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.