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“Visioning”

November 14, 2014

Mayor and Commissioners,

I commented on the proposed “visioning” process at the November 10, 2014 commission meeting, liking the proposal to a political massage parlor.  I know your intentions are good and I apologize for the intensity of my concerns, but I have seen this “visioning” picture before and it is not pretty.

A few years ago we spent, as I recall, over $400,000 (including costs of contract termination with the consultant) on something called “Planning the Possibilities.” This prior “visioning” process too was intended to seek community consensus on development. I participated in this process with the hope that “community consensus” was some tangible object that could be conjured from the cauldron of public input. “Planning the Possibilities” became a political football that wasted time and effort of many citizens and cost taxpayers over $400,000, excluding potentially millions of dollars in opportunity costs associated with applying that citizen and staff energy to productive pursuits.

Given the goals and intent of the process you moved forward on November 10th, you are on a path to repeating that experience.  I am all for Kumbayah. However, there is no evidence from past efforts here and elsewhere that irrational conflicts over development can be overcome by consultants and steering committees. The evidence is, to the contrary, that efforts to massage unfounded fears and reactionary sentiments only re-enforces the social acceptability of such behavior, compounding the problem.  The current proposed visioning process is in direct response to a small set of people promoting unfounded fears and reactionary sentiments among their fellow citizens without the benefit of accurate information. The appropriate response to these circumstances is leadership by the commission to educate our citizens on the facts of the development process and our rules, not to defer responsibility to an unaccountable process that is sure to be politicized. I point to Commissioner Cooper’s efforts at the November 10th meeting to control the “visioning” process in advance of any independent professional guidance as evidence that the process has already been politicized and that we are headed for a repeat of earlier costly mistakes.

Some citizens will always believe in conspiracy theories and mistrust their elected officials, spreading poison in the community. The only effective antidote is education and clear communication of the realities we face as a city and as a community. The city can more constructively evaluate proposed development projects and our development rules by appealing to our citizen’s sense of reason, than by pandering to or exploiting their fears.

EDUCATION

I suggest the commission have the city prepare and distribute to all residents a primer on our development process. While there will always be political differences on where private property rights begin and end, there are State statutes and US Supreme Court rulings that define the width and shading of the gray areas.  Citizens need to understand that these laws and our codes pertain equally to their rights to improve their single family home and to commercial property owner’s rights to improve their property.  Citizens need to understand where the city has effective sway over development proposals and where it does not, the meaning of “entitlement,” “conditional use,” and “zoning.”  Citizens need to understand that denial of any particular development that complies in all material respects with zoning rules applicable to the property has legal consequences and cost to the taxpayers.  Citizens need to understand that a developer has the legal right to apply for any project and any zoning change within the bounds of our rules, and that the act of submission of a development application does not bias the approval process in one direction or another.  Citizens need to know that while the city can define boundaries through zoning rules, developers, with only modest city leverage, determine how their money is spent within those boundaries.  Citizens need to know that we already have a “vision” for commercial development that is defined by our current rules; that the zoning applicable to most of our commercial areas already comes with an expected outcome which we see in what actually exists.

Alternative “visions” need to be offered in substantive terms for consideration. For example: Should the city encourage more commercial development of the scale and character of Hannibal Square and less like K-Mart shopping center?

Citizens need clear understanding of the factual context in order to (1) accurately judge the credibility of what they are told by others and (2) make informed judgments as to their support or objection to proposed development and proposed changes to our development rules.

These educational materials should reference specific project approvals, noting histories of prior approvals, where the rules have been applied, the extent of variances granted, and where the developer has agreed to improvements greater than is required by the rules. Such factual history provides a context within which citizens can fairly judge the reasonableness of these approvals for themselves, as contrasted with unsupported claims of a few inflamed citizens.

Leadership from our city commission is needed to help citizens distinguish fact from fiction, reality from fear. I urge you to change the scope of the current “visioning” initiative to focus on education or drop the current initiative entirely in favor of an educational initiative.  The more citizens understand our development realities, unfounded fears and reactionary sentiments will fade in influence to the benefit of thoughtful consideration and productive changes.

Regards, Pete Weldon

Posted in Development.


4 Responses

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  1. Conspiracy Realist says

    The theorists seem to be those who theorize that the commissioners can take good care of everything for the residents, that development is always an “improvement” to the community, that the profit motive of a few is never at the expense of the many, and if residents don’t like sitting through three red lights instead of one just to cross an intersection in Winter Park its because residents are uneducated.

    But since there is no evidence to support this theory, it remains nothing more than a theory.

    On the other hand, the realists see the Winter Park City Commission for what it is. A small group of opportunists who have joined hands with a few cronies to use the public treasury and public policy to force crony commercial development projects on us without regard to the interests and preferences of the residents.

    You’re right about one thing though. If those running for seats on the Winter Park City Commission would honestly campaign on THEIR vision for Winter Park, the proposed visioning process would be completely unnecessary. Unfortunately, however, each year we are treated to campaign postcards of smiling Winter Park candidates and their families pictured in front of a tree. And they tell us they will do a good job for us. That’s about the extent of any substance in these dumbed down campaigns. There are never any good candidates who run for Winter Park City Commission. So we as residents have no choice but to closely monitor the political activities of our latch key children who like to vote, tax, and spend their way to getting Winter Park in a bunch of trouble. . And ,unfortunately, visioning is one of the unpleasant measures we must go through, because the only vision our politicians have is how they can make money on the side from their time on the Commission.

  2. Pete Weldon says

    I published the above comment as an example of the frustrated nihilists among us. They insist on being anonymous out of fear their twisted thinking will be thrown back in their face, as it should be.

    Winter Park residents must reject such cynical poison and embrace the reality that there is no conspiracy. I have volunteered untold hours to city matters over the past 8 years and have never seen anything that warrants suspicion, let alone, conclusion of any conspiracy about anything (and this from a former CFO). In fact, all evidence is that city staff and commission members are trying their best to manage and oversee a complex and dynamic city in the face of irrational souls like the person who wrote the above comment.

  3. Jeffrey Blydenburgh says

    Peter, I appreciate the time you spend on behalf of the community, putting forward a rational view of the governmental process. I don’t always agree however with the words you use to characterize the various personalities involved in the governance process. That said, I would like to speak to Visioning. The only intentional visions for Winter Park that I am aware of these: 1. in the 1880’s when the community was founded, the founders vision was to be a resort. It drove the character and the layout of the community. 2.The second vision is at the beginning of the current Comp Plan,where the stated vision for the city: “We aspire to continue to be the best place to live, work and play in Central Florida by preserving a superior quality of life for today’s residents and for future generations.”

    For me, a vision is a description of a destination, not a platitude about being the best place etc. Of course we want to be the best; who wouldn’t? Currently Winter Park is a small city of homes with a college, several commercial areas and parks. The vision of The Healthy Winter Park Team (of Healthy Central Florida) is building on the community’s many assets to build one of the most walkable, bikeable cities in the United States. Other visions that have been stated is to be a “village” a yet to be defined term.

    My point is that part of the importance of a community vision is the process of creating one. All the past exercises have dealt with land use and form in generalities. In my world of planning, a vision is an intentional statement that describes what we want to be, and then a series of steps to achieve that vision. The Comp Plan is the series of steps. So we could return to being the “City of Homes”…we be the Village of the Future where pedestrians and bikes take precedence over automobiles…or if we could embrace our current stated slogan City of Culture and Heritage, If we did the latter, we would be focusing on music, art, history, education, historic preservation and the diversity of our population.

    If extraordinary design and quality planning was part of our vision, we would be getting better designed buildings, we would give the p&z tools to say “not good enough for Winter Park”, we would invest in planners and architects on staff to guide the quality of our future development.

    Re education, I totally agree. We need the design and planning staff to operate in the public arena. We need a place where people can go to learn about design, and planning, and zoning.

    We can do better, and it will start with a clearly stated vision of our future. Without that vision, we will continue to stumble along with mediocre projects. We also will not be able to replace the current comp plan with one that works for the community.

    Thanks.

  4. Pete Weldon says

    Jeff, thanks for the thoughtful comments. We agree that Winter Park should plan to a dream. Where we differ is in understanding the hard work required to implement any new reality.

    Continually lost in the idealistic pursuit of a “vision” is the actual context we must live within. For example, the idea of a more walkable city is fabulous! The reality, however, is that our city is bisected by two state roads controlled not by Winter Park but by FDOT. FDOT’s purpose is increasing traffic flow, not replace it with people walking. The city has tried and continues to try to get control of these roads but FDOT is unlikely to ever turn these roads over to us as our priorities are directly opposed to theirs. Also, most of our streets were designed in the late 1800’s to the 1950’s and are hopelessly narrow in providing truly safe and inviting bicycle pathways. Fortunately, the city controls 10 foot right of ways on virtually all streets to provide for pedestrians, an asset we continue to invest to improve.

    A second reality left out of the idealistic discussions is that property owners, both residential and commercial, have legal rights to build what is allowed by code. There is and has been a false narrative about development in Winter Park that presumes that the city can dictate what is developed. The reality is to the contrary. For example, you and I might think that Lakeside (Trader Joe’s) would have been better developed as a mixed use project with condo’s overlooking the lake that prioritized pedestrian access across 17-92 to Morse Blvd., the park, and downtown (same with redevelopment of the Mount Vernon property). Well, the owner of the property, the person who spent over $2 million an acre for both Lakeside and the Mount Vernon, has the absolute legal right to build whatever they want within the zoning rules that apply to those properties. Guess what? Combine the limitation of 45% Floor Area Ratio with our parking requirements and all you can build is a single story retail/restaurant center or a four story office building surrounded by surface parking. So, without opening up the envelop (the positive intent of the proposed PD changes and without granting any new entitlement to PD) we get strip malls or office buildings. That is the “vision” built into our current codes.

    If you can tell me how we can stop what we both might think are mediocre projects I would be very interested in trying to make that happen. The answer is most likely not in “stopping the mediocre” but in encouraging the great. Such a change requires the city to offer property owners stuff that encourages greater, not lesser, investment.

    Let me leave you with this example of the challenge. There are approximately 150 acres fronting 17-92 in Winter Park. At today’s prices that is $300 million. One “vision” is for the city to borrow $300 million to buy the 150 acres and control planning of the entire corridor forever, creating parks and selling off parcels that meet a plan we control (i.e., Ravaudage controlled by the City of Winter Park). Even if we could borrow that much money there is no funding source to pay down the debt at the rate of $20 million per year. But then, even if the tooth fairy showed up and paid the $20 million annual debt service on the $300 million, current property owners are under no legal obligation to sell their land.

    So, take this as an extreme and work back. Where can reality co-exist with the ideal?



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