Citizen Activists Made Sure 122 Acres of Parkland Remains Green
by Anne Mooney / January 10, 2020
In an economic climate in which developers threaten to gobble up every square inch of open land, a hearty band of Winter Parkers deserves our gratitude for making sure our largest parks are protected from development and will remain forever green.
Six Winter Park citizens – Michael Poole, Charley Williams, Peter Gottfried, Marty Sullivan, Forest Michael and Kim Allen – have worked tirelessly since May of 2016 to make sure the city government took the necessary steps to preserve five of our largest parks for “outdoor recreation in perpetuity.”
The five parks – Phelps Park, Lake Baldwin Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, the Community Center swimming pool and Temple Trail – had received money from the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP). This program provides state funds to municipal and county governments to acquire or develop lands for public outdoor recreation.
The FRDAP grant comes with a condition. For each park receiving a grant, a deed restriction for the park must be filed with the Orange County government pledging that the site is dedicated to “outdoor recreation in perpetuity.” Over the years, beginning in 1974 with Lake Baldwin Park (a/k/a Dog Park), money was dispersed and work was done, but the deed restrictions fell through the cracks, leaving open the door to disposal and/or development of some 122 acres of parkland.
When the citizen group learned in 2016 that deed restrictions and site dedications had not been filed for these parks, they brought the matter to the attention of the City and of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
The happy ending to this story is that, after three and a half years of phone calls, emails, letters and meetings, Kim Allen received notification from the FDEP that the deeds were filed and the parks protected.
The email read: “Good Morning . . . and Happy New Year! I am . . . sending this email to let you know that the City of Winter Park recorded the following Notices of Limitation of Use – Site Dedications, for the projects listed below [i.e., the five parks], with the Orange County Clerk of Courts office. Thank you for your continued patience working with our team and the city to secure these recordings.” The email was signed by Angela Bright, Community Assistance Consultant, Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Credit goes to Brenda Moody of the Winter Park Public Works Department, who performed the exacting task of making sure the paperwork was properly completed and filed with the county and state agencies.
This kind of behind-the-scenes dedication and dogged determination by citizens who are just like everyone else – with jobs and families and busy lives – is what makes Winter Park such a special place to live. The same tactics that worked for John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt to establish the national park system worked for our very own neighbors. We should be both proud and grateful.
The first anniversary of the conditional use approval of the Canopy project is coming up September 24, and shortly thereafter the Commission should receive the construction drawings, from which the City can finally calculate the “not-to-exceed” cost of the project. Despite anticipation of these long-sought answers, questions remain.
The proposed Canopy project is a big deal for our City. Based on the history of our current library, we may have this public building for the next 40 years.
We have to ask: Is the design compatible with our City? Is the library satisfactory in form and function to serve Winter Park citizens? Will the adjoining events center serve Winter Park’s needs for community events? Will the evolving cost fit within our budget? Will long-term maintenance and operation costs be acceptable? Will it be a desirable addition to Martin Luther King, Jr. recreational park?
Let Your City Officials Hear From You
Your City leaders need to hear from you. Let your Commissioners know your thoughts on the proposed library and events center. There is no time to waste. Act now.
In March 2016, we voted on a bond referendum for a new library. I expected a favorable landslide vote, because who isn’t in favor of a new library? The bond passed, despite controversy over vague plans and finalization of the building site. The final breakdown was 51 percent for and 49 percent against. The referendum passed by a margin of just 214 votes, foreshadowing the controversy that was sure to follow.
Initial Concept is Substantially Changed
Are the changes in building sizes from the initial concepts acceptable? The referendum language specified, “For the purpose of building the Winter Park Library and Events Center, to include library facilities, civic meeting and gathering facilities and related parking structure . . . .”
Voters were told there would be a 50,000-square-foot (sf) library, an 8,505 sf civic center and a 200-space parking garage (“Community Engagement Workshops,” ACi Architects, 10/26/2015).
Now, the plans are for a 34,400 sf library and a 13,564 sf events center. The ‘associated parking structure’ has been replaced by surface parking (City Commission conditional use approval, 9/24/2018). The Canopy library is only 400 sf larger than the current library facility. Library staff cites efficient use of space, which compensates for the reduction in size, but is this library adequate for our citizens’ needs?
MLK Park Loses Trees and Green Space
Are changes to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park appropriate? The proposed structure will reduce the MLK park area by an estimated two acres, and the storm water treatment area must be expanded, although no specifications had been developed as of May 2019 (LandDesign engineers).
What Effect Will Tourism Dollars Have?
The City secured a $6 Million Tourist Development Tax (TDT) grant in return for making the Canopy Events Center available for international tourism. At the City’s presentation to the TDT grant board, City Manager Randy Knight was asked about the extent of Winter Park citizens’ use of the event center facility. He responded that he thought Winter Park residents might use the facility during the week, but that the event center would be available on weekends for tourism activities. Winter Park voters approved the bond referendum based on an event center with the purpose of “civic meeting and gathering facilities.” However, now the intended purpose seems to be an international tourism destination. (Presentation before Tourist Tax Grant Board 3/15/2019).
No Hard Numbers, So Far
Cost estimates have been a moving target. To date, the City has provided only artistic renderings, and we are depending on bids based on construction drawings to derive hard costs. The City’s official position on cost estimate is $40.5 million, coming from $28.7 Million in bonds, $6 Million TDT grant and $5.4 Million in private donations. The estimated total budget with contingencies is $43 Million.
How many private dollars should our community contribute to this one project? Are we draining resources away from other endeavors? We have other important projects on the horizon, many of which may require private sector support, such as plans for the post office site, new parks, city hall renovations and repurposing the old library site.
How high is too high?
What final figure will cause our City leaders to pause and rethink this project? Fifty Million? We’ve heard $55 Million. Commissioners need to tell us now what they consider an acceptable figure to move ahead with the Canopy.
Controversy surrounding the city’s new library project dominated the January 28 City Commission discussions, even though it wasn’t on the agenda. This time around, criticism came from state officials, who aren’t happy with the City’s plans to build its new library and civic center at Martin Luther King Park. The state has even warned that the city could lose future grant money for parks if it doesn’t comply with the rules.
None of that is stopping the City from going full speed ahead with the project. Plans are underway to tear down the Rachel Murrah Civic Center this week and take the chainsaw to 60 trees at the park between now and April.
City Out of Compliance with State Grant Rules
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection notified the City Manager in a letter dated March 6, 2018 that the city had failed to follow the rules governing a grant it received in 1994 for improvements to Martin Luther King Park. Commissioner Carolyn Cooper and several citizens pleaded unsuccessfully with commissioners to hit the pause button to resolve the issue.
Seen in this context, and taking into account the City’s failure, so far, to come up with a clear plan to bring the Canopy project back in line with the $30 Million budget approved by the voters in 2016, the decision to proceed with such haste gives one pause.
Playing the Blame Game
“There is a small group that continues to protest this project and has gone to the State and has asked the State to overturn previous State grants, once again costing the citizens of Winter Park money,” said Leary. “If we have to pay back the State . . . uh, this is a small group who are shooting people in the foot. It’s an absurd request.”
FL Department of Environmental Protection
The notification of non-compliance came from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and concerned the 1994 grant for improvements to MLK Park under the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP). The grant required the City to dedicate the park, in perpetuity, “as an outdoor recreation site for the benefit of the general public.” [emphasis added]
City Version of Deed Restriction Unacceptable to FDEP
A March 6, 2018, letter from FDEP General Counsel’s office warned that the Public Dedication recorded by the City in January 2018, “does not meet the requirements of the rule and is not acceptable to the department.” The letter went on to state, “Failure to comply with the department’s rules can result in the City being declared out of compliance and therefore ineligible for further grants from the department.”
This could affect the City’s application for a FRDAP grant for improvements to the wetlands around Howell Branch.
But Wait – There’s More
A January 16, 2019 letter from FDEP stated, “It has also come to our attention that some or all of the City’s previous land and recreation grants do not have restrictive covenants recorded for the parks funded by our grants.” In addition to MLK Park, the letter contains a list of other FRDAP grants for locations such as Lake Baldwin Park, Mead Garden, Phelps Park and the Howell Branch Preserve, requesting the City to provide copies of the declarations of restrictive covenants for each within 60 days.
A FRDAP grant to the City carries with it the requirement to publicly record with Orange County a covenant restricting the park to outdoor recreation, in perpetuity.
If the City converts this dedicated land to another use, according to the January 16 FDEP letter, the City must “. . .replace the removed property with property of similar size and value and replace any facilities (such as the walking trails around the current civic center that were part of the FRDAP grant) that will be removed by the new construction.”
Citizens Urge Caution
During public comment, several citizens urged the Commissioners to move cautiously with their demolition plans until the way forward is clearer.
“I see a tendency by the City to insulate itself from opposing views and from citizen input,” began Beth Hall. She pointed out that the original Library Task Force had considered multiple sites for the new library, MLK Park among them. “But I don’t see where the FRDAP grant was pointed out or considered by the Task Force,” she said. “Thus a major restriction on the viability of the site was ignored.” Hall pointed out that the City had made no attempt to inform voters of this issue at the time of the bond referendum.
Who Knew about the Grant?
In a January 30 email responding to a public records request from Beth Hall, City Clerk Cindy Bonham confirmed the City has no records of communications or materials about the MLK Park FRDAP grant being provided to the Library Task Force, to the Commission, to the Planning & Zoning Board, the Library Board, the Library Staff or to the trial court that heard the bond validation suit.
Road Not Taken
Referring to the FDEP requirement to replace all converted lands with land of similar value, Hall asked the Commission to remember the bowling alley property. “That it is gone is a failure of long-term vision and strategic thinking,” she said. “Maybe hearing other voices would have taken us another way, but we will never know, for that was the road not taken.”
When is a Canopy Not a Canopy?
Charley Williams displayed the City’s tree demolition legend, which identifies more than 60 trees that will fall victim to the chainsaw this spring. He suggested the City Communications Department might keep citizens abreast of what will transpire in MLK Park. He showed before and after pictures of mature live oaks that were removed January 26 to make way for the Civic Center demolition.
Williams urged Winter Park to “show some leadership” by heeding the advice of the Winter Park Forestry department to save mature specimen trees by root pruning and moving them to safety within the park. He pointed out that other cities have done this and that there are Winter Park residents ready and willing to privately fund the project. “We’ve already named it the Canopy,” said Williams. “Now I think we ought to walk the walk.”
‘We Keep Whittling Away Amenities While the Price Goes Up’
Kim Allen enumerated ways in which the Canopy project has changed since it started in 2016. The square footage of the library is significantly reduced. Elements of the buildings, like the porte cochere at the entrance, have either been eliminated or declared ‘alternatives,’ which the City can build only if it raises additional money. The $30 Million budget cannot accommodate many elements that would seem integral to the success of the project.
Sarah Sprinkel: “It Makes Me Mad”
In her closing comments, Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel decried having what she called “an issue that some people in this community have created for us.”
Cooper reiterated her suggestion to put the matter of the grants on the City Manager’s report so that people could see periodic updates of how the City is working through the issue. Cooper’s desire for this kind of transparency was not supported by her fellow Commissioners.
Leary: “It Just Seems to be One Thing After Another”
In his concluding remarks, Mayor Leary said, “Whether it’s trees outside, or whether it’s water . . . I mean, it’s one thing after another.”
The one thing of note in an uncharacteristically brief June 11 Commission meeting was a presentation by Planning Director Dori Stone about Mixed Use Development. Her presentation focused on a single question, the answer to which will determine the way Winter Park grows into the 21st century.
Are current land use and zoning categories sufficient to promote the best development in Winter Park, or does the City want a specific mixed use development option for properties located along gateway corridors within the city limits?
WP Already Has 3 Mixed Use Developments
Currently, Winter Park has three mixed use developments – Park Avenue, Hannibal Square and Winter Park Village. The single word that describes all three is walkable. Each development has a mixture of shops, offices and residences. Each is a popular destination with wide sidewalks and plenty of shade – resulting in plenty of foot traffic. Buildings are pedestrian in scale, allowing life to flow easily in and out of doors. Each location has a well-defined sense of place.
They All Have Trees
While they have different architectural designs, street layouts and building heights, they all have one essential attribute — deciduous trees. Trees with wide branches. Trees with lots of leaves. Trees that provide cool shade and a sense of place.
Regardless of architectural design, without the shelter of these leafy branches all three areas would be hot, blinding, forbidding environments of reflective and refractive masonry, asphalt and glass. People would avoid them whenever possible, except possibly at night. Who among us doesn’t choose the shady parking spot over the one baking in the harsh Florida sun?
We All Need Trees
Our affinity for trees is in our DNA. Our ancestors relied on trees for security from predators, for foraging, for shelter from the elements, and for gathering places for social contact. Our love of trees is innate. No man-made structure ever has the same elemental and calming effect.
Builders who ignore the need for a stately tree canopy in their developments are doing a disservice to their clients, their tenants, the customers of those tenants and to their own legacies. Trees are good for our peace of mind, the environment – and they’re good for business.
What Kind of Canopy Will Be Left at the ‘Canopy’?
In this vein, many are concerned that at the new Winter Park Library – Event Center at “The Canopy,” the majestic trees that currently form the canopy on the Rachel Murrah Civic Center site will meet with the chain saw — despite the branding term. When that happens, the glare and reflected heat from all that glass, metal and masonry will change the character of the MLK Park dramatically. Although new, smaller trees can be brought in, it will take decades to achieve the current sense of place afforded by the existing site trees.
Don’t Cut Them Down; Dig Them Up!
This does not have to happen. A reasonable solution would be to dig up the specimen trees, roots and all, and store them in MLK Park in wooden crates until the construction is completed and they can be safely replanted.
While this may seem incredible, it is actually standard technology. The land that the retired El Toro Marine Air Station occupied was deeded to the City of Irvine, CA in the early 2000s. Before redevelopment began, 543 large shade trees, which included 10 species, were saved in this manner. The average weight per tree was 40 tons. The city crated them and cared for them for about five years until, one by one, they were strategically replanted as redevelopment progressed. The sense of place was preserved by this brilliant and caring move, and the homes in those developments sold as quickly as they were built.
Trees Are Our Brand
Canopy trees are part of our unique Winter Park brand. They shelter nearly every street and enhance every neighborhood. The promulgation of mixed use standards presents a fleeting window of opportunity. We must act now to ensure that mixed-use will enhance our gateway corridors for generations. Let’s make a big green splash!
Trees Should Be Part of the Mix
Let’s make room for our big green friends in our Mixed Use code. Let’s promote reasonable street setbacks and adequate pervious areas for these natural wonders. After all, our big trees enhance and promote our businesses, our neighborhoods and our sense of place in Winter Park. And, for Winter Park, a sense of place is a sense of home.
Todd Weaver is a semi-retired aerospace engineer and UCF graduate. He holds a Florida general contractors license. He currently runs a Winter Park-based business, TruGrit Traction, Inc, which designs and manufactures specialty wheels for pipe inspection robots for the public works industries. Weaver has served on Lakes Management advisory boards for Orange County and Winter Park.
A 20,000-square-foot medical office building will occupy a lot once home to bowling lanes on Fairbanks Avenue near U.S. Highway 17/92.
City commissioners accepted an offer to buy the land from ComTech Properties for $3.5 million by a 4-1 vote, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper opposed. The site at 1111 W. Fairbanks Ave. has been coveted by some in Winter Park eager to expand Martin Luther King Park.
The city put the land out for bid in June, less than a year and a half after it bought the 1.63 acres from Rollins College for $2.9 million. The college had bought the bowling lanes site in 2013 for $2.85 million as part of a planned athletic field, but sold it to the city after it found another location.
The city used community redevelopment — or CRA — funds from its special downtown taxing district to pay for about a third of the purchase price to Rollins. The intent was to create turn lanes from Fairbanks Avenue onto Hwy. 17/92. There also was discussion at the CRA and city commission level about using the parcel to expand MLK Park.
Commissioner Cooper argued Monday the city should delay the sale “for now,” so it can study what effect the new city library will have on storm water drainage in the area. Hurricane Irma raised the need for more land to offset storm water, she said. Commissioner Greg Seidel voiced similar concerns, as did two residents who spoke to delay the sale. This area “was the TV stand-up spot” reporters used to show flooding from Irma, resident Charley Williams said.
Mayor Steve Leary said the agenda item was “never about park space and water,” but about needing space for traffic lanes. Arguments about stormwater were just another tactic to delay the sale, he said, and that could scare away prospective tenants in the office building and jeopardize the bid.
Winter Park’s electric utility and law enforcement emerged as partial winners in Winter Park’s budget debates. The city’s tax rate for 2018 will stay the same.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma and complaints about outages, city commissioners figured out ways to make more money available to the electric utility fund. The biggest chunk — $1 million – will be transferred to the utility this budget year from the city’s water reserves. Another $425,000 would be freed up in the utility’s 2018 contingency funding by moving street-lighting from the utility to the general fund, where it had been in the past.
Not yet known is whether that the additional $1.425 million will speed up the city’s underground wiring or how much work could be accomplished. Although several commissioners said the money was intended to move forward with undergrounding, Mayor Steve Leary said some of the $1 million could go toward other improvements necessitated by the hurricane. City Manager Randy Knight estimated the city’s total storm-related costs at $5.5 million with much of that ultimately covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
“The City has undergrounded just over six miles with the $3.5 million provided for the FY17 fiscal year,” said Clarissa Howard, the city’s communications director Tuesday. “It is extremely difficult to determine how much could be done with additional funds as each project is different and complexity can affect the cost.”
Commissioner Carolyn Cooper voted against the $1 million transfer, saying she preferred such fund-to-fund shifts be done as loans that are paid back. Both Mayor Leary and Commissioner Pete Weldon voted against putting street lighting back in the general fund.
NO BODY CAMERAS FOR POLICE
Police Chief Michael Deal was successful in winning an $862,000 increase in his department’s budget. In earlier budget talks, Mayor Leary had asked the department to cut its request by $200,000, but on Monday commissioners decided to approve the full request. They said they wanted the department to be competitive with other Central Florida departments in hiring new officers.
Commissioners, however, declined to budget the $120,000 Deal had sought for police body cameras. In earlier budget talks, only Mayor Leary had supported that request. Commissioner Weldon didn’t want the cameras to be used to make public safety a “political football,” and Chief Deal said he had seen no complaints of excessive force or racial profiling in the year he has been chief.
On Monday, Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel noted the police department’s healthy budget and said the chief could use the money for body cameras if he saw them as a priority. If the chief “can figure out a way to do it, fine,” she said.
NO TAX RATE INCREASE
Commissioner Weldon was unsuccessful in seeking a cut in the property tax rate to 3.9942 mills. That would have removed a half million dollars from the general fund. One mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 in assessed property value.
Weldon argued that the city’s coffers are healthy enough to sustain a lower rate. In addition, he said, the same millage will bring in more revenue because the city’s assessed property values have increased. Commissioners voted 4-1 to keep the rate at 4.0923 mills.