then a new commission said, “never mind.”
“I’m not OK with that,” Russell said, calling it “careless” to not at least take another look at a “great project.”
Johnson, though, emphatically stated he was not in favor of returning to the original OAO and wondered aloud if the large property owners along the strip were waiting for the makeup of the City Commission to change before moving ahead with redevelopment plans.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be their guy if that’s what they want,” he said.
DeCiccio, who was instrumental in overturning the OAO, said that without that decision Seven Oaks Park — the city’s newest open space under construction at Orange and Denning — would instead be a new tower and pointed out that badly needed road alignment and drainage projects could not have gone forward as they are today. She said she is open to tweaks in zoning along the corridor, but that the vast majority of residents did not want the kind of development the original OAO would have allowed.
Another question that showcased differences in the candidates related to parking. Candidates were asked how they might change the city’s rules about how many parking spaces developers must provide for different types of development — a code some chamber members consider antiquated and wasteful because they say too much land is set aside for parking that goes unused.
Again, only Russell appeared open to the types of changes the Chamber has advocated for, noting that he doesn’t mind “parking and then walking to where I need to go.” He didn’t offer specifics, but suggested the city look to other municipalities and experts for solutions.
Johnson said he would be OK with making some changes to the code, but he noted the challenges residents face finding parking along Park Avenue and other busy areas.
“I’m open to making those tweaks, but I’m not in favor of eviscerating the parking code as it stands,” he said.
DeCiccio added that the city is building parking along with Seven Oaks Park to help merchants on that end of Orange Avenue where parking is scarce.
The moderator also asked candidates what they would do to “generate charm” in the business areas such as Fairbanks Avenue and Lee Road.
DeCiccio pointed out that those roads are controlled by the state and said working with business owners is key to a solution.
Johnson suggested additional trees, wider sidewalks and offering incentives for businesses to redevelop their properties would be part of the answer.
For his part, Russell said, “I just have a problem with the word ‘charm.’ “I’m charming,” he joked. “This city is rich with history and tradition and we need to preserve that.”
Johnson used his closing statement to rebut that sentiment.
“Lots of people I’ve been talking to have asked me what’s the difference between you two?” he said referring to himself and Russell. “Craig, I appreciate anybody who puts his name on a ballot. I certainly appreciate Craig for showing up here tonight. But you heard one of the contrasts between us. Craig doesn’t like the word charm. I embrace it. It is my north star for running in this election. I’m not a politician, I’m just trying to do some public service for a city I love. The whole reason I’m running is to preserve the charm and village feel that we all love about Winter Park.”
Parking, Orange Avenue Overlay, CRA
Johnson on charm