By Marc Crail Vice-Mayor and District 4 Representative
The majority of the February 7 Mount Dora City Council meeting involved public comments from upwards of two dozen citizens mostly opposing the proposed "mixed use" PUD development proposal in the Wolf Branch Innovation District on SR 46 near the entrance to the expressway. Please keep in mind that what follows comes from me, one individual council member, not from City Council as a whole.
Just to review, at our January 17th City Council meeting we discussed the proposal for a "mixed use" PUD (Planned Unit Development). During that council discussion, several members, including me, said that there are elements of the proposal that we liked and conversely, several members, including me, voiced serious concerns about the proposed height of some of the buildings (some over 300 feet tall), as well as other concerns.
After that lengthy exchange of views we essentially had two choices. We could vote "No" on the first reading of the PUD proposal which would kill future negotiations and preclude the possibility of coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion before the second or "final" vote on this large and complex proposal or we could vote "Yes" on the first reading in order to give our City staff and the Developer the opportunity to address our concerns (mostly building heights but seven other issues as well).
I felt that, with the benefit of good faith negotiations and creativity/compromise on both sides, it might be possible to reach a successful resolution so I made a motion to vote "Yes" on that first reading, asking our staff and the developer to sit down and hammer out a plan that would alleviate our concerns and at the same time, meet the developer's needs. I figured that these complicated negotiations might well take some time so my motion also provided for as much time as necessary to come up with a compromise plan. Whatever revised plan the negotiators come up with will need to be discussed and approved by a majority of City Council members. My motion passed 6-1.
Those negotiations are currently underway. Obviously, each council member has his/her own opinion and "gotta haves". Those negotiations might or might not be acceptable to individual council members and those results will determine how he/she will ultimately vote. That final vote is scheduled for February 21st during our 6:00 p.m. meeting. All City Council meetings are open to the public.
I can only speak for myself, but at this time I am waiting and listening. I have shared my height concerns and other concerns with City staff and with the developer. The bottom line is that a "Yes" vote on January 17 was to keep the talks alive and provide adequate time for tough, ongoing nitty-gritty negotiations. The vote scheduled for February 21 will be the decider.
The comments of community members at our February 7 Council meeting, your emails and phone conversations are important and appreciated. This is a big decision and is by no means, a done deal. Thanks for weighing in and allowing the process to go on. It's messy but it's how government works.
Our quote for the day comes from Sam Rayburn, former Speaker of the House of Representatives who once said: "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one."
By Marc Crail Vice-Mayor and District 4 Representative
ABOVE: Renderings of Mount Dora's high-rise proposal from the master plan on the City's website
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of chatter on local social media regarding a towering development proposed for Mount Dora. Though it might feel like deja vu, it isn’t as familiar as it may seem. Read more
In a bold move, the City of Mount Dora announced today that it would no longer allow public comments on any of its social media pages, including those of the city government, police department, parks department and fire department.
The policy is highly uncommon in American cities since it discourages the expression of contrasting points of view which creates negative public relations. All other Lake County cities allow public comments on their social media, as do larger cities like Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles.
The new policy was posted to the City’s Facebook page, as well as the Police Department’s Facebook page, stating “To better serve City of Mount Dora residents and visitors, we have made the conscious decision to turn off the commenting and messaging features on all of our social media accounts beginning Friday, January 27th, 2023.” An email address and phone number were then provided.
The Facebook post did not elaborate on how the new censorship policy aligns with better serving the public or promoting public trust. Shortly after the post was made, comments were prohibited, which was days ahead of the date stated.
Mount Dora’s social media and communication strategies are the responsibility of its Public Information Officer, Vershurn Ford. Ford reports to the City Manager, Patrick Comiskey, who answers to the Mayor and City Council.
The City has recently been the target of harassment by self-described First Amendment watchdogs and has also come under fire for a proposed controversial development in its planned Innovation District. It's unclear if those factors played a role in the opaque new policy. By contrast, other cities develop communication strategies that prevent or mitigate negative publicity, rather than initiate censorship policies that exacerbate it and erode public trust.
Mount Dora’s new social media policy doesn’t violate the First Amendment. However, it dances on a line that American municipal governments and elected officials typically choose not encroach upon out of concerns for transparency and public relations. The City of Mount Dora can still be reached by phone at 352-735-7100.
I've chosen several items from the January 17 City Council agenda to report on today. What follows comes from me as an individual council member and not from City Council as a whole.
Located behind (to the west) our W.T. Bland Library is a 12+ acre Greenbelt Forest Property. We approved a "Task Authorization" for the design of recreational landscape features for a trail system there. Over the past year or more, work has been going on to reduce invasive plants, restore the natural habitat, engage neighbors in the planning process and obtain a $50K grant to help fund this project. The concept is to provide learning opportunities for children while maintaining a natural environment. I'm excited to see this low impact project proceed. What a great idea!
For more than a decade we've been hearing about future plans for the 850-acre Wolf Branch Innovation District located near SR 46. Now, a developer has proposed plans for a 36-acre, mixed-use development. We needed to change the zoning of that parcel from its previous designation as Lake County "Office" to Mount Dora "Mixed Use". The property was annexed into the City at the developer's request in August of 2022. Our Planning and Zoning Commission recommend the zoning change last month on a 6-1 vote. City Council voted 7-0 to make the land use change to "Employment Center" as proposed.
Much of our meeting involved discussion about that property mentioned above. The developer has proposed a mixed use Planned Unit Development (PUD) to include office, retail, an adult living facility, mini-warehouse, convention center, residential and underground parking. After lots of discussion and comments by council members and community members, there was a consensus that most people favored the project but many objected to the height of buildings, some proposed to be over 300 feet tall.
I proposed a motion that we approve "the first reading" for this project to keep discussions alive and continue negotiations between our city staff and the developer in hopes of reaching a compromise before it comes back for a "final" vote. The motion passed on a 6-1 vote (Dawson opposed). Our hope is that common ground on this lynch-pin project can be found. We will definitely be hearing more about this in the upcoming months.
Here are a couple of good news items. Funded by private donations, you will soon see 125 light pole banners around town celebration the contributions of African-Americans locally and nationally just in time for Black History Month.
There is a friendly rumble for a very good cause brewing between Eustis and Mount Dora. Last year Eustis residents got the better of us when they collected more canned goods and cash to benefit Lake Cares Food Pantry. We can't let that stand! Please stop by the Fire Station to drop off your donations Saturday between 10:00-2:00 of drop them off at other neighborhood drop off locations. Thanks in advance for your help.
In recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, our quote for today comes from Dr. King himself. "Love is the only force capable of transforming enemy into friend."
I was impressed by the high level of discussion and the thoughtful comments made by my City Council colleagues and interested community members. In my way of thinking, this is how local government is supposed to to function. It could serve as model for state and national government too. By working together and listening to each other, wise decisions can be made. Thanks for the opportunity to serve as one of your representatives.
By Marc Crail Vice-Mayor and District 4 Representative
It’s a well-deserved promotion that brings Kyle Bracewell full circle. Recently, Lake County Schools announced that Bracewell, the dedicated Assistant Principal of Mount Dora High School (MDHS) will be the new principal of Seminole Springs Elementary (SSE) -- the very place he interned while he was in college and where his wife, Stacy, attended elementary school. Coincidentally, the teacher Bracewell interned under will serve as his assistant principal when he assumes his new role at SSE later this month.
After his internship at Seminole Springs and graduating from the University of Central Florida, Bracewell began his teaching career as a reading and English teacher at Umatilla Middle School in 2009. Four years later he began serving as the literary coach at Leesburg High School and quickly leaped into his career as an administrator at MDHS in 2014. Bracewell, who put in long hours building positive connections to students and parents, has served MDHS for eight years.
“It’s bittersweet to hear of Kyle's promotion to principal. While I will miss him dearly, I could not be more proud and excited for him. He's worked hard for this and he is more than deserving,” said Marlene Straughn, MDHS Principal.
“Seminole Springs Elementary is getting a caring, motivated, and knowledgeable principal. I have no doubt he will continue to build a culture of mutual trust and respect,” continued Straughan. “Once a Cane, always a Cane. Best wishes Kyle, MDHS loves you and will miss you.”
Bracewell's first day is his new position is expected to be January 23.
ABOVE: Former Mount Dora Police Chief Brett Meade (Mount Dora Buzz file photo)
It’s deja vu all over again. Last month, former Mount Dora Police Chief Brett Meade filed a lawsuit against the city claiming it violated the Florida Whistleblower’s Act. The lawsuit alleged Meade was effectively forced to resign due to the City Manager’s actions.
According to the lawsuit, the issue started in February, 2021, when Meade, who was Police Chief at the time, initiated two internal investigations into potential excessive force violations at Mount Dora Police Department (MDPD). Meade learned on March 14 that Mount Dora’s Human Resource Director, Sharon Kraynik, had contacted the Lake County Sheriff’s Office to investigate Meade and conduct the investigations into excessive force that Meade had initiated.
Meade, who served with the Orange County Sheriff's Office for over two decades, then advised Kraynik and Mount Dora City Manager Patrick Comiskey that Florida law didn’t allow third-party internal investigations of police officers, according to the suit. In various communications, Comiskey, Meade’s boss, advised Meade that an outside agency would indeed conduct the investigations and that Meade would not.
That procedural and legal disagreement was the crux of the issue between the two men. Meade sent his boss the Florida statute he believed supported his position; however, Comiskey advised he was relying on legal advice that contradicted Meade. Typically, the City Attorney, who is specifically hired to provide legal counsel, is relied upon by a City Manager and City Council for legal advice. According to email exchanges, Comiskey maintained his position and Meade eventually tendered his resignation on June 1, 2022. (See email timeline)
On August 23, 2022, almost a year after one of the alleged excessive-force incidents occurred and the media later exposed it, the City of Mount Dora finally commenced an investigation on the potential violations after hiring a retired Polk County Sheriff’s Office internal investigations supervisor to conduct the investigation. According to the City, the investigator has 24 years of experience performing internal investigations.
Meade has since become the Law Enforcement Outreach Coordinator for the University of Central Florida’s Restore program. He had served as the University’s Deputy Chief of Police in 2014 before retiring from that department in 2018. In 2020, Meade was hired as Mount Dora’s’ Interim Chief to help rebuild the frayed department, and he was eventually named the City’s Chief of Police in April 2021.
Meade’s service to the City came on the heels of a tumultuous period at Mount Dora Police Department after the departures of its former chiefs John O’Grady in 2019, and Robert Bell in 2020, as well as Assistant Chief Michael Fewless in 2020. O’Grady won a financial settlement from the City for roughly $64,000 for accrued sick time and vacation leave. Fewless filed a lawsuit against the City claiming a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act and received in excess of $260,000 as part of his 2021 settlement.
Yes? No? On Election Day Mount Dora voters will decide on a charter amendment pertaining to the hot-button topic of building heights. Here are some key questions and answers for local voters on the issue:
1. What is a City charter? It’s a legal governing document that defines the city government’s powers, organization and general procedures.
2. How does downtown Mount Dora’s current building height limit differ from that in the referendum? They are the same. The current height limit is 35 feet and in areas within 100 feet of the lakefront the height limit is twenty-five feet. The referendum has the same limits. The referendum also has a 5-foot variance process with strict criteria. For more details, see question 5. View the referendum in the file below.
3. Does a vote either way preclude building a parking garage, condos, waterfront restaurants or shops? No, either way those projects would be allowed. The difference would be the potential height of such projects.
4. Why is there a downtown building height referendum on the ballot? In 2021 a group of Mount Dora residents went through the legal process of circulating a petition to gather enough valid Mount Dora voters’ signatures to place the referendum on the ballot this November.
Several recent events served as catalysts to the grassroots petition drive:
On January, 27, 2021, two buildings that exceeded the building height limits were formally proposed to Mount Dora Historic Preservation Board (HPB). One was 53 feet tall and the other was 45 feet tall. HPB rejected both buildings and the developer appealed the decision to Mount Dora City Council which then voted to allow both buildings to proceed to Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) without an HPB Certificate of Appropriateness. Typically, a Certificate of Appropriateness is required before a proposed project in the Historic District can advance to P & Z for a vote. The City Council’s bypassing of the Historic Preservation Board’s approval revealed a critical loophole. The 2021 proposals for 53’ & 45’ are public record and viewable herestarting on page 146.
Adding to the petition group’s concern was the fact that a sitting member of the City Council was employed by and related to the developer that submitted the 53- and 45-foot tall building proposals in 2021. In advance of the HPB vote that January, the council member successfully initiated removal of a longstanding HPB member who expressed his opposition to the two projects. Legally, that council member couldn’t vote on his family’s specific development proposals. However, he would be able to vote on the height-increase ordinance (see below) that P & Z asked City staff to prepare.
Another petition driving force occurred in February 2021 when Mount Dora’s Planning and Zoning Commission asked City staff to draft an ordinance to increase downtown building height limits from 35 feet to 55 feet, which defied resident input. The vote was later administratively tabled as the 2021 municipal election season approached. Planning and Zoning Committee members are appointed by the City Council.
In May 2021 another catalyst was Mount Dora City Council’s passing of a revision to the City’s Land Development Code to allow up to a 55-foot parking structure in one of four locations in Mount Dora. One of those locations was in the Historic District abutting a residential neighborhood.
5. What does including the existing building height restriction into the City Charter do? Placing the building height restriction in the charter effectively prevents the referenced incidents that occurred in 2021 from happening in the Building Height Impact District (BHID). It takes away the policy making authority on that issue from the City Council and P & Z and gives it to voters. Currently, only four council members are needed to increase the existing height policy. If the current referendum passes, another referendum would be required to increase building heights higher than the allowed variance or it would have to be proposed by the Charter Review Committee and go through that process. Mount Dora's Charter is required to be reviewed every five years.
6. What is the Building Height Impact District (BHID)? It is a defined area within Mount Dora’s Historic District that the referendum addresses. The area was defined by the city’s Building Heights Advisory Committee whose members were appointed by Mount Dora City Council and the former Interim City Manager. See BHID map here.
7. What does a “Yes” vote mean? That is a vote for putting the current downtown building heights restrictions into the City’s charter. That means any increases to building heights in excess of the five-foot variance would be required to go before Mount Dora voters in the form of a referendum.
8. What does a “No” vote mean? This is a vote for not including building heights on the City’s charter. Any increases to downtown’s building heights would continue to be voted on by Mount Dora City Council.
9. Who is behind the “Vote Yes” and “Vote No” groups? According to official Treasurer Reports filed with the City of Mount Dora, the “Vote Yes” group’s chairman is Jay Smith, a Mount Dora resident with no commercial property in the Building Height Impact District. As of the September 9th reporting period, contributions to the “Vote Yes” group had 45 donations totalling $3,246. Donations were all from individuals and ranged from $15 to $300, including the chairman’s $30 donation. The average donation was $72.
The “Vote No” group’s chairman is Joseph Lewis, an Orange County resident who owns commercial lakefront property in the Building Height Impact District and vocal proponent of lakefront development. As of the September 9th reporting period, the group had three donations totaling $3,300. Those donations ranged from $300 to $1500. $3000 of the donations came from the chairman and his business, the remaining $300 was an individual donation. The average donation was $1,100.
NOTE: More reports will be available at the end of the reporting periods leading up to the election. The official treasurers' reports for both groups can be viewed here once they are available.
10. Would a vote either way cause Mount Dora homeowners’ taxes to increase? No. There is no causal effect on residents' taxes. Separately, new commercial and residential development does add to a city’s revenue because the new entities (homeowners and businesses) pay local taxes which helps to offset the impact of the development on city services and infrastructure.
11. Would the charter amendment affect private property rights and due process? The process is the same with either a “Yes” or “No” vote. Property owners retain their right to develop their property according to the zoning in place when they purchased it. They can apply for rezoning, which requires two public hearings and a vote by the City Council. Separately, a property owner can apply for a variance from the Planning & Zoning Commission. If the variance is denied, the decision can be appealed to the City Council. If the Council denies it, it can be appealed to Circuit Court. Those legal processes would remain whether the referendum passes or fails.
12. Does the referendum allow the rebuilding of existing non-conforming structures should they be damaged in a storm, fire or other occurrence? Yes, there is a provision that allows for such buildings to be rebuilt to their current heights.
13. What would happen in the future if Mount Dora residents wanted to allow buildings taller than 35’ in the Building Height Impact District? Other than going through the variance process which allows for up to 40-foot tall buildings and 30-feet tall buildings within 100 feet of the lakefront, any other policy change would have to be placed on the ballot for Mount Dora voters to decide. That can be done by petition or through a Charter Review Committee.
14. Is the 35’ height limit in the referendum arbitrary? The height limits in the referendum are the same as the current downtown building height code, which is 35’ or 25’ within 100 feet of the lakefront. Those limits were adopted in the 1970s in response to the approval (and subsequent construction) of the seven-story Villa Dora Condominium. The conspicuous building perched on McDonald Street, was completed in 1974 and altered the city's skyline. The controversy that stemmed from the its construction was the impetus for restricting building heights downtown almost five decades ago. For the answer to why there is now a referendum to include those limits in the City’s charter refer to questions #4 and #5 above.
Residents are always encouraged to do their own research and view City documents on this and other issues that may affect them. For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, visit the area's websiteand download the area's free mobile app. Be sure to follow Mount Dora Buzz on Instagram and Twitterfor more local info.
Mount Dora Vice Mayor & District 4 Representative I've selected several items from the October 18th City Council meeting to share with you today. Please keep in mind that I'm not reporting to you on behalf of City Council in an official capacity, I'm only one individual member.
City Hall will be getting a new roof at a maximum price of $206,000. The roof is past its useful life and ready for replacement. This price included a large "contingency" budget because it's impossible to know for sure how much lumber, etc. under the surface, which can't be seen, may need to be replaced.
The Simpson Farmhouse building located by the library dates from 1905. The windows are now 107 years old. They will be replaced and like the city hall roof, there could be unseen damage around the windows so a sizable contingency is important. We got a $50K matching grant to help complete this work. The total cost is about $94,000.
Probably the most anticipated item on our agenda was a 5-2 vote to use the soon to be completed new Fire Station #35 located on 19A as a fire station and to renovate our current Fire Station #34 on Donnelly St. The fire station issue has morphed over the years mostly due to skyrocketing prices and new data. It's now been decided to have two fire stations and to continue plans to locate a new public works complex on Limit. Several other options were considered. Members Cataldo and Gunther voted no.
We heard that the Hurricane Ian tree and brush collection is now about 68% complete in Mount Dora. That should reach about 90% by the end of the week.
Our quote of the week comes from General Colin Powell. "Leadership is all about people. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people - motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people centered."
Thanks to all the people who work so hard to make our town, Mount Dora, a great place to live. Earlier this week we held a reception to honor the contributions of our volunteers and former elected officials. We certainly appreciate all those who serve on our volunteer Boards and Committees.
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor & District 4 Representative
On October 11 the Lake County Commission voted to approve Mount Dora Groves North, part of a new proposed development on parcels of land on both sides of U.S. 441 spanning from The Country Club of Mount Dora to the Loch Leven shopping center. The planned mixed-use development has 1,068 residential units and 150,000 square feet of commercial space combined on the north and south portions of the project. The ordinance below (pdf file) includes the developer's concessions made to the City of Mount Dora.
It’s déjà vu all over again for Mount Dora firefighters.
In August the first responders raised alarm bells over public safety concerns after Mount Dora City Manager Patrick Comiskey proposed consolidating the City’s fire department into one station, which he said could be built on Limit Avenue.
That consolidation would significantly increase emergency response times and put residents and structures at risk, according to the Professional Firefighters of Mount Dora Local 3088 in a September interview. In August, those concerns were also presented to Mount Dora City Council by Interim Fire Chief Rich Loewer at a public meeting. At the time, it seemed many members of the Council understood the consequences and sought better alternatives.
Fast forward to last week, and Comiskey recommended yet another plan to consolidate the Mount Dora Fire Department, but this time he proposed puting all fire personnel and equipment at the existing Donnelly Street station. The new strategically located fire station that is nearing completion on S.R. 19A would instead house the City’s electric department, according to Comiskey’s proposal.
Today, the Professional Firefighters of Mount Dora Local 3088 loudly sounded the alarm in a letter to the Mount Dora City Council. The detailed communication states that the same public safety issues and best practices were ignored in Comiskey’s newest recommendation which the firefighters union said was based on misinformation and a flawed rationale. At greatest risk of slower response times are the residents and businesses on the west side of the City near the Eudora Road corridor, according to the union’s leadership..
The proposal is part of Comiskey’s attempt to realign city resources to save money. however, the firefighters disagree with putting public safety on the table. Comiskey’s current proposal and the firefighters’ response letter can be viewed here:
A work session for Mount Dora City Council to discuss the matter is scheduled for Tuesday, October 11, at 6 p.m. A vote on the matter is expected to be taken at the following regular City Council Meeting on October 18. Both meetings are at Mount Dora City Hall. For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, visit the area's websiteand download the area's free mobile app. Be sure to follow Mount Dora Buzz on Instagram and Twitterfor more local info.