It was a big and controversial undertaking. Less than a decade ago, Mount Dora taxpayers invested in their downtown sidewalks to make the area more pedestrian-friendly while upgrading its underground infrastructure. The 2014 phase of the massive project widened the downtown sidewalks along Donnelly Street by removing angled or “head-in” parking spaces and replacing them with fewer parallel spaces, as well as removing the brick flower planters, considered by City staff to be hazardous obstacles for pedestrians at the time.
Fast forward to today -- downtown Mount Dora’s sidewalks are anything but pedestrian-friendly due to lax code enforcement and inadequate ordinances. The City’s code prohibits obstructing public sidewalks, yet not long after the widening project was completed, the proliferation of retailers’ sales tables, clothing racks and merchandise carts conspicuously obstructing the public sidewalks began.
This daily practice, along with the growing number of t-shirts and dish towels hanging outside shops, has transformed some previously charming blocks of downtown into a sprawling sidewalk sale subsidized by the City's taxpayers.
One stretch of sidewalk on Donnelly between Fourth Avenue and Third Avenue is frequently littered with large retail tables, garden stakes, and other items for sale forcing pedestrians to walk single-file on a sidewalk intended for at least two pedestrians to be able to walk abreast. Additionally, large cement blocks a retailer uses to hold merchandise by day are left out overnight, creating potential tripping hazards that have existed for several months.
Code enforcement has also been lax in handling the groupings of bulky sandwich boards crowding the sidewalks in front of buildings that have multiple tenants. The City’s code allows for those buildings to have only one sandwich board that lists all of its tenants, but due to lack of enforcement for years, groups of pedestrians are impeded until others walk past.
Ironically, the 2014 streetscape project also installed new downtown wayfinding signs on street corners that were intended to help visitors locate downtown businesses and allow for the sandwich boards to be phased out. The City never followed through with phasing out the duplicate signage, but rather increased the number of sandwich boards and wayfinding signs allowed on the poles. These actions, combined with other signage codes that aren't enforced, resulted in the current proliferation of advertising signage downtown as well as the crowded sidewalks. Interestingly, it was only about a decade ago when sandwich boards weren't permitted at all in downtown Mount Dora.
At a time when the effect of increasing downtown building heights has been debated at City Hall, leaders and staff have turned a blind eye to an issue already negatively impacting downtown’s character. Although codes are intended to protect the aesthetics and safety of an area, Mount Dora’s clearly visible exterior code violations are only enforced when a complaint occurs, according to the City. This reactive policy, coupled with City staff’s practice of informing violators of the identity of the complainer, discouraged people from reporting hazards and caused obvious violations to snowball over several years.
Code enforcement policies don't need to be heavy-handed in order to be effective. Mount Dora could opt for a steady, proactive approach, in which business owners are first educated about the codes and then given ample time to correct any violations before they are cited. This approach could produce a safer and more charming environment, as well as promote goodwill among the downtown business community and provide the pedestrian- friendly sidewalks that taxpayers were sold eight years ago.