Weekly Roundup

Seat 2 campaigns intensify over development, public safety claims

The three-way race appears focused on one of Winter Park's most asked questions: How will growth look in the future?

Feb. 22, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Election mailers and the accusations that come along with them are flying in Winter Park as three candidates compete for the seat on the City Commission vacated by Sheila DeCiccio, who is running for mayor.

The issue taking the most attention? Growth and development — Winter Park’s perennial dog fight.

At stake is how Orange and Fairbanks avenues as well as U.S. 17-92 look over time as major property owners begin to redevelop their land along with continuing redevelopment across the city’s western neighborhoods.

The person who is elected to the open seat will likely have significant influence over those projects and two of the candidates, Jason Johnson and Craig Russell, are clearly differentiating themselves on the matter. A third candidate, Stockton Reeves, appears to be focusing on taxes and inflation as well as claims about public safety.

A mailer to residents from the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce’s Political Action Committee somewhat crystalizes what is emerging as a defining issue in the race: Whether development codes should be more lenient.

“Did you know?” the mailer asks is large type. “Park Avenue would be prohibited from being built today under current city code.”

The mailer goes on to say that the code “blocks Winter Park’s iconic charm from enhancing other parts of the city.”

The chamber endorsed Russell, a teacher and coach at Winter Park High School, who was the only candidate at the chamber election forum who said he was open to revisiting the original Orange Avenue Overlay rules that allow for taller buildings and higher density. Those rules were overturned by the City Commission in 2020 and the city won a lawsuit filed by major property holders over that decision.

Russell is also the only candidate who said he was open to the chamber’s proposal to do away with the city’s parking codes that require developers provide a certain number of spaces based on the type of development.

“Current codes limit commercial land owners from creating new mixed use venues of a similar size and aesthetic to Park Avenue because of the onerous and outdated parking requirements,” Betsy Gardner, chamber president and CEO, said in a statement. “Small concessions have been made over time for tenants in the Central Business District, but any new development in the city faces parking mandates that leave businesses overparked, creating empty lots, visual blight and a less walkable and more car-centric environment.”

Russell, who did not respond to a request for comment, has said at previous public forums that he would “listen to the experts” for guidance on growth and development issues. One recent mailer from Russell’s own campaign said he wants to “promote smart growth, opposing irresponsible high-density developments.”

Johnson, who opposes tossing out parking codes and emphatically said he did not agree with returning to the original OAO rules, questioned whether Russell would speak for residents or business interests when it comes to new development.

“The comment about ‘listening to the experts’ is a deflection and a way of saying if an expert comes in on behalf of a developer and says something, we should just listen to that rather than what the residents think,” he said.

Johnson, an attorney who has made maintaining Winter Park’s charm a central element of his campaign, sent out an email to voters this week that emphasized, “I am NOT endorsed by the Winter Park Chamber’s PAC, which endorsed a candidate who supports development of large out-of-scale buildings near Park Avenue, and doing away with parking requirements for future commercial developments.”

Reeves, who did not show up at the public candidate forums, has sent at least eight mailers to voters so far — the most of the three candidates.

One of his pieces exclaims “higher prices and inflation aren’t the only things out of control” and says “our property taxes are going up too!” He accused the commission of increasing taxes by 7% in 2022 and nearly 9% in 2023.

His claims are based on the idea that commissioners could have adopted the “rollback rate” or lowered the city’s milage rate to collect the same tax revenue as was collected the prior year.

Instead, commissioners kept the tax rate the same, but collected more taxes because property values have increased. That means each property owner paid a higher assessment based on their increased value.

During budget meetings last year, commissioners noted the need to increase police and fire budgets as inflation and other factors, have driven up wages and equipment costs.  Police and fire make up the largest portion of the city’s general fund expenses followed by parks and public works.

In a separate mailer, Reeves asks “Quick question – How many ambulances does Winter Park have for over 30,000 resident?”

“It is shocking to me that we only have 2 full-time ambulances,” the piece stated.

City officials said a third ambulance is already being staffed part-time and that is set to increase over the coming year.

“Winter Park Fire Department uses the ‘right-sized’ approach, which has proven world-class and credible as WPFD is five-times fire accredited and four-times EMS accredited,” said a statement from the department. “We have already phased in a third rescue/ambulance at Station 64 during select periods.  This will continue with the adoption of the [2025] budget, which already includes the hiring of additional personnel.”

Reeves told the Voice that staffing the third ambulance should happen sooner, “I am not satisfied with this and believe it should be staffed full time.”

But considering Reeves also says he supports adopting a rollback tax rate and wants to collect less revenue for the city, it’s unclear where he would find the money to continue to keep up with the costs of public safety.

He did not respond to a question from the Voice seeking details of his plan.

WinterParkVoiceEditor@gmail.com

Family of man who police shot and killed at a wedding sues city

Daniel Knight, 39, was shot five times by a Winter Park Police officer in 2022

Feb. 23, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The family of a man who was shot and killed by a Winter Park Police officer at his niece’s wedding reception is suing the city in federal court on claims of wrongful death and a violation of the man’s federal civil rights.

Daniel Knight, 39, died on Feb. 19, 2022 after two officers responded to a 911 call from the Winter Park Events Center, where the wedding reception was underway.

The suit, filed by Melissa Cruz, who is the mother of Knight’s two minor children, questions the actions of the officers, who took just 67 seconds from the time they approached Knight until he was shot. Knight has an adult child who is also part of the claim.

City spokeswoman Clarissa Howard said she could not comment on pending litigation.

The federal complaint alleges that the member of the city’s event staff who called 911 and reported Knight was “irate” and becoming violent was “not justified” in calling law enforcement because “she did not personally observe Mr. Knight posing an actual threat to anyone.”

When police arrived, body camera footage and footage from the venue shows that Knight, who was intoxicated, had been standing outside away from anyone else and then was standing next to his sister, Katrina Knight.

The lawsuit claims the officers “aggressively approached” Knight event though they could tell he was “mentally compromised” from drinking. The family asserts the officers failed to deescalate the situation and intensified matters by rushing to handcuff Knight even though they had not observed him posing a threat to anyone.

The Orange County State Attorney cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing last year, finding they acted reasonably with force after Knight failed to obey their commands and, at one point, struck one of the officers causing him to fall and briefly become unconscious. An internal police department review also cleared the officers.

Experts in de-escalation tactics and advocates for police reform told the Voice last year that officers could have taken a different approach and avoided a physical confrontation. Central principles of police de-escalation typically call for officers to slow down and maintain space between themselves and subjects they are confronting.

“The video of Winter Park police shooting Daniel Knight is extremely disturbing and devastating. Police tased and then shot Mr. Knight within a few seconds of each other while his family was physically shielding him from police with their own bodies,” stated N.R. Hines, criminal justice policy strategist at the ACLU of Florida. “That the Winter Park Police Department and the State Attorney’s Office decided that these events did not violate Florida law further speaks to the need for more training in de-escalation tactics statewide. It is unconscionable that Mr. Knight needed to lose his life during a family wedding.”

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Mayor Phil Anderson delivers state of the city address

Hannibal Square advocate Mary Daniels received the Founders Award

Feb. 16, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Mayor Phil Anderson on Friday honored Hannibal Square resident and advocate Mary Daniels, a regular critic of how development projects will alter the city’s historically Black neighborhood, for her service and leadership in his final State of the City Address before he leaves office in April.

Daniels, known as a fixture at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, moved to Winter Park as a child in the late 1950s from Georgia because her father was working for a man who returned to the city. She received the Mayor’s Founders Award for her longtime volunteer efforts and service on a variety of city and state boards.

Mary Daniels is embraced by friends and supporters at the State of the City Address.

“I’m very humbled and very appreciative that someone like me could even be considered for such an award,” Daniels said. “… for all the blessings given to you, pay it forward and bless someone else.”

Most recently, Daniels was part of the opposition to a rental townhome project on the city’s west side known as Winter Park Commons. As a result of concerns from neighbors, city commissioners approved a version of the project that included more single-family homes vs. multi-family units.

Anderson, who isn’t running for a second term in the March 19 election, alluded to recent controversial projects when he noted how Winter Park must find a balance between growth and maintaining its village-like charm.

“Time doesn’t stop,” he said. “You’ve got to change. You’ve got to adapt. Trying to do that while keeping a small town feel can sometimes be tough.”

He highlighted how the city has maintained one of the lowest property tax rates in the region while investing in everything from new police and fire positions to flood prevention and renewable energy.

Just three years after the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down travel and commerce across the globe, Park Avenue is vibrant, buoyed by a recent tripling of the budget for holiday lights, he said.

He also noted the city’s reserves stand at a record nearly $20 million. In a couple instances, Anderson appeared to talk directly to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings who was in the audience, when he said the Community Redevelopment Agency is poised to grow, too, if the city and county can reach an agreement.

Mayor Phil Anderson gives the State of the City remarks as commissioners Marty Sullivan, Sheila DeCiccio and Kris Cruzada look on.

The city’s plan to purchase at least 80% of its power from renewable sources by 2035 without increasing rates is perhaps one of its most forward-looking accomplishments, he said. He called the decision more than 20 years ago to purchase the city’s electric utility a hard-fought battle to “control our own destiny.”

“What other decisions can we make to control our own destiny,” he said.

WinterParkVoiceEditor@gmail.com

Starting Feb. 25, Winter Park Library will open on Sundays

The new hours are part of Executive Director Melissa Schneider's goals to expand access and services

Feb. 15, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Later this month the Winter Park Library will be open on Sundays for the first time since before the pandemic.

The new hours from noon to 6 p.m. starting on Feb. 25 are the result of increased investment in the library by the City of Winter Park through its Community Redevelopment Agency.

City Commissioners last year approved an additional $350,000 contribution to the library, which allowed Executive Director Melissa Schneider to fill an additional seven full-time equivalent positions.

The extra staff will make the Sunday hours possible along with expanded access to the library’s archives, technology and maker spaces, which were previously only available by appointment.

Schneider said there will be an emphasis on helping small businesses and entrepreneurs within the city’s CRA, which exists to help the area near downtown become more economically vibrant.

So far she said the bump in library users that resulted from the opening of the new building at the end of 2021 next to MLK Park and also within the CRA has held steady. A gala last weekend raised $200,000 for the nonprofit library.

“The first year we thought maybe this was an anomaly,” she said. “But so far we’re maintaining where we were in 2024. We’re anticipating this is going to be our biggest year yet.”

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Commission to consider resident vote on gas leaf blower ban

Sen. Jason Brodeur signaled he would not try to preempt the ban if commissions let voters decide its fate next year

Feb. 14, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The noise over Winter Park’s ban on gas leaf blowers intensified Wednesday at a hastily called work session for the City Commission to decide how to respond to a threat by Sen. Jason Brodeur (pictured above) to take away control over the issue from local officials.

City Manager Randy Knight told commissioners he spoke with Brodeur and the senator would be willing to drop his plan to pass a state law to prohibit all cities and counties from banning the gas devices — but only if Winter Park met Brodeur’s demands:

  • Commissioners must delay enforcing the ordinance to June 1, 2025 rather than Jan. 1, 2025 as they decided last month.
  • Commissioners must also place a question on the March 2025 ballot so voters can decide whether the ban should be repealed.

Mayor Phil Anderson, Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio and Commissioner Kris Cruzada said they would be open to following those orders, but the commission did not reach a decision and opted to consider the matter again at the next meeting on Feb. 28.

DeCiccio, who is running for mayor in the March 19 election, was the swing vote as the necessary third commissioner to potentially pass the voter referendum. Commissioners Todd Weaver and Marty Sullivan said they were against it.

Knight suggested that agreeing to the voter referendum could be the only way to keep Brodeur from attempting to pass a preemption law this legislative session, which is more than half way over. A number of Florida cities such as Naples and Biscayne Bay have already enacted bans, but even those could be thrown out by Brodeur’s legislation.

Brodeur briefly introduced an amendment on Feb. 6 in Tallahassee to preempt cities from enacting such a ban and then immediately withdrew it.

Just two days later on Feb. 8, Knight sent a text message to Brodeur asking to have a discussion, according to text messages provided to the Voice through a public records request.

On Monday morning, Knight reached out to Brodeur again and let him know that the city scheduled a work session about leaf blowers for Wednesday and referred to the idea of a referendum as if it was already a done deal.

“I have briefed all commissioners on our discussion and I feel good about it,” Knight wrote. “We don’t take public comment at work sessions but of course will when the referendum ordinance comes forward.”

“Outstanding,” Brodeur responded. “Much appreciated.”

Brodeur got involved in the issue just weeks ago after complaints from constituents escalated after the city passed a rebate for homeowners who purchased electric leaf blowers.

The ban has been around since 2022, but commissioners opted to delay its start until July of this year.

Landscape companies say the electric devices are too expensive, don’t have enough power and will bring an increased burden on their small businesses and individual workers.

Anderson said Wednesday that he recalls the survey the city conducted more than two years ago before passing the ban came back split about 50-50 in terms of support and opposition.

“I don’t know that we have 100% of the answer what our constituents want and I don’t know that Sen. Brodeur has 100% of the answer so it’s kind of an interesting idea to let the citizens weigh in on it,” he said. “It’s better than Survey Monkey.”

Commissioner Marty Sullivan expressed more skepticism.

“Even if the majority said no,” to a leaf blower ban, Sullivan said, “I think it’s incumbent on us to look to the future and do what’s right for the future. I believe this leaf blower ban is a great step forward for our city. I am hesitant about this compromise put forth by our senator.”

Commissioner Todd Weaver pointed out that the original vote for the ban was unanimous and that commissioners are elected to represent the interests of the city, rather than manage “threats” and edicts handed down from Tallahassee. He said he would rather see the question make it to the ballot because citizens gather enough signatures to place it there — an estimated 1,400 or so — rather than by a vote of the commission.

DeCiccio also said she support a citizen-led effort to put the question on the ballot next year and asked Knight to approach Brodeur to see if he would also be amenable to that option.

Knight will bring another report back to the commission on Feb. 28 when they will also take a vote on whether to allow voters the chance to repeal the ordinance next year.

The legislative session is scheduled to end the following week on March 8, which still leave Brodeur nine days to slip the preemption language into a bill if he doesn’t like the results of the next city meeting.

In recent years, Florida legislators have taken control away from municipal and county elected officials on everything from setting renewable energy standards, gun ranges, tenants’ rights, affordable housing projects and even the books on the shelves at public schools.

Anderson, who met with landscape company owners last month to hear their concerns and called a special meeting to potentially change the ordinance, is pushing the city to provide a directory of companies that have already converted to electric equipment so residents can make more informed decisions about who they hire.

“Whether we’re preempted or not, the city believes this is the right thing to do,” he said, noting he wants more resources and education available.

DeCiccio asked how bans are playing out in other cities that have enacted them for the same reasons — to reduce nuisance noise and pollution.

“They’ve all stuck with it,” Knight said. “They haven’t repealed it. They haven’t expressed that it’s been much of a challenge for them.”

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