A referendum on the ballot for the August 28 primary election will ask Lake County voters to consider a school-safety property tax of 0.75 mills, or 75 cents for each $1,000 of taxable property value. This week, Lake County Schools launched a series of pages on its web site to explain the referendum. The pages can be found at www.lake.k12.fl.us/SchoolSafety. The pages include an overview of the need, a breakdown of the cost for a taxpayer, the referendum resolution, language that voters will see on the ballot, links to voting information on the Lake County Supervisor of Elections web site and a flyer that can be printed and shared. If the referendum passes, the tax would generate about $16 million per year to help the district cover the cost of adding resource officers and implementing mental health, alternative education and in-school suspension initiatives to support troubled students.
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Please remember my usual admonition that I am just one member of Mount Dora City Council. I don't pretend to represent the council as a whole. What follows are my own thoughts on several of the of the more important items on today's agenda that I thought you might like to read about. We had a very full agenda but after a nearly 5 hour meeting, a great deal was accomplished.
The TV and print news medias began reporting a couple of days ago that City Council would be considering a Settlement Agreement with the owners of the "Starry Night" mural house. As a result of our attorney's preparation for then pending litigation and her review of recent Federal Court "Free Speech" court decisions, the City was prompted to reconsider its position and make another settlement effort which was accepted by the homeowners. The City's Code Enforcement case has now been closed and the associated fines released. The Settlement Agreement calls for the payment of $15,000 for the property owners' legal fees. Unlike what you might have read in the newspaper, this amount and the legal fees for the defense of the City are being covered by the City's insurance carrier. I'm glad to have this matter resolved.
A couple of months ago I told you about a possible deal with Waste Management who picks up our residential trash, recycling and yard waste. We decided to extend their contract until September 2027. There are several important parts to this agreement which begins in October. Waste Management will provide fully automated, unlimited pick up of our trash, recycling and yard waste once per week. They will be switching to quieter and cleaner trucks powered by compressed natural gas. If your pickup day is Monday, you will put your trash can, recycle can and your yard waste at the curb and all 3 trucks will come by to pick your items up on the same day. If your designated collection day happens to be a holiday, everything will be picked up the very next day.
Our residential trash, recycling and yard waste bills will be reduced by $1.94 per month or 9.15%. and that savings will be passed along to our residents. There will be lots of publicity and "education" leading up to the transition. If you'd like a larger trash can, your old can will be picked up and a new one will be delivered to your house. One last thing, eight trash enclosed trash compactors will be installed in the downtown area. With trash and recycling disposal cost expected to rise substantially over the upcoming years I think that locking in those costs will pay off.
About $800,000 worth of stormwater infrastructure improvements will be coming to the Northeast section of town which often floods during major rain events. $750,000 is a stormwater improvement grant we received and $50,000 will come from the NECRA. That's good news for the residents in that neighborhood who have suffered flooding multiple times.
We spent a good deal of time discussing the merits of three related Financing Resolutions. Let's see if I can explain this briefly. We have established a list of our top priority construction projects. Theses include; improving parking in the downtown area, building a new public works building to replace our current crumbling facility and replacing our two current fire stations with three new ones in order to significantly reduce our emergency response times. Now we are taking the first preliminary steps to address these priorities. I need to stress that we did not commit to borrowing any money but we did approve three "Bond Funding" resolutions which could eventually allow the City to sell bonds to borrow the money needed for these construction projects.
Over the next several meetings and in depth discussions we will need to decide which if any of these projects should be tackled. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. While interest rates are still near historical lows we will need to figure out how much money we can afford to borrow and what kind of payments we can commit to making. Do you remember how much you and your spouse agonized over the decision to borrow money to buy your first house? The numbers seemed huge and the decision kept you up at night. Sure you wanted that house but committing yourselves to a 20-30 year mortgage and the monthly payments was agonizing. That's the process we are going through right now. I will keep you updated on this one!
I've mentioned before that Waterman Village is interested in expanding their campus to property across Donnelly St. form their current facility. That project is moving forward and will involve building 327 units on about 37 acres surrounding Fiddler's Pond.
Elie Wiesel is a well known Nobel Laureate. I love his thoughts on this topic. "Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor never the tormented."
I get excited by the opportunities that we have to make a difference in Mount Dora and I appreciate that you have given me the opportunity to serve you as a City Council member. I think my wife appreciates a little bit of peace and quiet in the house while I'm out of her way! Thanks for the opportunity to serve.
Homeowners Lubek Jastrzebski (left) and Nancy Nemhauser (right) with the son, Chip. Photo courtesy of Pacific Legal Foundation.
UPDATE JULY 18: A final settlement was signed July 18. The homeowners won the right to keep and complete the mural, as well as an apology from the mayor and $15,000 that will be applied toward over 75,000 in legal fees.
It’s perhaps a painful milestone for a city that boasts of its support of the arts. July 26 marks the one year anniversary of Mount Dora city officials waging a fight against local homeowners who sought city permission before commissioning a wall mural of an artist’s interpretation of Starry Night, the iconic van Gogh masterpiece.
A lot has transpired since a lone city official first cited the homeowners for a graffiti violation. A denied appeal, ballooning fines, national Today Show coverage and the involvement of a renowned Constitutional legal foundation were all parts of the on-going saga. Finally, after months of silence during the legal wrangling, the issue of a possible settlement is scheduled to be discussed at a Mount Dora City Council on Tuesday, July 17.
With the final details of a proposed settlement still being hammered out by the attorneys, Mount Dora Buzz was able to glean more details directly from the embattled homeowners, Nancy Nemhauser and Lubek Jastrzebski.
MD Buzz: Are you still in settlement negotiations with the City of Mount Dora today? Nancy: Yes.
MD Buzz: What are the important points already agreed upon in the possible agreement? Nancy: As nothing is signed, nothing has been truly agreed upon. It appears, however, that the city will permit us to retain and complete our artwork and will remove the lien from our property.
But based on our history with the city litigator in this case, we are not sure what will happen. Additionally, there is no actual agreement because the City Council must vote on whether to accept it.
MD Buzz: What are the items that still must be addressed in the settlement? Nancy: Assignability. (In this case, that refers to transferring the ‘grandfathering’ of the mural to future owners of that property if it is ever sold.)
MD Buzz: Are you optimistic a final agreement will be reached in time for the City Council to vote on it at tomorrow's meeting? Nancy: Given our experience with the litigator representing the city, using the term “optimistic” would be a stretch. We are hopeful that, given the unconstitutionality of the city’s sign code, the city will recognize the senselessness of its actions. Hope springs eternal.
The back of the home was painted after the City officials stated the house must match the wall. (Photo by Mount Dora Buzz)
MD Buzz: How has this experience affected your family? Nancy: It has been a nightmare! The city has caused us a great deal of stress, has cost us a great deal of money. We had been charged with “graffiti” initially and were told that the wall had to match the house. Although we had no intention of painting the house at that time, we took on that financial burden in order to try to comply with the city. The city subsequently dropped its graffiti claim.
We had the impression that the city was making up charges as it went along: First it was graffiti, then it was a sign, then it was a safety issue, then it was to preserve the neighborhood. Our experience was that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing here. It was very disconcerting.
It also adversely affected our family life. Time that we should have spent on family matters were instead spent with attorneys.
In addition, this experience has raised Lubek’s painful memories of life in Communist Poland. He grew up in Poland, behind the Iron Curtain before he immigrated to our country and became a proud citizen of the United States of America—after working here for 10 long years. He said that, in Communist Poland, officials made up rules “on the fly” and constitutional rights were ignored “the same as in Mount Dora.”
MD Buzz: What have you personally learned from this process? Nancy: You can fight City Hall if City Hall is wrong. Indeed, it is incumbent upon citizens to limit an administration’s overreach and selective enforcement. Lubek: “As a Polish American who takes great pride in being a United States citizen, I learned that even in the U.S., you have to fight for your Constitutional rights because people in power do not always respect them. I learned that I am willing to pay $100 per day for my First Amendment rights.” Nancy: “I didn’t learn that! Lubek was, and is, willing to lose the house for his First Amendment rights. I was less than enthusiastic about this possibility! I appreciate electricity and plumbing.”
MD Buzz: What do you hope the City of Mount Dora government learns from this situation? Nancy: We trust that they have realized that they have picked the wrong fight with the wrong people. As Lubek stated, he will fight this “to the bitter end.” And, unfortunately, the publicity brought about by this city, supposedly seen as an “art community,” has been bitter.
We hope that administrators will have learned to exercise financial responsibility to its taxpayers. Further, if they seek to continue with their notoriety as an “art community” they probably should be careful about taking actions to destroy art. We recognize that this artwork may not be everyone’s choice—that is the nature of art. However, what we’ve done is legal. In addition, it has inspired people to learn about van Gogh and, hopefully, art in general. Some students have told us that their teacher has them studying Starry Night and van Gogh in their class.
More than 12,000 people have expressed support for our house and wall. Some have posted that they have come to Mount Dora and spent money at restaurants and shops because they came from other places to see our home. City administrators speak publicly about promoting tourism. In this case, they have done the antithesis of that. And their evolving rationales—grasping at straws—have been bogus and seen by our citizens.
It appears that the city administration had been ill-advised to begin this action. We hope that, next time, they will think before they act—and will act responsibly. It would help if the administrators consider how their taxpayer-funded litigator and magistrate served our community.
We hope that the city will have learned that communication is important. It is noteworthy that the city administration did not speak with us about the painting. They just cited us, then took us to court multiple times and fined us more than $10,000. That ended when, fortunately, Pacific Legal Foundation took our case and filed an action in Federal Court.
Homeowner's sit down with NBC Today Show correspondent, Kerry Sanders. (Photo courtesy of NBC News).
MD Buzz: What has the community's support been like? Nancy: It’s been phenomenal! The community’s support has been extremely helpful and very gratifying. It’s incredible to us that people whom we’ve never met have filed petitions to keep our artwork and more than 12,000 people have signed those petitions.
Many people have left lovely notes of support at our door, some have sent notes through the mail, we’ve received messages from many telling us how much they love the house and wall. Our favorites are messages about kids enjoying it and looking forward to going past the “magic” house. One youngster told her mom that she was certain our house was filled with toys and unicorns. You can’t beat that! One young girl even offered her own money to help with legal fees, but we haven’t accepted a penny from anyone to help fund this lawsuit. Knowing that the house and wall make kids and people happy helped to fortify our resolve to continue in our efforts to keep the mural.
MD Buzz: How has that affected your family? Nancy: It has caused us a great deal of stress and caused and exacerbated medical issues. We are old! It has taken much time from our family activities. Countless hours have been spent on this matter. We sincerely believe the City's resources would have been better spent on our excellent first-responders who work diligently, risking their own lives to save ours.
MD Buzz: Would you do it all over again? Lubek: “Absolutely! The First Amendment is priceless and worth fighting for. I grew up without it and know what that life is like.” Nancy: “If we had Pacific Legal Foundation behind us right from the start, yes! Their attorneys have clearly demonstrated their competence and commitment. And their track record is extraordinary. They have won 10 out of 12 cases in the United States Supreme Court! As a result, we are confident that if we do not come to a final agreement and must go to court instead, we will be represented by the best.”
To many it seemed like it was all but a done deal. Apparently, that didn’t stop local community activists, and Wednesday their persistence paid off in spades. The Orange County Commission voted down a proposal by the developer of The Parks of Mount Dora to change 75,000 square feet of designated office space and 280 senior citizen residential units to 75,000 square feet of commercial space and 280 multi-family homes. The current designation of senior residential units reduces the impact on local public schools. Property tax revenue will go to Orange County, but the City of Mount Dora will generate income from the development by supplying water with an “out-of-city” surcharge of twenty-five percent.
The developer’s proposed change was partially accepted earlier this year by Mount Dora City Council when it voted to allow the change from office space to commercial use. Many thought Orange County Commission could follow the city’s stance. However, that was far from the case.
Over a dozen opponents of the proposal addressed the commission during Wednesday’s meeting, while four people reportedly spoke in favor of the developer’s changes. Eventually, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs asked for a show of hands of the audience members for or against the proposal. The response was overwhelmingly opposed, according to Bud Cunnally, Vice President of Tangerine Improvement Society (TIS) and Resident Director of the Stoneybrook Hills Homeowners Association. After a series of votes, the commission was united in its denial of the developer’s proposal.
TIS has a long track record of successfully fighting to preserve the rural nature of Mount Dora’s neighboring Tangerine community, and this vote was a hard-fought victory.
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Lake County is continuing its bear-resistant garbage cart program, and has received another batch of specialized carts available for county residents living in areas with the most reported human-bear interactions.
The carts, purchased through a $85,508 Florida Fish & Wildlife (FWC) grant, are offered at a discounted price of $40, and can be purchased on a first-come, first served basis This year’s grant also allowed the county to make available both 95-gallon and more compact 65-gallon carts. Lake County Solid Waste staff provides delivery of a new bear-resistant cart in exchange for the resident’s existing county trash cart. To request a bear-resistant cart, residents may call at 352-343-3776.
“Summer is the ideal time order carts, as bears become most active during the upcoming fall months,” said Mary Hamilton, Environmental Services Manager. “We encourage all residents, whether or not they live in areas with large populations of Florida black bears, to be bear-wise and practice the safe disposal of trash.”
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