Preservation Rule: Friendly or Divisive?

A new alliance of Winter Park commissioners is ready to thumb its nose at a historic preservation rule and return to the good old days of four months ago.

Mayor Steve Leary, Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel and newly elected Pete Weldon want to resurrect a rule that 67 percent of a neighborhood must agree to form a historic district.

Last December, when a former commission majority reduced that threshold to 50 percent plus one, Sprinkel and Leary opposed it. Now Weldon is in their camp and leading the charge as part of a new majority. He won his seat by defeating incumbent Tom McMacken, an avid preservationist.

City residents don’t want to be forced into historic districts, Weldon insisted, likening them to homeowners associations. Requiring a 67 percent vote would create “a more friendly attitude among the neighbors.”

Sprinkel and Leary blamed the 50-percent-plus-one vote for making things “divisive” in the city.

Commissioner Carolyn Cooper saw it another way. Weldon won by less than 51 percent and the library bond issue by only 51 percent, she said. “Fifty percent plus one is democracy.”

Commissioner Greg Seidel argued he has seen no negative effects from the lower threshold and, besides, no neighborhoods have sought to form a historic district since December. Raising the threshold back to 67 percent, he said, would surely be divisive and would keep the commission from addressing more important matters, such as traffic and underground power lines. “This will just distract us,” he said. He bluntly challenged the board. “If you guys really don’t like it [the historic ordinance] that much, why don’t you just vote it out? You’re going to have the same uproar.”

Later, Seidel questioned what the commission was doing to address residents’ biggest concern. “When I ran for election, the big campaign issue was, What was I going to do to save the character of the city?” he said. “What I see the vote doing today is going in the opposite direction.”

The mayor disagreed. Leary listed three projects – the current golf course refurbishing, the Rollins College Alfond Inn and the new civic center/library – as evidence of recent actions that save the city’s character. When Seidel noted that residents might see some of those as problems, Leary shrugged. “There you go. You’re going to have an argument on everything.”

Despite the meeting’s strongly worded exchanges, commissioners reached significant compromises on historic preservation. They rejected an “opt-out” clause that would have let homeowners off the hook if they didn’t like their historic district’s rules. Leary and Sprinkel said they were satisfied reinstituting the 67 percent requirement. Commissioners also agreed to include “voluntary preservation” as a way to achieve the ordinance’s objectives, and to develop a  more detailed process for deciding a structure’s historic value.

Most commissioners also agreed the Historic Preservation Board should keep its power to grant variances to historic structures. Weldon had wanted to give that power to the Board of Adjustment, which is tougher on allowing exceptions to the building code. He said some people list their houses as historic to “game the system” and more easily receive variances..

Several residents at the meeting objected to returning to the 67 percent rule.”Let the ink dry on the paper before we change it,” said Drew Krecicki. “Let’s chill out and give it a year.”

Frank Hamner, who assisted the task force that last year revised the preservation ordinance, said the only other times the city demands a 67 percent vote is when a neighborhood  decides whether to tax itself to make improvements, such as to put in sidewalks.

No dates have been set for the public hearings and formal votes on the proposed changes.

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    By: Geri Throne – Guest Columnist

    Author / Journalist
    Geri Throne moved to Winter Park with her husband and two young children over 40 years ago, after learning about the city as a reporter for the now-defunct Winter Park Sun Herald. She wrote extensively for that weekly about city issues and local politics in the 1970s.She later joined the staff of the Orlando Sentinel where she specialized in local government issues and in the 1980s served as Winter Park bureau chief. She worked at the newspaper’s Orlando office as an assistant city editor, deputy business editor and member of the Editorial Board before her retirement in 2003. A series of her editorials won a national award for educational reporting from the Education Writers Association in 2003. Geri has published several essays and short stories. She continues to pursue her interest in fiction writing with local authors and is working on a novel set in World War II.

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