Seat 2 campaigns intensify over development, public safety claims

Seat 2 campaigns intensify over development, public safety claims

Seat 2 campaigns intensify over development, public safety claims

The three-way race appears focused on one of Winter Park’s most asked questions: How will growth look in the future?

Feb. 22, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Election mailers and the accusations that come along with them are flying in Winter Park as three candidates compete for the seat on the City Commission vacated by Sheila DeCiccio, who is running for mayor.

The issue taking the most attention? Growth and development — Winter Park’s perennial dog fight.

At stake is how Orange and Fairbanks avenues as well as U.S. 17-92 look over time as major property owners begin to redevelop their land along with continuing redevelopment across the city’s western neighborhoods.

The person who is elected to the open seat will likely have significant influence over those projects and two of the candidates, Jason Johnson and Craig Russell, are clearly differentiating themselves on the matter. A third candidate, Stockton Reeves, appears to be focusing on taxes and inflation as well as claims about public safety.

A mailer to residents from the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee somewhat crystalizes what is emerging as a defining issue in the race: Whether development codes should be more lenient.

“Did you know?” the mailer asks is large type. “Park Avenue would be prohibited from being built today under current city code.”

The mailer goes on to say that the code “blocks Winter Park’s iconic charm from enhancing other parts of the city.”

The chamber endorsed Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High School, who was the only candidate at the chamber election forum who said he was open to revisiting the original Orange Avenue Overlay rules that allow for taller buildings and higher density. Those rules were overturned by the City Commission in 2020 and the city won a lawsuit filed by major property holders over that decision.

Russell is also the only candidate who said he was open to the chamber’s proposal to do away with the city’s parking codes that require developers provide a certain number of spaces based on the type of development.

“Current codes limit commercial land owners from creating new mixed use venues of a similar size and aesthetic to Park Avenue because of the onerous and outdated parking requirements,” Betsy Gardner, chamber president and CEO, said in a statement. “Small concessions have been made over time for tenants in the Central Business District, but any new development in the city faces parking mandates that leave businesses overparked, creating empty lots, visual blight and a less walkable and more car-centric environment.”

Russell, who did not respond to a request for comment, has said at previous public forums that he would “listen to the experts” for guidance on growth and development issues. One recent mailer from Russell’s own campaign said he wants to “promote smart growth, opposing irresponsible high-density developments.”

Johnson, who opposes tossing out parking codes and emphatically said he did not agree with returning to the original OAO rules, questioned whether Russell would speak for residents or business interests when it comes to new development.

“The comment about ‘listening to the experts’ is a deflection and a way of saying if an expert comes in on behalf of a developer and says something, we should just listen to that rather than what the residents think,” he said.

Johnson, an attorney who has made maintaining Winter Park’s charm a central element of his campaign, sent out an email to voters this week that emphasized, “I am NOT endorsed by the Winter Park Chamber’s PAC, which endorsed a candidate who supports development of large out-of-scale buildings near Park Avenue, and doing away with parking requirements for future commercial developments.”

Reeves, who did not show up at the public candidate forums, has sent at least eight mailers to voters so far — the most of the three candidates.

One of his pieces exclaims “higher prices and inflation aren’t the only things out of control” and says “our property taxes are going up too!” He accused the commission of increasing taxes by 7% in 2022 and nearly 9% in 2023.

His claims are based on the idea that commissioners could have adopted the “rollback rate” or lowered the city’s milage rate to collect the same tax revenue as was collected the prior year.

Instead, commissioners kept the tax rate the same, but collected more taxes because property values have increased. That means each property owner paid a higher assessment based on their increased value.

During budget meetings last year, commissioners noted the need to increase police and fire budgets as inflation and other factors, have driven up wages and equipment costs.  Police and fire make up the largest portion of the city’s general fund expenses followed by parks and public works.

In a separate mailer, Reeves asks “Quick question – How many ambulances does Winter Park have for over 30,000 resident?”

“It is shocking to me that we only have 2 full-time ambulances,” the piece stated.

City officials said a third ambulance is already being staffed part-time and that is set to increase over the coming year.

“Winter Park Fire Department uses the ‘right-sized’ approach, which has proven world-class and credible as WPFD is five-times fire accredited and four-times EMS accredited,” said a statement from the department. “We have already phased in a third rescue/ambulance at Station 64 during select periods.  This will continue with the adoption of the [2025] budget, which already includes the hiring of additional personnel.”

Reeves told the Voice that staffing the third ambulance should happen sooner, “I am not satisfied with this and believe it should be staffed full time.”

But considering Reeves also says he supports adopting a rollback tax rate and wants to collect less revenue for the city, it’s unclear where he would find the money to continue to keep up with the costs of public safety.

He did not respond to a question from the Voice seeking details of his plan.

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Mayor Phil Anderson delivers state of the city address

Mayor Phil Anderson delivers state of the city address

Mayor Phil Anderson delivers state of the city address

Hannibal Square advocate Mary Daniels received the Founders Award

Feb. 16, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Mayor Phil Anderson on Friday honored Hannibal Square resident and advocate Mary Daniels, a regular critic of how development projects will alter the city’s historically Black neighborhood, for her service and leadership in his final State of the City Address before he leaves office in April.

Daniels, known as a fixture at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, moved to Winter Park as a child in the late 1950s from Georgia because her father was working for a man who returned to the city. She received the Mayor’s Founders Award for her longtime volunteer efforts and service on a variety of city and state boards.

Mary Daniels is embraced by friends and supporters at the State of the City Address.

“I’m very humbled and very appreciative that someone like me could even be considered for such an award,” Daniels said. “… for all the blessings given to you, pay it forward and bless someone else.”

Most recently, Daniels was part of the opposition to a rental townhome project on the city’s west side known as Winter Park Commons. As a result of concerns from neighbors, city commissioners approved a version of the project that included more single-family homes vs. multi-family units.

Anderson, who isn’t running for a second term in the March 19 election, alluded to recent controversial projects when he noted how Winter Park must find a balance between growth and maintaining its village-like charm.

“Time doesn’t stop,” he said. “You’ve got to change. You’ve got to adapt. Trying to do that while keeping a small town feel can sometimes be tough.”

He highlighted how the city has maintained one of the lowest property tax rates in the region while investing in everything from new police and fire positions to flood prevention and renewable energy.

Just three years after the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down travel and commerce across the globe, Park Avenue is vibrant, buoyed by a recent tripling of the budget for holiday lights, he said.

He also noted the city’s reserves stand at a record nearly $20 million. In a couple instances, Anderson appeared to talk directly to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings who was in the audience, when he said the Community Redevelopment Agency is poised to grow, too, if the city and county can reach an agreement.

Mayor Phil Anderson gives the State of the City remarks as commissioners Marty Sullivan, Sheila DeCiccio and Kris Cruzada look on.

The city’s plan to purchase at least 80% of its power from renewable sources by 2035 without increasing rates is perhaps one of its most forward-looking accomplishments, he said. He called the decision more than 20 years ago to purchase the city’s electric utility a hard-fought battle to “control our own destiny.”

“What other decisions can we make to control our own destiny,” he said.

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Commission to consider resident vote on gas leaf blower ban

Commission to consider resident vote on gas leaf blower ban

Commission to consider resident vote on gas leaf blower ban

Sen. Jason Brodeur signaled he would not try to preempt the ban if commissions let voters decide its fate next year

Feb. 14, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The noise over Winter Park’s ban on gas leaf blowers intensified Wednesday at a hastily called work session for the City Commission to decide how to respond to a threat by Sen. Jason Brodeur (pictured above) to take away control over the issue from local officials.

City Manager Randy Knight told commissioners he spoke with Brodeur and the senator would be willing to drop his plan to pass a state law to prohibit all cities and counties from banning the gas devices — but only if Winter Park met Brodeur’s demands:

  • Commissioners must delay enforcing the ordinance to June 1, 2025 rather than Jan. 1, 2025 as they decided last month.
  • Commissioners must also place a question on the March 2025 ballot so voters can decide whether the ban should be repealed.

Mayor Phil Anderson, Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio and Commissioner Kris Cruzada said they would be open to following those orders, but the commission did not reach a decision and opted to consider the matter again at the next meeting on Feb. 28.

DeCiccio, who is running for mayor in the March 19 election, was the swing vote as the necessary third commissioner to potentially pass the voter referendum. Commissioners Todd Weaver and Marty Sullivan said they were against it.

Knight suggested that agreeing to the voter referendum could be the only way to keep Brodeur from attempting to pass a preemption law this legislative session, which is more than half way over. A number of Florida cities such as Naples and Biscayne Bay have already enacted bans, but even those could be thrown out by Brodeur’s legislation.

Brodeur briefly introduced an amendment on Feb. 6 in Tallahassee to preempt cities from enacting such a ban and then immediately withdrew it.

Just two days later on Feb. 8, Knight sent a text message to Brodeur asking to have a discussion, according to text messages provided to the Voice through a public records request.

On Monday morning, Knight reached out to Brodeur again and let him know that the city scheduled a work session about leaf blowers for Wednesday and referred to the idea of a referendum as if it was already a done deal.

“I have briefed all commissioners on our discussion and I feel good about it,” Knight wrote. “We don’t take public comment at work sessions but of course will when the referendum ordinance comes forward.”

“Outstanding,” Brodeur responded. “Much appreciated.”

Brodeur got involved in the issue just weeks ago after complaints from constituents escalated after the city passed a rebate for homeowners who purchased electric leaf blowers.

The ban has been around since 2022, but commissioners opted to delay its start until July of this year.

Landscape companies say the electric devices are too expensive, don’t have enough power and will bring an increased burden on their small businesses and individual workers.

Anderson said Wednesday that he recalls the survey the city conducted more than two years ago before passing the ban came back split about 50-50 in terms of support and opposition.

“I don’t know that we have 100% of the answer what our constituents want and I don’t know that Sen. Brodeur has 100% of the answer so it’s kind of an interesting idea to let the citizens weigh in on it,” he said. “It’s better than Survey Monkey.”

Commissioner Marty Sullivan expressed more skepticism.

“Even if the majority said no,” to a leaf blower ban, Sullivan said, “I think it’s incumbent on us to look to the future and do what’s right for the future. I believe this leaf blower ban is a great step forward for our city. I am hesitant about this compromise put forth by our senator.”

Commissioner Todd Weaver pointed out that the original vote for the ban was unanimous and that commissioners are elected to represent the interests of the city, rather than manage “threats” and edicts handed down from Tallahassee. He said he would rather see the question make it to the ballot because citizens gather enough signatures to place it there — an estimated 1,400 or so — rather than by a vote of the commission.

DeCiccio also said she support a citizen-led effort to put the question on the ballot next year and asked Knight to approach Brodeur to see if he would also be amenable to that option.

Knight will bring another report back to the commission on Feb. 28 when they will also take a vote on whether to allow voters the chance to repeal the ordinance next year.

The legislative session is scheduled to end the following week on March 8, which still leave Brodeur nine days to slip the preemption language into a bill if he doesn’t like the results of the next city meeting.

In recent years, Florida legislators have taken control away from municipal and county elected officials on everything from setting renewable energy standards, gun ranges, tenants’ rights, affordable housing projects and even the books on the shelves at public schools.

Anderson, who met with landscape company owners last month to hear their concerns and called a special meeting to potentially change the ordinance, is pushing the city to provide a directory of companies that have already converted to electric equipment so residents can make more informed decisions about who they hire.

“Whether we’re preempted or not, the city believes this is the right thing to do,” he said, noting he wants more resources and education available.

DeCiccio asked how bans are playing out in other cities that have enacted them for the same reasons — to reduce nuisance noise and pollution.

“They’ve all stuck with it,” Knight said. “They haven’t repealed it. They haven’t expressed that it’s been much of a challenge for them.”

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News & Notes: What’s happening with Rollins apartments and more

News & Notes: What’s happening with Rollins apartments and more

News & Notes: What's happening with Rollins apartments and more

Plus Super Bowl Sunday and the latest on the McCraney office tower

Feb. 11, 2024

By Beth Kassab

First, it’s Super Bowl Sunday and we all expect Winter Park-adjacent resident Donna Kelce (she lives in Baldwin Park) will be in attendance to cheer on Taylor Swift’s boyfriend (also known as her son, the Kansas City Chief’s Travis Kelce).

Could it be just a coincidence that only months after Donna Kelce posted a big shout out to Winter Park and the city’s famous boat tour that Swift announced there will be a song titled “Florida!!!” on her new album “The Tortured Poets Department” set to release in April?

Yes. It is definitely a coincidence. The song is most certainly not about that. But a city can dream, right?

On to a look ahead for the week:

Rollins proposal for faculty apartments

For those looking to speak for or against the plan by Rollins College to build faculty housing, you’ll have to wait a few extra weeks. The proposal was on Wednesday’s agenda, but has been postponed at the request of the college until Feb. 28.

At the last meeting, Rollins reduced the number of units it plans to build from 48 to 39 and the city postponed a decision on the matter that residents have complained won’t fit in with the surrounding area along New England Avenue.

McCraney Property next to Seven Oaks Park

After an initially chilly reception, members of the Planning & Zoning Board unanimously approved a proposal for a three-story, 29,500-square-foot office tower at 1100 Orange Avenue next to where Seven Oaks Park is underway.

Now the City Commission is set to consider the project on Wednesday.  The Orange Avenue Overlay board approved the concept last month. 

Steve McCraney, who is planning to building the space for his development company’s corporate headquarters, made changes to the original plans and is now offering right-of-way to the city that could be used in the future for a traffic roundabout on Orange Avenue.

“In order for a roundabout to actually be realized at this corner, there will be a much larger and timely community discussion, but this trade-off ensures that the City is not missing an opportunity for the roundabout,” according to a staff memorandum on the project. “Furthermore, the immediate effect of this right-of-way dedication, is a much larger setback than what was previously proposed, which helps reduce the impact of this three-story building at this corner.”

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Candidates offer views on parking and development at Chamber forum

Candidates offer views on parking and development at Chamber forum

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.”

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Parking, Orange Avenue Overlay, CRA

Johnson on charm

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Sen. Jason Brodeur files — then immediately withdraws — preemption on leaf blowers

Sen. Jason Brodeur files — then immediately withdraws — preemption on leaf blowers

Sen. Jason Brodeur files -- then immediately withdraws -- preemption on leaf blowers

The amendment would prevent local governments from banning the gas-powered devices

Feb. 6, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Sen. Jason Brodeur launched a stern but fleeting attempt to prohibit cities like Winter Park from banning gas-powered leaf blowers.

In a short exchange during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs on Tuesday, Brodeur said Winter Park was the impetus behind the idea, but immediately withdrew the amendment he filed on an unrelated bill. He warned he would “keep the language” and potentially make a harder push to preempt local governments from mandating electric leaf blowers another time.

“I intend to keep working with the city of Winter Park to show them if they keep doing nonsense like this to hurt their small businesses it’s going to be a lot worse later,” he said.

Brodeur, the Republican who represents Winter Park and Maitland along with Seminole County, called the city’s ban on gas-powered leaf blowers “preposterous” and “akin to mandating that you screen in pools.”

(In fact, Florida statutes do require new pools be enclosed, fenced or meet other safety measures to pass a final inspection.)

State legislators have responded to local officials in recent years with an increasing number of preemptions — measures that take control away from from elected city and county leaders.

The idea of “local control” was once the mantra of many Florida Republicans. But that has evolved into cheerleading a heavier-handed state government, particularly when the topics resonate as the ideological battles or culture wars popularized by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Florida Legislature has removed the ability of local governments or school boards to have a say in matters such as setting renewable energy standards, gun ranges, tenants’ rights, affordable housing projects and the books on the shelves at public schools.

Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio, who is running for mayor, said during a forum at the Winter Park Library on Thursday that she understood the reason Brodeur pulled the amendment is because of the number of cities in South Florida who “complained bitterly” that they are very satisfied with their bans on gas leaf blowers.

She noted that Winter Park adopted the gas leaf blower ban in 2022, joining cities such as Naples and Bicayne Bay, because of noise complaints during the pandemic. She said city officials believed at the time that waiting 30 months — or until July 1 of this year — to enact the ban was enough time for landscape companies to transition to new equipment.

In addition to regulating noise, the ban takes an incremental but significant step away from the emission-producing devices.

“This decision reflects the city’s dedication to prioritizing environmentally conscious practices as well as its commitment to sustainability, reducing noise and air pollution, and protecting the water quality of its lakes,” according to a recent city press release. “Gas-powered leaf blowers are known for their noise and significant environmental impact, emitting harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. These pollutants contribute to air quality degradation and pose health risks to both residents and the environment.”

In January, commissioners approved a $50 utility bill rebate for any resident who purchased an electric leaf blower. That move sparked debate over the ban, originally passed in 2022 but with a 30-month delay before it begins in July.

Landscape companies complained about the cost of high-grade electric models, the duration of the batteries and the weight of the equipment on workers’ backs.

Mayor Phil Anderson proposed an additional six-month delay of the ban, but commissioners voted 3-2 in a special meeting called on the topic to keep the July 1 start date.

A city web page is now devoted to the reasoning behind the ban as well as this comparison of gas-powered vs. electric leaf blowers.

The city’s comparison shows that the upfront cost of the electric devices and their batteries are far higher than the gas-powered models. But the cost of operating each model per hour is lower for the electric blowers when the cost of electricity vs. gasoline is factored in.

The city says its Parks & Recreation Department has replaced 98% of its leaf blowers with electric models and 100% of its trimmers. It’s also invested in two zero-turn lawn mowers and three utility carts.

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