Charter Amendments Win Big

Charter Amendments Win Big

Charter Amendments Win Big

by Geri Throne / March 9, 2022

Winter Park voters sent City Hall a clear message Tuesday: They want the city commission to be more cautious in approving major zoning and land-use changes.

Voters approved all six amendments to the city charter by an average of more than 20 percentage points. The biggest vote-getter on the entire ballot was the sixth amendment, which requires an additional hearing if a proposed ordinance or zoning change is significantly changed while under consideration. That amendment drew 4,351 votes for approval – more than 62 percent.

The other five amendments will require 4-1 supermajority votes to approve land-use changes involving wetlands, public land and certain density increases. The charter results heartened supporters, who see them as essential for protecting the city’s character. Opponents had argued that the amendments will create overwhelming barriers to development.

Weaver and Cruzada prevail

Voters also re-elected Todd Weaver to a second term over political newcomer Elijah Noel, the only candidate to oppose the charter changes. Weaver won by more than 10 percentage points – 3,885 to 3,139.

In the much closer Seat 3 race, Kris Cruzada beat Anjali Vaya by less than four percentage points – 3,579 to 3,305.

The city’s modest overall 31.6 percent voter turnout bested other Orange County municipalities with elections Tuesday. Neighboring Maitland had a 14 percent turnout.

More Winter Park voters cast their ballots by mail than in person. Mail-in ballots alone did not decide any race or issue, but they widened margins in some cases. Weaver, for example, was ahead by 75 votes until early voting and mail-in votes increased that margin to 746.

Speaking to more than 100 supporters at Mead Gardens on election night, Weaver said he was happy with the results. He apologized for his role in “a rift” that had developed because his supporters were split between Vaya and Cruzada, who ran on similar platforms. Weaver, who had backed Vaya, called on his supporters to get behind her “the next time she runs.”

A disappointed Vaya wasn’t ready to talk about a next time following the vote tabulation. She said she would continue her service to the city as a member of the CRA advisory board.

Cruzada credited supporters and his family for helping him win his close race. He expressed hope that more new candidates will step forward to run for the commission in the future.

Elijah Noel could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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Charter Amendments Win Big

Vote This Tuesday!

Vote This Tuesday!

by Geri Throne / March 6, 2022

With Election Day two days away, 16 percent of Winter Park voters have voted by mail or cast early ballots in the municipal election.

That’s a higher percentage than the four other Orange County cities holding elections this week, but not by much. It amounts to 3,627 votes out of Winter Park’s 22,635 registered voters. More than 19,000 voters still need to be heard from on Tuesday.

Two commission seats and six city charter amendments are on the Winter Park ballot.

For Seat 4, incumbent Todd Weaver faces political newcomer Elijah Noel. In the Seat 3 race, entrepreneur Anjali Vaya faces attorney Kris Crusada.

The six charter amendments deal with certain development decisions. The first five would require a supermajority of 4-1 votes to approve: 1) the sale of city-owned property; 2) the rezoning of parks and public lands; 3) rezoning of lakefront property to higher densities and intensities; 4) rezonings or comprehensive plan changes that would increase existing residential density and intensity by more than 25 percent, and 5) the development of wetlands. The sixth amendment would require an additional public hearing and reading of an ordinance if a substantive change is made during the adoption process.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 8. Voters must go to their assigned polling place with photo and signature identification. If you requested a mail-in ballot and did not use it, bring the mail-in ballot to the polls with you.

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Don’t Just Vote. Serve On A City Board!

Don’t Just Vote. Serve On A City Board!

Don't Just Vote. Serve On A City Board!

One thing is clear every election season: Winter Park voters are passionate about their city. Emotions run high even when turnout is low.

But turnout shows civic pride, so do your research and get ready, Winter Parkers. If you’re not voting by mail or voting early this week, show up at your polling place on March 8.

Better yet, demonstrate even more civic pride by volunteering to serve on one of Winter Park’s two dozen advisory boards and commissions. It’s a guaranteed way to make a difference in how the city conducts its business. Volunteers are always needed and some openings will need to be filled as soon as this month.

If you’re interested, click here and take a look at your options. Boards and commissions have different levels of responsibility. Some, such as the Parks and Recreation Board, are purely advisory. They may recommend policy and budgets. Others, such as the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Adjustments, have quasi-judicial responsibilities similar to those in a court of law. Still others, like the Nuisance Abatement Board, have the power to levy fines against code violators.

When you’ve found a board that fits your interests, work experience and/or education, click on the “Apply” option in the upper right-hand corner of the boards page and complete the application form. Don’t delay. Picking board appointees will be among the first duties of a newly elected commissioner at the March 23 commission meeting.

The board appointment process changed two years ago when voters approved changes in the city charter. For a period of time prior to that, the city’s mayor made all appointments. Now, the mayor appoints three people to the seven-member boards and each of the four commissioners makes one appointment per board. Appointments take into consideration an applicant’s specialized knowledge and experience.

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Charter Amendments Win Big

A Unique City’s Brand

A Unique City's Brand

by Geri Throne / February 26, 2022

Winter Park residents know they live in a special place. But what makes this city truly distinct? And what should it look like in a decade or two?

The Voice asked city commission candidates those questions to get a sense of how they define the city’s core identity now and what they want it to be like in the future.

The questions were inspired by the city’s current conversation with the Chamber of Commerce and economic development board about branding the city. City brands are more than just a logo or a slogan. Experts say they require focus and a vision for the future. The biggest challenge for those answering the questions was narrowing the city’s many attributes – its tree canopy, neighborhoods, chain of lakes, business district, arts, Rollins College, its parks – into a focused vision.

Two commission seats are on the March 8 ballot: Anjali Vaya and Kris Cruzada face each other for Seat 3 and Elijah Noel is running against incumbent Todd Weaver for Seat 4.

SEAT 3

For Cruzada, the city’s core identity centers around the resiliency of its neighborhoods, as well as its relatively low density and tree canopy. The city’s founders in the late 1800s established neighborhoods as key to the city’s future, he said. Winter Park’s many amenities promote an interconnectedness. “We’re a neighborhood community.” he said. Besides attracting visitors, he’d like a brand to reach people who grew up here to persuade them to return, as he did with his family 15 years ago.

In an ideal future, Cruzada said, Winter Park’s traffic would move better because people will have moved away from gas-fueled cars. Residents would have more walkable corridors along narrower highways and use other forms of transportation. “There would be more interconnectedness.” The city would be more diverse and would be an international destination.

For Vaya, a local business owner, the heart of the city’s identity is its charm, character and unique businesses. “It has small-scale businesses you just don’t see anywhere else.” A brand needs a strong economic plan as its foundation, she said, and that requires good data. She would first want to survey both residents and businesses to find out what they want for the city in the next five years. The city needs to be very specific about what businesses it needs to attract, she said. “We have to make sure we have an economic plan that makes everyone happy.”

In the future, Vaya envisions enhancements to the city’s small-scale quality. She sees more pedestrian and bicycle paths connecting the city’s main assets, such as its parks, library and downtown. “Winter Park is small enough to make that happen.” She’d like to see a transit system connected to SunRail, perhaps to include additional Lynx bus connections and shuttles funded by private-public partnerships.

SEAT 4

Todd Weaver describes the city as “a premier urban village.” Winter Park is distinctive, he said, because of its long history of shaded brick streets and well-cared-for lakes, combined with the many cultural elements that have been added through the years. “I think Winter Park already has a very unique brand.” The way to retain that image is to avoid building larger and larger buildings as other Orlando suburbs have, said Weaver, who sees no need to attract more tourists.

In the future, Weaver would like to see the city’s housing stock increase with the addition of medium density residential zones in areas where roads and infrastructure could handle it. He envisions a more stable tree canopy, a more diverse business base and fewer cars on the road. The city also would be taking more steps to protect the environment, including using reclaimed water for irrigation.

Weaver’s opponent, Elijah Noel, declined to talk to the Voice for this article unless questions were submitted in writing in advance.

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A Decades-Old Debate

A Decades-Old Debate

A Decades-Old Debate

by Geri Throne / February 2022

To develop or not to develop; that’s a question Winter Park has debated for decades.

These days, with little unused space left in the city, the question has more to do with redevelopment. Should a golf course be developed as a subdivision? Should a lakefront residential lot become part of a commercial project? Should a swampy parcel be filled with dirt to build a home?

How the city should deal with such questions is the subject of six city charter amendments on the March 8 ballot. Five would set a higher bar for major land-use decisions involving wetlands construction, lakefront zoning, parks, residential density and the sale of city-owned property. A “supermajority” vote of 4-1 would be required for approval in certain situations, instead of a simple 3-2 majority. The sixth amendment would require an additional public hearing if a project changes considerably after it was submitted.

Sentiment for and against the amendments is evident. E-mails are clogging inboxes. Signs are popping up all over town.

Opponents sympathetic to development say the amendments set too high a bar and would make future land-use change impossible. Supporters concerned about preserving the city’s character say the amendments wouldn’t stop growth but would result in more compromise and public involvement for major changes.

PAST CLASHES OVER DEVELOPMENT

Tension between commercial and residential priorities has a long history in Winter Park. In the 1950s, as Interstate 4 was being designed, a push to extend Lee Road to downtown Winter Park failed as a result of residents’ objections. A decade later, neighborhood opposition squelched the dream of two consecutive mayors who wanted highway bridges built over Lakes Osceola and Killarney. The mayors’ priority was to move traffic easily to the new university east of the city.

Every decade since has seen clashes over land use. In the 1970s, the battle was over building heights. In later years, it was over road widenings, new subdivisions and the expansions of such established entities as the Winter Park YMCA, the Winter Park Hospital and Rollins College.

In the late 2000s, the biggest issues were the proposed SunRail commuter train and the Carlisle mixed-use high-rise. SunRail and its downtown station prevailed. The Carlisle – a massive condominium and retail building – didn’t. The high-rise would have loomed over Central Park in the current Post Office location. A two-year fight ended with the city buying out the developer with reserve funds and residents’ donations.

THE CURRENT CHARTER DEBATE

Among those supporting the charter changes are all current city commissioners and 1000 Friends of Florida, an organization that advocates for smart growth. The nonprofit group, which endorsed all six amendments, has advocated for a decade for supermajority votes when land-use changes can affect a city’s unique sense of place. Last year, it reaffirmed its support of supermajority votes. Its president, Paul Owens, said such changes “should have the highest level of support” and deserve more than a simple 3-2 majority. You can find the 1000 Friends of Florida document here.

Other amendment supporters say a 3-2 vote is too easy for major land-use changes unlikely to be reversed. Take the sale of rare city-owned land, says Winter Park Mayor Phil Anderson. “Once sold, the opportunity to use it for vital city operations is gone.” The same irreversibility applies to rezoning parks, he says, noting that currently it would take only three commission votes to decide to sell the West Meadow of Central Park and rezone it for offices and condos.

Anderson notes the importance of carefully considering land-use changes that could affect property values and alter the city’s quality of life. For such changes to pass with a 4-1 vote, commissioners would have to discuss them thoroughly and reach consensus. Compromise would be likely.

Opponents of the charter changes include former mayors Steve Leary and Ken Bradley and former commissioners Pete Weldon and Sara Sprinkel. Weldon filed last month to create the Winter Park Governance political action committee, which mailed out fliers against the amendments. The bulk of the PAC’s budget was contributed by real-estate developer Allan E. Keen’s company, Keewin LLC, which gave $10,000.

Weldon’s posts online describe the issue through the lens of past commission decisions. He accuses the current commission of being afraid that its use of Progress Point on Orange Avenue as a park could be overturned in the future. He sees the amendment on lakefront lots to be tied to the since-abandoned proposal for a hotel on Lake Killarney. The amendment dealing with residential density increases arose from the Orange Avenue Overlay debate, he says.

The amendments “will deter investment, paralyze Winter Park, and make serving on the city commission meaningless,” Weldon said in a Jan. 6 post.

SUPERMAJORITY VOTES NOT NEW

Central Florida is no stranger to supermajority votes. Neighboring Seminole County, for example, recently required them to dispose of natural land that the county obtained for conservation.

Supermajority votes aren’t new to Winter Park either. Previously, the city code required them for such decisions as changes to the city’s comprehensive land-use plan. But that requirement was dropped in 2013 when Ken Bradley was mayor. All mention of supermajority votes was scrubbed from the code.

Dropping the code requirements was easy because code changes need only the vote of three commissioners.

Changing the city charter, however, is much harder. Commissioners must ask voters for approval. So, if a majority of city voters approve the amendments this election, it would take a majority of city voters to remove them in the future. Think of the charter as a local constitution. It defines the essentials of how a city government works, its organization, powers and functions. Voters alone can amend it.

In the March 8 election, Winter Park voters will decide whether to set that high bar for major zoning and land-use changes in the future.

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Charter Amendments Win Big

Winter Park Candidates Stake Their Positions

Winter Park Candidates Stake Their Positions

by Geri Throne / February 11, 2022

As the March 8 city election nears, the candidates for Winter Park City Commission sometimes sound pretty similar. In their public debates and appearances, all four voice support for values most Winter Park voters hold dear: preserving the city’s unique character; valuing its green space; keeping a lid on taxes.

Similarities are especially evident in the Seat 3 race between entrepreneur Anjali Vaya and attorney Kris Cruzada.  In the Seat 4 race, however, stark differences are the rule between incumbent Todd Weaver and challenger Elijah Noel.

SEAT 4 CONTRASTS

In recent forums and debates, Weaver, who is running for his second term, touted his record on issues such as green space and development and endorsed all six city charter amendments on the ballot. An aerospace and mechanical design engineer, he attended the University of Central Florida.

Noel, a 2020 Rollins College graduate with a degree in international business, sees little to like in the current commission. He accused the board of seeking more green space than the city needs and trying to concentrate power in the hands of a few. He asked for the votes of people “discontented with what the city commission is doing.”

A two-year resident of Winter Park, Noel manages a downtown Orlando lounge. He previously worked on the campaigns of former mayor Steve Leary and commissioner Sarah Sprinkel. “I’m running because I’ve noticed a lot of change in the mindset of the city commission, a change from forward thinking to a lot more stagnation,” he said.

Weaver, on the other hand, said he is proud of the current commission and its handling of pandemic-related economic challenges and development. In an effort to achieve unanimous votes, he said, the commission often negotiates during debate on decisions. “Everyone gives and takes a little bit. That was lacking when I first became commissioner.” Weaver has lived 25 years in his Lake Bell neighborhood, which was annexed into Winter Park in 2004.

SEAT 3 UNANIMITY

In the Seat 3 race, Anjali Vaya and Kris Cruzada both have expressed support for buying the Winter Pines golf course. Both said the Post Office should stay at its current downtown location if possible, but the city should be prepared to negotiate if the Postal Service decides to move. If the city acquires the site, they both said, the land should become green space. Both endorse the proposed charter amendments on the March 8 ballot.

The two bring differing backgrounds and professional experience to the race, however. Cruzada has degrees and work experience in both accounting and law — skills he says would serve him well as a commissioner dealing with budgets, financial analyses, codes and statutes. He has a sole-practice law firm and also is a director in a family-owned land-management business. Cruzada spent his childhood in Winter Park and moved back in 2006. He serves on Orange County’s Development Advisory Board.

Vaya’s strength is in technology. After earning a master’s degree in healthcare administration and working in that field, she developed a furniture e-commerce website and then formed a technology consulting business in the Northeast. A native of Zambia, she became a U.S. citizen in 1999 and moved to Winter Park in 2007. She says her ownership of two technology businesses helps her understand the needs of small business and the importance of good communication. She is vice-president of the Indian American Chamber of Commerce and sits on the citizen advisory board to Winter Park’s Community Redevelopment Agency. She ran unsuccessfully for the Orange County Commission in 2020.

GREEN SPACE A BIG ISSUE

In debates, Noel has accused the city of wasting money turning the Progress Point lot on Orange Avenue into a park and buying the Winter Pines Golf Course when the money would be better used to fix roads and sidewalks. “We’re spending a lot of money on a lot of property we can’t afford to maintain.” Calling himself a “huge advocate for green space,” he said he would emphasize quality over quantity.

Weaver made no apologies for wanting to add more green space. “I want to keep the park in Winter Park.” The city has a budgeted schedule for repaving its hundreds of miles of roads and it already owned the Progress Point site, he said. The city won’t need taxpayer money to buy the Pines golf course or maintain it because “it’s a profitable business,” he said.

Both Vaya and Cruzada agreed with the commission’s desire to buy the Pines golf course and described the $7.4 million purchase price as a good deal. Vaya praised the commission for its debate on the deal. “There was a lot of dialogue and transparency in the meeting that night.” Cruzada, who lives along the golf course, said the city followed the rules. He noted that the city charter doesn’t require referendum approval to buy parkland. He said the city should identify more money-making opportunities at the course so it can pay back the bond issue quickly.

ORANGE AVENUE OVERLAY

Noel criticized the city commission for rejecting a task force’s advice for the redevelopment of Orange Avenue. If elected, he would “listen to the experts,” he said. “It’s our job as leaders not to assume we’re experts on building and zoning codes, but to study on it, listen to residents and make the best judgments.” The city should install a money-making use at Progress Point Park to help pay for its maintenance, he said, so it is “not just another park with more trees.”

Weaver said the commission was justified in repealing the initial Orange Avenue redevelopment plan, which was proposed by property owners and recommended by city staff. “It was very controversial.” The current plan is “more fair,” he said. He noted that the revised version includes incentives for developers to provide workforce housing.

CHARTER AMENDMENTS

Weaver and Cruzada described as “no brainers” the charter amendments requiring four votes for irreversible decisions. They both gave examples. “We don’t want to make it easy to build in wetlands,” Weaver said. Four votes would ensure that the city has a compelling reason for selling its property, Cruzada said. “Once you sell, you can’t get it back,” he said.

Vaya noted that the city previously required supermajority votes for such decisions. Asking voters to put the requirement in the city charter “will go a long way in protecting the city’s charm” and will reduce divisiveness, she said. Noel opposes all six amendments. He described the charter changes as a way of “keeping the power in one place” and reiterated that the city isn’t “hearing enough from its residents.

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