Commission approves CRA expansion

Sinkhole discussion could lead to more parking at Library & Events Center and leaf blower decision delayed again

March 28, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The City Commission approved a major expansion of the Community Redevelopment Agency, which will generate extra dollars from Orange County to spend on projects and programs in the special district across much of Winter Park’s major commercial corridors.

Before the deal is final, the county commission must OK it as well. A vote is expected this summer.

Mayor Phil Anderson, who was presiding over his final meeting before Sheila DeCiccio is sworn-in as mayor on April 10, said the CRA has been a critical piece of funding projects for “the common good.” The board is planning to use some of the money in the future to address drainage problems in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

“Assuming one agrees that flood prevention is for the common good, then those dollars would have to come from a bond issue, or come from the general fund or it wouldn’t happen,” Anderson said, if the CRA didn’t provide an additional financing option. The commission approved the expansion 5-0.

Several residents, including former Mayor David Johnston, spoke against the expansion, which calls for the CRA to be extended by 10 years — through 2037 — and grow its boundaries by 142 acres by taking in a former industrial area along Fairbanks Avenue west of U.S. 17-92.

Johnston said the CRA has served its purpose and should be allowed to dissolve when it’s set to expire in 2027 if the expansion is not approved.

“It’s time to end the CRA,” he said, noting that he was mayor in the early 1990s when the agency was first created.

But commissioners and city staff noted the success of the district, which has helped brick streets, build a community center, rehab housing and business facades and improve streets among other projects. This year money from the CRA also helped to boost the library budget so that it could open on Sundays again.

With the expansion down Fairbanks Avenue, the agency will generate an estimated $70 million a year from Orange County. The new CRA, which is controlled by the City Commission, is projected to generate between $162 million and $213 million in revenue through 2037.

“It’s a very elegant mechanism to make sure more of our taxpayer dollars stay with the city,” said Peter Moore, director of management and budget.

CRA’s are used across Florida by cities and counties as a way to finance redevelopment and specific projects. It works like this: property values within a CRA’s boundaries are frozen at a certain year — in this case that year would be 2023. Then, as values rise, any taxes on those properties collected above the frozen amount go into a CRA fund rather than back to the city and county that would typically collect them. (The city and county still collect taxes each year up to the frozen amount and school board taxes are not affected.)

Sinkhole risk near the library?

Commissioners heard a report from engineer Jay Casper, who assessed the sinkhole risk near the Winter Park Library & Events Center as the city looks to add more parking for the facilities.

Casper said he found no elevated risk of sinkholes despite the proximity to the large sinkhole that opened up in May 1981 (pictured at top of story) on the corner of Denning Drive and Orange Avenue. The sinkhole is now known as Lake Rose.

He showed aerial photos that demonstrated how the area has changed since then, noting a sharp increase in development.

“You see the threat of sinkholes hasn’t stopped people from building,” he said.

He engaged in a technical discussion with commissioners — Mayor Phil Anderson and commissioners Marty Sullivan and Todd Weaver all have engineering backgrounds — related to the soil quality analyzed from drillings in the area.

He said the soil samples he analyzed “showed no indication of any subsurface erosion going on.”

Commissioners asked why, then, small portions of the library parking lot have crumbled after the facility opened in 2022.

“Those were relatively close to the surface,” said Charles Ramdatt, the city’s director of public works, answering that the problem was caused by “construction methods.” “We went in and fixed them. It has nothing to do with the underlying geology and our staff actively monitors that site.”

Leaf blower referendum

Commissioners decided to delay a vote on whether voters should have a say on the gas leaf blower ban until April 24.

The Commission was set to take up the issue on April 10, but there will only be four commissioners in place for that meeting after Sheila DeCiccio is sworn in as mayor earlier that day. A run-off to fill Seat 2, which DeCiccio occupies today, won’t be decided until April 16.

As a result the new commissioner is likely to face a vote about whether to put the ban on the ballot next year at his first meeting.

B&B request

The owners of five of six units at Villa Vienda Condominiums (221 Holt Avenue) opted to delay a vote asking to convert the condos into a bed & breakfast in order to use them as Air B&B or VRBO properties.

The building was historically occupied by Rollins students and the owners are no longer happy with that arrangement because of frequent maintenance issues and the location near the campus makes it difficult to find other renters. As a result they are requesting to comply with the city’s B&B rules.

The matter is now also expected to appear on the April 24 agenda.

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