Special commission meeting called on gas-powered leaf blower ban

Special commission meeting called on gas-powered leaf blower ban

Special commission meeting called on gas-powered leaf blower ban

The City Commission will meet on Thursday to discuss next steps

Jan. 30, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Mayor Phil Anderson has called a special meeting of the City Commission for Thursday at 9 a.m. to discuss how to handle a growing number of concerns about the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers that is set to take effect July 1.

The Commission passed the ordinance in 2022, but approved a 30-month delay in enforcement to give residents and landscape companies time to prepare.

But in recent weeks, landscape companies have said they did not know about the upcoming ban and expect the cost and other impacts of battery-powered equipment to be overly burdensome.

Anderson said a meeting he had last week at City Hall with representatives from landscape companies, equipment manufacturers and one company that is already using all-electric equipment was insightful.

“That meeting was really productive with some ideas shared,” he said. “So Thursday’s meeting is to sort of process that meeting and decide what we might want to do.”

He said he still expects the issue to be discussed at the next regular commission meeting on Feb. 14.

The ban was passed as an ordinance and any changes to it such as a delay in the start date or a full repeal would require specific public notice and two votes at two meetings.

Thursday’s meeting will allow the commissioners to have an open discussion to decide what changes, if any, they want to make.

Earlier this month, commissioners passed a $50 rebate in the form of a utility bill credit for residents who purchase electric leaf blowers.

But that does little to help the companies that serve thousands of lawns in Winter Park and use industrial level blowers that can cost $1,300.

In addition to concerns over the cost of the new equipment, landscapers have said the battery powered devices will slow down their work because they are less powerful, require charging and are heavier on workers’ backs.

“To comply with this law, more equipment on the trailer means more fuel costs to haul that equipment,” read one flyer that asks people to join in opposition to the ban. “This will result in higher costs to the homeowners and the landscaping companies purchasing and running generators to charge the blowers’ batteries.”

In Florida, Naples and Miami Beach have also approved bans. The Washington Post reported recently that cities across the country have put similar bans on gas leaf blowers into place such as Washington, D.C, and Evanston, Ill. California is set to begin enforcing a statewide ban on the sale of new gas-powered lawn equipment. Naples also enacted a ban.

Electric equipment is healthier for humans and the environment because there are fewer toxic emissions and comes without the jarring buzzsaw-like grind of a gas engine.

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Commissioners must detail net worth unless lawsuit blocks new rule

Commissioners must detail net worth unless lawsuit blocks new rule

Commissioners must detail net worth unless lawsuit blocks new rule

Winter Park commissioners will consider at the next meeting whether to join a lawsuit to try prevent the financial disclosure rules from taking effect

Jan. 25, 2024

By Beth Kassab

About 12 miles south of Winter Park in another affluent city centered on a different chain of lakes, four out of the seven elected commissioners in the city of Belle Isle have resigned over new and far more detailed financial disclosures required by the state.

The new law, which beginning this year requires elected city officials to detail their net worth including assets and liabilities valued at $1,000 or more by July, is sparking resignations across Florida and, now, a legal challenge.

While no elected officials have resigned in Winter Park, city commissioners are now mulling whether to join a lawsuit that City Attorney Kurt Ardaman said he expects to be filed in early February.

Mayor Phil Anderson said during the discussion at Wednesday’s meeting that the new requirements appear intrusive.

“Note that no one resigned so come July 1, there’s going to be stuff out there we wouldn’t have normally had to do,” Anderson said. “You care about your community, but you also care about your privacy. This seems to be a pretty big reach into your privacy.”

Form 6, which has been filed by the governor, lawmakers, school boards and other constitutional officers for many years, is a new requirement for city officials as a result of changes by the Florida Legislature last year. Until now, city officials filed a far less detailed disclosure known as Form 1, which asked for sources of income, property and liabilities, but did not require any dollar amounts.

The forms are then added to a Florida Commission on Ethics database searchable by the public.

Commissioner Todd Weaver expressed concerns over potential theft over having to list expensive items in his home.

“I just feel like its an open invitation for theft,” he said. “I think its egregious.”

But the form allows officials to report household items as an aggregate figure without a detailed list. The detail required is related to financial assets, property, business interests and any debts. Liabilities are then subtracted from an official’s total assets to determine net worth.

While a number of elected officials have called the change an overreach, the ethics commission uses them as a way to provide the public with accountability when it comes to understanding any conflicts of interest an elected official might have. The forms could also serve as a check on whether officials appear to be privately profiting from holding public office.

Ardaman said the city would pay a $10,000 flat fee to join the lawsuit. He said multiple cities he represents are considering whether to join.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that in surveyed local governments in Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties, and found that eight elected officials have resigned. They include two in Edgewood, one in Casselberry, and one Windermere, in addition to the four in Belle Isle.

Commissioners set another discussion on the topic for Feb. 14.


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Commission postpones decision on Rollins faculty apartments

Commission postpones decision on Rollins faculty apartments

Commission postpones decision on Rollins faculty apartments

The liberal arts college offered a concession right out of the gate by reducing the number of units from 48 to 39, but commissioners wanted more

Jan. 25, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The City Commission on Wednesday postponed a decision on a request from Rollins College to build faculty apartments a few blocks north of Fairbanks Avenue from the liberal arts campus despite a significant reduction in units and new project renderings.

Rollins President Grant Cornwell immediately acknowledged nearby residents’ discontent over the proposal and offered to reduce the number of units from 48 to 39.

“We’ve heard the concerns about parking and we’ve heard concerns about density so we come here to you today prepared to build a smaller project than we originally proposed,” he said, explaining that he sees faculty apartments as “strategic” to the college’s mission and “nobody is making any money here … this isn’t a business deal.”

But that did little to quell concerns and several commissioners presented lists of additional demands and questions from the length of time Rollins must maintain the project as faculty and staff housing, to what defines faculty, the materials used to construct the building, potential mandatory solar power to the building’s aesthetics.

The number of stories and whether the roof is sloped or flat emerged as perhaps the biggest sticking point of the night. Typically buildings along that stretch of Welbourne Avenue are restricted to 2.5 stories with a sloped roof and dormer windows. But Rollins is asking for three story vertical construction with a flat roof, which is allowed just blocks away in the city’s Central Business District.

Becky Wilson, an attorney from Lowndes who represents Rollins, explained that the dormer windows would not work because the third level needs to be used for full units and sloped walls would interfere in the design.

“We also worked a little on the renderings,” she said, nodding to concerns expressed by residents at last week’s Planning & Zoning Board meeting about the architecture.

She emphasized that Rollins will continue to own and control the building and would prohibit tenants from draping items over the balconies or making them unsightly in other ways.

Some of the residents’ concerns conjured images of a fraternity house versus up to three-bedroom units for new professors and their families. A number of residents of the Douglas Grand condominium building said they feared their own units will drop in value because of Rollins’ planned framed construction with what they called too few architectural details to emulate the Spanish-Mediterranean style the main campus is known for.

“Please consider whether or not you would purchase a $1 million residence across the street from what would be at best an average maintained, subsidized apartment complex,” read one email to commissioners from a resident.

“It is the appearance of the rental facility that makes it even more distasteful,” read another.

“Not to sound snotty, but this is the type of apartment better suited for cities like Fern Park or Casselberry,” a resident wrote.

Wilson clarified that the apartments would not be restricted by income, but the college plans to charge rents based on affordability for people who earn up to 120%, or perhaps even more, of the area median income.

Cornwell has said he envisions tenure-seeking faculty who are early in their careers to utilize the units so they can afford to live near campus, where many home prices easily exceed $1 million.

As the meeting went on, it became clear there weren’t enough votes for Rollins to win approval, particularly after Mayor Phil Anderson said he wasn’t comfortable with a three-story building and other factors.

“For me, compatibility is less about intensity and more about what the building is going to look like,” he said.

Anderson urged residents to understand that whether the college pays property taxes on the property or not is up to federal  and state rules governing tax-exempt organizations and a determination by the county property appraiser. Typically, non-profit groups — even big-monied ones like hospital systems AdventHealth and Orlando Health and major universities — don’t pay property taxes when the land is used to further the group’s mission.

City Attorney Kurt Ardaman said there is case law to support faculty housing as a purpose that would qualify for an exemption.

The City Commission voted unanimously to table a decision until its next meeting on Feb. 14.


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Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Two commission candidates offer views on growth, old library, Rollins apartments and more

Monday’s forum at the Winter Park Library was the first of the election season

Jan. 22, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Commission Seat 2 candidates Jason Johnson and Craig Russell faced off at a forum Monday night at the Winter Park Library, revealing some clear, if subtle, differences in their philosophies on questions such as what to do with the old library building, a proposal for Rollins College faculty apartments and the future of development in Winter Park. (Watch a recording of the event here.)

Stockton Reeves, the third candidate in the race, did not attend the forum. Carol Foglesong, the moderator from the Orange County League of Women Voters, announced Reeves was “caught out of town on his job and was not able get back  … so it’s not that he didn’t show it’s that the job got in the way for tonight.”

Jason Johnson shares a hug with his daughter after the forum.

That raised some confusion, however, because Reeves met in person on Monday with Winter Park residents involved in the Fix 426 effort at an Orlando office. He did not immediately respond to a question from the Voice about whether he was out of town during the forum, though he previously told the Voice he had a work conflict during the event that he was trying to reschedule.

Russell and Johnson, both first-time candidates for public office, showcased their knowledge and experience in the local community.

Both credited their children and families as their biggest accomplishments and appeared to agree on issues like examining how the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, a special downtown tax increment district that the current City Commission is trying to expand, could play a role in providing more affordable housing.

They also agreed that recent increases in pay for police officers have made the department more competitive in hiring.

Neither expressed a firm opinion when asked whether Winter Park should let voters decide whether to adopt single-member districts or carving the city into sections that each elect a representative to the City Commission. Russell, who is Black, nodded to the merits of diversity several times during the forum. Winter Park has not elected a Black commissioner in more than 130 years.

“There isn’t enough data for me to answer,” said Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High who also serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and as a trustee for the Winter Park Library. “If there’s true representation that kind of solves that problem.”

Craig Russell poses with students who came out to support him at the candidate forum.

Johnson, an attorney and current chairman of the city’s Board of Adjustments, said he’s “always in favor of allowing voters to decide” and noted single-member districts have positives and negatives and he would want more information.

While both candidates largely described their future vision of Winter Park as keeping the look and feel of the city much the way it is today, some differences emerged.

On the Rollins College proposal for 48 new apartments aimed at providing attainable housing for faculty closer to campus, Russell signaled a willingness to find a way to make it happen.

“How do we make it work?” Russell asked of the project on New England Avenue that has drawn complaints from neighbors about its density, architecture and potential shortage of parking. “I don’t think the immediate answer is no … Rollins historically has been a good neighbor to us and it’s an opportunity for something we haven’t done here in Winter Park and I’m very open to hear more about it.”

Johnson said he didn’t want to express a firm viewpoint, but seemed more skeptical.

“I do think there is a need for housing for faculty and staff in the city, so I understand why Rollins wants to do it,” he said. “But I also understand some of the residential concerns.”

On the matter of the old library building, which continues to pose a conundrum for city officials since the City Commission recently rejected a second round of proposals that came in to redevelop the parcel, Johnson said he opposed selling the land. A sale has been brought up multiple times to raise revenue for other projects.

A packed crowd listens to candidates for Commission Seat 2 at the Winter Park Library.

He said a sale is on the “bottom of my list of priorities,” because “it’s a gateway and it’s too valuable of an asset to sell off for a few dollars today. I wouldn’t’ support that right now.”

Later in the forum, Johnson brought up one idea that’s been discussed, which is to turn the land into a small park space.

Russell said he would “have to lean on a bunch of contacts that I have to learn more about that situation” and expressed concern about the building falling into disrepair.

When it comes to a general growth philosophy, Johnson appeared to express a bit more skepticism there, too.

“I think there’s a certain segment that would have you believe we need greater balance between residential and commercial tax bases,” he said. “I don’t know that I share that belief. I want to protect our neighborhoods from commercial encroachment, but I do think there are ways we can improve both the neighborhoods and the commercial vitality. We need to make sure our infrastructure is better improved and maintained.”

Russell said he wanted to talk to experts about the possibility of growth.

“We have to be able to open to listen to the possibility of growth,” he said. “We have to be open to listen to the experts who can tell us how can we solve this problem. I don’t know all the answers. I know where we can find the answers … I know there are generations that want to come back here and I’m open to listen to all ideas.”


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Schenkel Schultz to relocate 65 employees to Winter Park

Schenkel Schultz to relocate 65 employees to Winter Park

The architecture firm will leave its headquarters in downtown Orlando and move to a renovated single-story building on North Orange Avenue

Jan. 22, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Architecture firm Schenkel Schultz is planning to move its corporate headquarters from downtown Orlando to Winter Park later this year, the firm said in a press release on Monday.

The move in the fall of 2024 would involve renovating the single-story building at 834 North Orange Avenue, across from the Rollins College baseball stadium, into a 12,000-square-foot open layout to accommodate the 65 employees who now work in the firm’s office near Lake Eola.

The Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, a project designed by Schenkel Schultz.

The concept would also contain outdoor spaces for events and programing, the release said.

“This strategic relocation is a pivotal moment for Schenkel Shultz, aligning with the sustainability commitments announced at the close of 2023,” the release stated. “The renovations will adhere to the principles of the ‘AIA Materials Pledge,’ utilizing products that minimize carbon emissions and champion human health, climate health, ecosystem health, social health and equity, and contributing to a circular economy.”

Schenkel Schultz is known for its work on schools, airports, arts venues and more. It designed the new Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation headquarters off Park Avenue in Winter Park.


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With just two months to go, campaigns for two city seats heat up

With just two months to go, campaigns for two city seats heat up

With just two months to go, campaigns for two city seats heat up

At least two candidate events are scheduled for the coming week

Jan. 19, 2024

By Beth Kassab

With less than two months until Election Day, candidates are shifting into an intensified ground game for votes with multiple forums on the calendar, social media pushes and a dose of partisan politics that prompted one sitting commissioner to back out of an upcoming event for one candidate.

Kris Cruzada, who was elected in 2022 to Seat 3 with nearly 52% of the vote, said Friday he would no longer attend a lunch scheduled for Tuesday hosted by the Winter Park Republican Women Federated that will feature Stockton Reeves, a candidate for Seat 2.City elections are non-partisan — no party affiliation appears on the ballot next to candidate names. But it’s not uncommon for partisan groups to endorse candidates and to provide financial support.

Winter Parkers will go to the polls on March 19, the same day as Florida’s Republican presidential primary. That means the 38% of the city’s nearly 22,000 voters who are registered as Republicans will also find the presidential candidates on their ballots. Democrats account for 36% of city voters and those without a party affiliation make up another 24%, according to the most recent counts from the Orange County Supervisor of Elections.

An invitation from the Republican group said Cruzada would speak after Reeves talks about “some very direct and enlightening information on what is actually going on in City Hall.”

“You will be surprised to hear how the left is turning our gem of a city into a liberal bastion of taxing and spending with a woke agenda,” read the invitation from Hattie Bryant, president of Winter Park Republican Women.

Cruzada, the only elected Republican who serves on the commission, said he disagreed with that characterization.

“I disagree because we have a balanced budget,” Cruzada said. “We have to keep up with the rate of inflation and we’ve also increased our tax rolls because of the increase in appraised property values. Like everybody else, we are trying to keep employees and run a city with limited resources when everything is going up in price.”

Bryant confirmed Cruzada would instead appear at a future meeting and said Reeves, who also ran as a Republican for a State House seat, would have about five minutes to speak.

Reeves, who recently loaned $50,000 to his own campaign, according to reports filed on Friday, said his message that day would be the same as it is to any other group and emphasized his focus on public safety and other issues such as historic preservation and the budget.

“I am not asking any political party for help or support though I have people from both major parties, independents and non-party affiliates helping me and supporting me financially,” he told the Voice.

Jason Johnson, an attorney who has so far raised more than $26,000, and Craig Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High who has raised $4,600, are expected to appear at the forum for Seat 2 candidates on Monday evening at the Winter Park Library. Reeves said he is trying to work out a scheduling conflict so that he can also attend.

A similar event for the two candidates for mayor is scheduled for the morning of Feb. 8. The events are free and open to the public.

Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio is running for mayor against real estate school owner Michael Cameron. DeCiccio has raised nearly $22,000 so far, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.

Cameron, who reported $1,500 in contributions, has  run a relatively quiet campaign so far, but in recent days he created a profile dedicated to the campaign on Facebook and TikTok. His posts include his apparent support of the Republican Party and Gov. Ron DeSantis based on the hashtags he included such as #redwave, #conservative and the governor’s name.

“I had so many great conversations today and sometimes I just got the door slammed directly in my face and that’s OK,” he said in a video about his collection of signatures to get on the ballot. “There are residents of Winter Park who don’t have a voice and I want to try to be that voice.”

The Winter Park Chamber of Commerce will host a forum for all five candidates on Feb. 7.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect more context surrounding the quote from the invitation from Winter Park Republican Women. 


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