Lessons from Charleston
Quality of Life Drives Economic DevelopmentEditor's Note: Articles written by citizens reflect their own opinions and not the views of the Winter Park Voice.
Guest Columnist Bob Bendick
I recently traveled to in Charleston, South Carolina, to attended a gathering of people from around the country who are engaged in the conservation of large landscapes for their benefits to people and nature.
What Charleston Can Teach Us
We had the opportunity to take a field trip and to hear from several of the community leaders who have been involved in land conservation and historic preservation in the South Carolina Low Country over the last 30 years. While Charleston itself is much larger than Winter Park, and the Low Country region is larger than the Orlando Metropolitan Area, there are lessons from the Charleston experience relevant to Winter Park and Central Florida.
Legacy of Structures & Green Space
Charleston has an important history and a legacy of historic structures and green space. The people of Charleston have cared for the historic fabric of the city and have adopted local ordinances to ensure that historic structures are protected and that the scale of new buildings in the downtown area fit in with the traditional scale of the community.
Charleston’s Green Belt
Similarly, both within the city and in surrounding areas, there has been a sustained effort to protect open space for its ecological, cultural, and recreational values. This has been accomplished by cooperation with federal agencies, by bonding to finance land acquisition in Charleston County, by creative development plans, and by private landowners donating the rights to develop their rural lands. As a result, there is now a greenbelt of conservation lands two-thirds of the way around the city, and there are many places where people can access parks, refuges and waterways.
Everyone’s History Matters
Another part of Charleston’s history is important to this story. Charleston was the point of entry into North America for a large number of the African slaves brought to this country prior to the Civil War. Charleston is sensitive to this aspect of its past, and has worked hard to ensure that the African American community and its history are recognized and respected as Charleston moves forward.
Public-Private Partnerships Strengthen City Character
One clear reason for the success of conservation and historic preservation in Charleston has been extraordinary cooperation among non-profit organizations, local government, state and federal agencies and private businesses working together to protect the character of the region. Economic development interests have recognized the value of Charleston’s heritage and have contributed to its protection. For example, Boeing made funds available to purchase a key parcel of forest land for conservation to offset the environmental impacts of the construction of its large new aircraft manufacturing plant at the Charleston Airport.
Southern Charm is Strong Economic Driver
The protection of the historic and environmental character of the Charleston Region has not been an impediment to the economy of the city and the surrounding area. In fact, the quality and character of life in Charleston has been a key stimulus to economic development. It has attracted second home construction, tourism and the location of high-wage manufacturing. All of this has made the Charleston region one of the fastest growing in the country.
Protecting Winter Park’s Character is a Wise Long-term Investment
The lessons for Winter Park and Central Florida seem clear–that protecting the historic and natural character, scale, attractiveness and diversity of Winter Park and the surrounding region should not be thought of as opposed to the economic well-being of the city and central Florida, but as a long-term investment in the assets of our community that will attract quality growth while providing a sense of place, history, and belonging to the people who live and work here.
Winter Park has protections too. The problem is the City Commissioners ignore them. The group that fought to preserve MLK Park dug up a legal document from long ago that showed MLK Park is required to remain park land forever.
But the commissioners are firing up the bulldozers and getting ready to build the monstrosity in the park just the same.
The dumbest thing that Winter Park residents do is they allow three of their fellow residents to sell or develop park land, any and all of the park land in the city if they so choose, at any time. And also that they allow three of their fellow residents to allow building 30 story buildings, or any other high density schemes, as many as they want, any time they want.
This should all be prohibited in the City Charter which only the residents have the authority to approve. But of course it is not. Because the residents are still of the mentality that they are not being screwed by design, and that if only they can get just the right person elected to the city commission at the next election everything will be fine.
It will not until residents prohibit by law ANY commissioners in the future from allowing building anything stupid or from selling any city property or from not allocating sufficient funds in the city budget to add green space. That can only be done through the City Charter which only residents have the authority to approve. And unless the City Charter also requires that each official election results be audited by independent CPA’s and trustworthy Winter Park residents, and not just taking the word of a politician from Orlando who tells us every year who won the Winter Park election and how many votes they got, you might as well hang it up folks. Because the official election results in the 2018 mayor’s election were obviously bogus. Sorry, that’s just reality.
I love Charleston. Who doesn’t love stepping back in time to visit how our history looked.
I agree with this article and feel like there is a time where a city, like Winter Park, needs to say “enough!” Cramming more and more people (density) into a charming area like Winter Park is a travesty. It is taking away our village feel and personality. Greed has run rampant over the last several years. Let’s put more value on what we have.
Betty the homes on Aloma are a blight. Unkept and in disray. What would be acceptable to you? I live around the corner
Craig- I can’t presume to speak for Betti but I too live near the Aloma site. The neighbors made it clear that what they wished to see was development which met the comp plan where single family housing was concerned and which was O-2 where O-2 was called for.
EIGHTEEN town homes here was a jaw dropping grab for density by the developer in total disregard for the neighboring property owners’ wishes (as well as our comp plan and zoning code.)
Homes are bought and sold, built or remodeled along Aloma with success all the time. Aloma home owners speak of their homes with the same pride which other home owners do.
These five parcels were in the hands of the developer and his family for years. Because they intended to raze all of them, they did nothing to maintain or improve the appearance of any of the parcels ( or the 3 single family homes they were renting out to people as they waited to redevelop). So the “blight” you mention was a conscious choice by the developer.
I’d like to see the entire Aloma parcel that’s being debated used for only ONE estate home. Maybe an old Victorian like the one at the old Alabama hotel before someone bought it and changed its appearance.
It would make a real statement on Aloma, and over time, other properties along Aloma could be consolidated, every 4 homes bulldozed and in their place, one new estate home.
Repeated all down Aloma.
Imagine crossing Lakemont on Aloma from the east and all you see on your right and left one estate home for every 4 homes that are there now.
See, that would be an improvement. And that’s why commissioners would never try to encourage anything like that. Instead they will debate should they allow 18 townhouse, or only 17.
And if they would just wait a minute, with the expansion of the hospital, there are going to be a lot of rich doctors who would like to be able to walk to work who would love to buy a new estate home on Aloma. The developer would make money and the Aloma would be improved. That’s why it will never happen. Makes too much sense for anybody around here to do it.
The city should buy the Aloma corner for green space.
They could call it “The Greene at The Scene.”
The property owner would get money. The neighbors would be happy. The traffic would be the same.
Makes more sense to buy green space than it does to buy a $50 million new library we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.
New homes. They have been building them up and down Aloma ever since I moved here in 2000. Not crack houses, real homes with style. R-1 should be unassailable.
Having Charleston’s Mayor speak here some years back was a brilliant move to LEARN from other leaders of both restoration and preservation. Please find a copy of his speech and SHARE highlights that apply to Winter Park’s need to increase our “progress” of sustaining this TREASURE of a community.
Thank you for your contribution to this important discussion, Mr. Bendick.
As with so many issues in our community (& country), there seems to be the misapprehension that preservation/conservation & growth are opposing principles.
I’m pleased to read that the folks in Charleston worked to preserve & protect city character, history & green spaces and now enjoy the benefits—spiritually, aesthetically, ecologically, and economically—from such civilized choices.
I want to believe we can do the same here in Winter Park.
“Change the Charter”
“Charleston Chew” is right about the eroding character of our special gem, Winter Park. Changing the people on the dais who make the choices is only a band aid for the problem. The real solution lies in changing the Charter.
Ordinances go to the Commission for decision. Charter changes go directly to the ballot and the People decide.
Controlling density, selling city property and allotting enough funds for green space need to be written into Law. This means changing the Charter.
Do we as citizens have the resolve to go through the process of changing the Charter? A group would need to work with an attorney to write the changes. Then, an army of volunteers must canvass door to door to obtain the required number of signatures to place it on the ballot.
Is there anyone out there willing to tackle this solution?
I am willing to help, but I am running out of time—and so is the character of our City.
There are a lot of good things about the current city charter.
I wouldn’t throw the whole thing out. Just re-do it according three major themes:
THEME NUMBER ONE:
Limit the authority of the City Commission
The major change that is needed is to LIMIT the authority of the commissioners. If they make only $2,000 or $3,000 a year in their city salaries, they should not have the authority of someone making $100,000 or more. They should have the authority of someone who makes $3,000 a year. That means SHARPLY cutting commissioners authority to 1) approve development, 2) approve ordinances, 3) approve budgets.
Not that they wouldn’t have any authority, just much, MUCH less than they have now. Right now, the residents basically give their commissioners carte blanche to do almost anything they, the commissioners, want with the exception of incurring new debt. That must change, and the powers must be returned to the residents.
THEME NUMBER TWO:
Make consensus the guiding principle rather than “majority rules – winner take all.”
A new city charter should allow a resident voters’ PETITION alone to block any individual decision of the commission, without any election required. The number of residents signatures required to do this would depend on the matter in question, and would be clearly specified in the new city charter.
Normally 2,000 resident voter signatures should be an adequate indication that sufficient consensus has not been achieved to move forward. But it could be a lesser number of signatures required for a decision that would primarily impact only one neighborhood.
This would force commissioners to make policy with ALL the residents in mind, not just some.
Super majorities of 60 percent or more would be required for new debt or to approve development over a certain number of square feet or height. The percentage of the super majority would be on a sliding scale depending on the amount of new debt or building sq. ft. and clearly specified in the new city charter. A certain maximum number of new square feet and total square feet PER YEAR allowed would be exempt from the residents vote requirement and could be approved by the commission without the concurrence of the residents..
THEME NUMBER THREE:
Restoration of civil rights.
Commissioners should not be infringing on the free speech rights of the residents. Yet they have passed ordinances restricting the time, place, and manner of free speech. Even residents’ basic rights to circulate a petition are now subject to “zones.” where it is not allowed. This is indicative of a commission that does not respect its residents, and that is hostile to resident activism.
The problem residents are having with a lot of these development projects is a symptom of the basic lack of respect commissioners have for residents as is evidenced by ordinances passed. Rights must be restored to the residents. If not, only a symptom has been addressed and not the root cause.
Residents’ Petition Powers alone, without requiring a special election, to change city policy, is a necessary corner stone of any new city charter as confidence in the accuracy of county run, computerized elections, diminishes, and to encourage creative solutions that are acceptable to the residents as a whole – not just that are acceptable to three commissioners, or to a simple majority.
Petition powers could also be granted in the new city charter to residents to remove a city commissioner from office without a recall election required, or any city department head, to ensure that staff understands that each works for the residents and not for three seats on the Dais.
If you are going to change the charter, change the representation on the City Commission from at large (city wide representation) to geographical district representation elected within each district. And expand the number of commissioners.
With 30,000 residents, strive for 1 commissioner per 1,000 residents, elected by each neighborhood of 1,0000 residents.
That would give us a City Commission of 30, not 5. It would give us commissioners who represent 1,000 residents each, not failure to represent 30,000 residents each. It would ensure that each neighborhood has both a voice and a vote on the city commission, and not no voice and no vote on the commission.
Perhaps most importantly, it would create obstacles for developers and political parties to buy our city commission. And it would make auditing election results BY RESIDENTS very convenient. Here’s how districts would make government more REPRESENTATIVE.
Say Carpet Bagger X moves into a district and runs for commissioner. The politician from Orlando who certifies election results says Carpet Bagger X won 72% of the votes in his district. But his neighbors know that nobody voted for him. So all the neighbors would have to do to throw the rascal out is go door to door and have enough neighbors sign affidavits saying they did not vote for Carpet Bagger X, to prove that the election results were phony baloney and that Candidate Honest Resident won instead. This would send Carpet Bagger X packing to his next carpet bagging city, and would expose the fake vote counting at the same time, making the city government more representative for everyone.