Judge rules in favor of city in lawsuit over rescission of Orange Avenue Overlay

The case brought by commercial property owner Mary Demetree challenged a 2020 decision by newly-elected commissioners to take back zoning changes along the busy corridor

Oct. 20, 2023

Note: This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

By Beth Kassab

A judge ruled in favor of the city of Winter Park on Thursday, bringing to an end a three-year dispute over the vote to rescind major zoning changes that would have allowed taller buildings and more dense development along Orange Avenue. Read the ruling here.

The summary judgement signed by Circuit Court Judge Vincent Falcone ruled that the intended changes to the city’s comprehensive land plan had not gone into effect by the time the commission voted to take back the ordinances that would have altered the plan.  He also ruled that the court could not conclude the city violated it’s own procedures or Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws as it quickly moved to undo the recommended changes for Orange Avenue between Park Avenue and U.S. Highway 17-92.

“Plaintiffs leave no doubt of their sincere belief that the process of adopting the Rescission Ordinance was unfair (if not unseemly) and a sharp retreat from the process that produced the 2020 CPA Ordinance, which they describe as being marked by public participation and reasoned decision making,” Falcone wrote. “The Court’s role is, however, a limited one, and it would be a dangerous infringement on local authority and legislative decisions for a single jurist to void enactments by elected officials based on general notions of fair play.”

The lawsuit was brought by four entities that own property in the corridor and are managed by Mary Demetree, a commercial real estate owner and developer.

Charles Greene, Demetree’s attorney, said he was unable to comment because he has not yet reviewed the decision.

Daniel Langley, an attorney for the city of Winter Park, characterized the ruling as “a complete victory for the City,” in an email on Thursday evening to city commissioners and administrators.

The city and Demetree recently went to mediation to try to resolve the dispute, but reached an impasse. The case was scheduled for trial next month and the city attorneys were in the process of trying to prohibit current and former city commissioners from testifying. The trial is now cancelled as a result of the judge’s ruling.

The suit alleged improprieties by the City Commission in March of 2020 just after Sheila DeCiccio, who is now running for mayor, and Marty Sullivan were elected for the first time.

Under former Mayor Steve Leary the city conducted years of meetings and forums on potential zoning changes along Orange Avenue to revitalize the area.

The Commission approved by a 3-2 vote the Orange Avenue Overlay district, which called for buildings to be as many as six stories in some areas, on March 9, 2020.

DeCiccio and Sullivan were elected less than 10 days later.

Then, on March 30, as the pandemic was beginning to shut down the world, the new commission held a special meeting and took the first of two votes to rescind the previous overlay vote earlier that month. Leary was the only dissenter.

Falcone said he did not find any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the new commission.

“Even if the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, there are at most emails indicating that the Rescission Ordinance was added to the agenda at Commissioner-Elect DeCiccio’s request, and she commented on, and worked with City staff to revise, the draft Rescission Ordinance,” the ruling stated. “Her indication in an email that ‘we are not amending the ordinance but are replacing it’ is a statement regarding the intended effect of the Rescission Ordinance and, without more, does not establish that Commissioner-Elect DeCiccio had discussions or made decisions with other Commissioners or Commissioners-Elect in a non-public context.”

Questions or comments? Email the editor at WinterParkVoiceEditor@gmail.com


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