The past 12 months have been filled with joy, sadness, progress, setbacks, and all manner of new challenges and opportunities for West Volusia.
This issue of The Beacon takes a month-by-month look back at some of the most significant stories of 2019.
Additionally, several of your favorite Beacon staffers have written retrospectives on 2019, and what stories they believe shaped West Volusia throughout the year. You can read these thoughts here.
As we look back on the year that was and forward to the 2020 that will be, we hope you and your family have a safe and Happy New Year!
— From all of us at The Beacon
Bob Garcia, longtime mayor of DeBary, stepped down. Garcia served as mayor 2008-14, and was elected again in a special 2016 election to replace Clint Johnson, who had been removed by the DeBary City Council.
Deltona ended its recycling program, citing rising costs. A city-hired consultant determined the city’s cost of recycling was $77 per ton, while the cost of disposing of items in Volusia County’s Tomoka Landfill cost $34 per ton. Many cities have struggled with their recycling programs in recent years, as China’s decision to cut back on imports of recyclables from the U.S. and other countries caused a downturn in the market for items like cardboard.
While the county optimistically begins talk of a half-cent sales-tax increase in a special mail-in ballot vote, two amendments that passed in November 2018 are stymied by state and local actions — Amendment 4 and Amendment 10. The federal government shutdown that began Dec. 22, 2018, stretched on until Jan. 25, becoming the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
The historic Grant Bly House in DeLand burned to ruins. A lightning strike was later determined to be the likely culprit.
Deltona City Manager Jane Shang came under fire for a faulty voter registration. Shang came under scrutiny because she listed Deltona City Hall as her home address on her voter registration.
The Beacon announced its intention to begin publishing a series of articles on DeLand’s Spring Hill neighborhood. The series, by Eli Witek, detailed the neighborhood’s history and ongoing struggles with poverty, lack of infrastructure and other issues.
A year after it opened, the $10 million Center at Deltona venue faced shortfalls. The multipurpose center on Deltona’s north side posted total revenues of approximately $276,000 — far short of the amount needed to repay the bonded debt for the venue — $670,000 annually — and to cover the facility’s estimated yearly operating expenses of $300,000.
The eighth annual MeStrong 5K pushed the organization over the $1 million mark in funds raised since the first race in 2012. MeStrong, formed to honor a DeLand woman who was fighting cancer, now helps many people who are battling the disease.
The future of The Bridge, DeLand’s planned homeless shelter and day center, was called into question after bids received came in at more than $1 million more than the $1.13 million Volusia County pledged for the facility’s construction. City officials cited a 71-percent increase in construction costs across the board since 2016 as a reason for the high bids. Ultimately, the city and county contributed about another $500,000 each to close the shortfall.
Stetson University President Dr. Wendy B. Libby announced her intention to retire in June 2020. In addition, longtime beloved Stetson facilities worker of 42 years Pat Hill retired.
Stetson cut the ribbon on its $7 million Sandra Stetson Aquatic Center on the shore of Lake Beresford. Two months later, the building still had not gotten its certificate of occupancy, due to a lack of water pressure for the building’s fire-suppression system.
Several cities, including DeBary, Orange City and DeLand, temporarily ended their online streaming of public meetings after learning of lawsuits against other cities; such lawsuits claimed that online streamings that lacked closed captioning violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.
DeLand considered a new law to make it illegal for a homeless person to set up camp on a city bench or elsewhere on public property. The impetus for the proposal was the city’s ongoing saga with Earl Edwards, a homeless man who had been a fixture in Downtown DeLand for years. Edwards’ bench was often covered with bags of clothing and other items people had given him. Ultimately, the city, working with The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, was able to get Edwards off the street and into housing in March.
The new owner of the Hotel Putnam ran into permitting issues when replacing the inn’s roof, which had been damaged in a fire the previous April. Restoration work on the hotel continued slowly throughout the year.
Citing similar issues as Deltona, which ended its recycling program, DeLand raised the cost of recycling for the city’s residents by 30 cents per month.
DeBary approved a plan for a Duke Energy solar-power plant on nearly 350 acres of its 2,000-plus acres on the city’s west side. The solar farm, which began construction later in the year, will produce an estimated 75 megawatts of electricity.
Work began on the Colin’s Dream Park skate park in Orange City. Named in honor of Colin Anderson, a 12-year-old boy who was struck and killed by a vehicle while skateboarding on U.S. Highway 17-92 in February 2013, the $200,000 project was funded by monies raised from his mother, Cassandra Sprague, along with funds from Orange City and a Volusia County ECHO grant.
Former Deputy County Manager George Recktenwald got a contract to become Volusia County’s manager. He had been serving on an interim basis as county manager following Jim Dinneen’s resignation in June 2018.
Lake Helen residents formed the Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake to push for restoration of the city’s eponymous lake. Parts of the lake, which had shrunk dramatically over the years, had become overrun with hydrilla, a massively invasive plant threatening many Florida waterways.
County officials’ optimism for the prospects of a half-cent sales tax for transportation and water projects, to be approved by a May mail-in ballot, started to dim, after public meetings describing the plans for the tax monies were scantily attended.
The Volusia County Council narrowly voted to argue its case challenging Amendment 10 before an appellate court, after a Leon County circuit judge denied Volusia County’s motion for summary judgment in the county’s suit to save its 48-year-old charter.
Two West Volusia elected officials — Pierson Mayor James Sowell, 82, and Kathie Shepard, 63, a member of the West Volusia Hospital Authority Board of Commissioners — passed away. Sowell was first elected to his position in 1998, and was most recently re-elected without opposition in November 2018. Shepard was first elected to the WVHA board in 2010, and was re-elected in a close race in November 2018.
The Beacon launched “Native Reflections,” a series of columns by Realtor Bill Mancinik looking back at DeLand’s history and his experiences growing up when DeLand was much different than it is today. Mancinik’s columns ultimately inspired other DeLandites to write columns detailing their memories and their views of the city’s history.
A man leaving Cafe DaVinci in Downtown DeLand was shot in the gut by a bystander after arguing with his girlfriend in a nearby parking lot. The victim ultimately survived, while the shooter was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.
Ground is broken March 30 on The Bridge, DeLand’s proposed homeless shelter and day center. The $2.1 million, 6,300-square-foot facility will provide temporary housing for up to 30 people, a communal dining area, showers, offices and spaces for a variety of services to be offered to homeless individuals.
Between March 11 and early April, a series of fatal car crashes took the lives of at least seven West Volusia young people, including two 17-year-olds and a 29-year-old mother of two who died in crashes two days apart.
Michael Chitwood, elected as Volusia County sheriff in 2016, launched his 2020 re-election campaign. In a speech, he hailed Amendment 10, which would give him more flexibility in how he administers his department.
The Volusia County Council awarded a bid to The Verdin Co., the largest manufacturer of clocks and bells in the world, to fix the clock atop the Historic Volusia County Courthouse. The clock’s bells had been silent for about two years, while the four clock faces had been showing four different times — all wrong.
An alleged carjacking in Deltona led to a police chase and a shootout on State Road 44. The situation culminated in a gun battle between deputies and the suspect, Phillip Marsh, 30, of Lake Helen. Before being killed by deputies, Marsh allegedly shot at 54-year-old Sgt. Thomas Dane, a 30-year veteran of the force. Dane, who was grazed by the bullet, ultimately was treated at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach and released.
Ground was broken on the Dr. Joyce M. Cusack Spring Hill Resource Center April 26. A large crowd of Spring Hill community members, city and county politicians and staff, representatives from Stetson University, friends and family of Dr. Cusack, and Cusack herself, gathered around a pile of dirt and eight golden-bladed shovels on the site of the planned 3,250-plus-square-foot building at 481 W. Mathis St. in DeLand.
Brandy White, a vocal critic of the Deltona city government, notified city officials of her intention to sue the city to clear her name of what she says is a false criminal charge. White had been charged with illegally recording an April 18, 2018, incident in a public area of Deltona City Hall. The State Attorney’s Office, after some delay, declined to prosecute White.
The DeLand community mourned the loss of 18-year-old musician Matthew Buth. Buth died after leaping from the Beville Road overpass into traffic on Interstate 95 in Daytona Beach, after leaving the home of his girlfriend, where an argument had allegedly turned violent. Buth was an employee at The Table restaurant in DeLand, and was an active participant in the city’s music scene.
In light of DeLand officials’ decision to award the bid to negotiate with the city for redevelopment of the Old Volusia County Jail to Deltran Operations Inc., The Beacon conducted an online survey asking people what they want to see more of in Downtown DeLand. Overwhelmingly, parking and green space were the two top desires of the 631 voters who responded to the poll, while office space — a central tenet of Deltran’s plan — ranked dead last.
Thousands of thirsty Deltonans flocked to a Wawa convenience store and gas station that opened May 23. The store, on Howland Boulevard near Halifax Health’s under-construction Deltona hospital, created an estimated 40 jobs, and offered free hot beverages for the first week it was open.
Work progressed on the restoration of DeLand’s J.W. Wright Building, on the corner of South Clara and West Voorhis avenues, on the southwestern edge of Downtown DeLand. The long-neglected facility was a once-thriving commercial building that once anchored DeLand’s African American business district. Efforts to save the 1920 building ramped up in recent years, following Greater Union First Baptist Church’s acquisition of the property in a 2016 tax-deed sale. The church transferred the property to its charitable arm, the Greater Union Life Center.
Deltona grappled with complaints and protests from vocal residents, many of whom were supporters of Brandy White and opponents of City Manager Jane Shang. Several city commissioners said the city needed a better way to deal with citizen complaints against city officials.
Citing a lack of communication, the Volusia County School Board voted 4-1 to negotiate an early exit for Superintendent Tom Russell. Among the issues that members of the board felt ill-informed about was an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the school system’s treatment of children with disabilities.
By roughly a 10.5-point margin, Volusia County voters rejected raising the sales tax to fund transportation and water-quality projects. The proposal would have raised the county’s current 6.5-percent sales tax to 7 percent. Voters rejected it by 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent. Turnout in the mail-in-only vote was a paltry 27.5 percent.
DeLand city officials drafted a revised Memorandum of Understanding with Deltran Operations Inc., the company tapped to negotiate with the city for a chance to redevelop the Old Volusia County Jail. The new deal attempted to address concerns about incentive money Deltran would receive, as well as the status of parking around the jail site during construction of GlassHouse Square, the company’s concept to replace the Old Jail.
Three of four commissioners on the West Volusia Hospital Authority board voted to remove Brian Soukup from the authority’s Citizen Advisory Committee. Soukup was allegedly removed for violating the Sunshine Law by sending an email to the entire WVHA board at once, but his supporters argue he was removed for asking pointed questions to groups receiving tax money from the authority’s coffers.
Proposed changes to the I-4 Automall project — subject of much controversy throughout 2018 due to its sheer size and number of tall buildings, and its proximity to DeLand residents in Victoria Park — could have the project looking like less of a behemoth. The changes would have reduced the number of dealership buildings and increased the non-automotive commercial uses at the site, which sits on the border of DeLand and Lake Helen along Orange Camp Road/Main Street. Ultimately, no amendments to the project’s development plan were officially adopted.
The community mourned the death of mortician James E. “Jimmy” Cusack, a pillar of the West Volusia African American community. He served on numerous governmental and community boards locally, often in the position of chairman. For most of his 70 years, he was a major influence in Spring Hill, which he worked tirelessly to improve.
Deltona City Manager Jane Shang reached a deal to avoid jail time in her voter-registration controversy. She admitted she was guilty of six instances of voter fraud, and agreed to pay the costs of the state investigation into her actions. Shang was also ordered to perform 100 hours of community service, while avoiding any breach of federal, state or local laws for the next 12 months.
Deltona became one of a plethora of cities and counties across the country to join a lawsuit against the makers and distributors of opioid pain medicines. The city could see millions of dollars if the case is successful. The case argues the drugmakers misrepresented the risks of addiction associated with medicines like oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Following the ouster of Superintendent Tom Russell, the Volusia County School Board tapped Tim Egnor as interim superintendent.
Orange City tripped a federal drinking-water standard after one testing site of its drinking water was found to contain more total trihalomethanes, or TTHMs, than allowed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The allowable level is 80 parts per billion, while one test site showed a level of 80.7 parts per billion. The Florida Department of Health said while the breach was enough to cause attention from regulators, it wasn’t likely to cause noticeable health effects for the average person.
DeLand installed chalkboards along Artisan Alley and on East Indiana Avenue near The Elusive Grape in Downtown DeLand to get suggestions on what residents want to see in Downtown DeLand. The chalkboards were part of the effort to update DeLand’s 2050 Vision plan.
Historian Dan Friend of DeLand Historic Trust Inc. partnered with the daughter of jazz musician Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts to raise money for a special monument at Watts’ burial site in Union Cemetery. Watts died in 2004, and is remembered to this day through the annual Noble “Thin Man” Watts Jazz Festival.
In response to protests and other rancor at recent Deltona City Commission meetings, the city opted to install metal detectors at the entrance to the commission chambers at Deltona City Hall. The city also amended its public-participation rules to expel speakers who engage in disorderly conduct or abusive language while speaking before the commission.
Blue-green algal blooms were reported along the St. Johns River nearly three months earlier than in previous years. Such blooms have been linked to fertilizer use and other human impacts.
DeLand awarded a $434,691.60 contract to replace trees along West Indiana Avenue. The trees had been installed when the West Indiana Avenue streetscape was first constructed around 1990, but they remained underdeveloped because of a lack of space for proper root growth. The replacement project was completed in October.
Stetson Baptist Church in DeLand raised $153,867.19 to go toward wiping out $7.2 million in medical debt for some 6,500 individuals and families in Central Florida. The church partnered with RIP Medical Debt, a group that gets $100 of debt forgiven for every $1 donated. The church also donated funds to support One More Child, also known as Florida Baptist Children’s Homes.
Efforts to restore the 1920 J.W. Wright Building in DeLand were buoyed by a $100,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Florida Department of Transportation asked the Volusia County Council to reaffirm its commitment to extending SunRail to DeLand. In a letter, the department said federal assistance may be available to extend the system north from DeBary to DeLand. The letter highlighted the prospect of redistributing federal funds normally used for highway projects to SunRail.
A group, the Monument Aquisition Coalition, was formed in West Volusia to claim historical markers at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in memory of four lynching victims who died in Volusia County. The group hopes to bring a monument memorializing the lynching deaths to Volusia County, as well.
Questions were raised after it was revealed that Deltona City Manager Jane Shang was serving her community-service hours — related to her wrongful-voter-registration case — by doing work in Lake Helen City Hall.
The Beacon took home six journalism awards from the Florida Media Conference in St. Petersburg July 10-12. Staff writer Eli Witek won five awards for stories she wrote, including a first-place award for a story about Suber Memorial Gardens, an African American cemetery in Lake Helen. Her other winning stories concerned sex education in Volusia County Schools, the counting of write-in ballots, the DeBary 15-year-old who is charged with killing his mother, and sinkholes, which won second-place awards. Beacon Business Editor Joe Crews and Editor Anthony DeFeo shared a second-place award for a story about the economic impact of the DeLand Regional tournament, a part of the 2018 NCAA Division I Baseball Championship that was hosted by Stetson University.
The West Volusia Branch NAACP held its annual Freedom Fund Banquet at The Center at Deltona. Many prestigious awards were presented, including The Legacy Award presented to David Staples, a former president of the branch.
Orange City called on residents to recycle and reduce their use of single-use plastics, such as straws and grocery bags. The city stopped short of banning disposable plastics in its parks and facilities, however.
Parents of students in Volusia County’s public schools grappled with new school start and end times, throwing a wrench into transportation and child care plans for some working parents.
The Beacon and other members of the news media were kicked out of a court hearing on former professional guardian Rebecca Fierle. An investigation by the comptroller of Okaloosa County in early July found that Fierle had filed a DNR, or do-not-resuscitate, order on a ward against the person’s wishes and the wishes of the family. Fierle had seven guardianship cases in Volusia County.
German discount grocery chain Aldi began to prepare to set up shop in DeLand, according to city planning documents.
Volusia County Animal Services officials investigated Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary, in response to complaints. At the time, the nonprofit sanctuary housed more than 100 cats and more than two dozen dogs, along with several other animals. The sanctuary, owned by 91-year-old Florence Thuot, is designed to be a peaceful place for unadoptable animals to live out the remainder of their lives.
The parents of DeLand-born-and-raised football star Tra Thomas called for Eastside Park, located near his childhood home, to be renamed in his honor. The DeLand City Commission ultimately voted in September to rename the park Tra Thomas Park.
Volusia County, the St. Johns River Water Management District and West Volusia cities discussed a plan to use a 60-acre borrow pit near Blue Spring State Park to recharge the aquifer and, ultimately, Blue Spring, in order to reach state-mandated minimum flow requirements at the spring.
The clock atop the Historic Volusia County Courthouse was largely fixed after a $71,625 repair job neared completion mid-month. Several Downtown DeLand residents, however, said the sound of the bells paled in comparison to how they used to sound. Ultimately, the sound was tweaked and improved over time.
Volusia County officials announced plans to effectively abandon the idea of extending SunRail to DeLand. Volusia County Chair Ed Kelley told the Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission Aug. 29 that the county was willing to forgo the extension, if the commission would amend its agreements with Volusia County to lessen the county’s required financial contribution to the commuter-rail system.
The Beacon began a series of stories, The Case of Quentin Wyche, in which writer Eli Witek followed DeLand native Wyche on his journey to clear his name of what he said was a wrongful second-degree murder conviction related to a 2010 incident outside a Miami recreation center. Ultimately, Wyche reached a deal that erased his murder conviction, wherein his charge was reduced to manslaughter with adjudication withheld — no finding of guilt, no conviction. Wyche was immediately released from the term of probation that was part of his original sentence with credit for time served.
West Volusia prepared for Hurricane Dorian, which turned out to be one of the most powerful hurricanes on record in the Atlantic Basin. At its peak, the storm had winds of 185 mph. The storm struck the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas Sept. 1, where the Category 5 storm stalled for about a day. While previous forecast tracks had shown the storm possibly making landfall in Florida, it ultimately stayed well offshore the peninsula.
In response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, charitable West Volusia individuals, groups and governments stepped up, arranging aid drives and even housing storm refugees.
DeLand unveiled plans for a new fire station and police-evidence building in Downtown DeLand. The facility, set to replace Fire Station 81, comes with a $4.87 million price tag, while the evidence building is estimated to cost $989,000. The fire station will be built on the site of DeLand’s former Elks Lodge, at the northwest corner of South Clara and West Howry avenues, which the city purchased in 2018 for $875,000. The evidence building will be built directly across from the city’s police station, on the southeast corner of the same intersection.
Plans for a 1.4 million-square-foot warehouse in northern Deltona come to light in city planning documents. The facility is slated to be constructed along North Normandy Boulevard, nearly opposite the city’s Epic Theatres of West Volusia movie theater. City officials could not say for whom the warehouse was being built until late December, citing a nondisclosure agreement, but there was widespread speculation that the building would be an Amazon warehouse. This speculation proved to be correct.
Eighteen-year-old Dylan Ceglarek, alleged to have participated in the cover-up of the strangulation death of 46-year-old DeBary resident Gail Cleavanger, got the opportunity at a Sept. 20 hearing to post $200,000 bond and get out of jail after spending more than 300 days there. As of Dec. 23, he remains in custody.
The Bridge, DeLand’s under-construction homeless shelter and day center, asked for volunteers to help staff the facility, which is set to open in spring 2020. The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia will be in charge of the facility.
Volunteers with the Committee to Save Lake Helen Lake waded into the lake to help remove invasive hydrilla plants, and to plant native plants around the lake’s shore. The committee also celebrated receiving $43,500 in state funds to remove a land bridge impeding the flow of the lake.
DeBary raised ad valorem property taxes 41.8 percent, citing a need for revenue to help it improve drainage in several areas. Even with the whopping increase, the city remained the city with the lowest property taxes in Volusia County.
The West Volusia Hospital Authority lowered its ad valorem tax rate, but the move wasn’t enough to stem calls from the agency’s detractors to either radically change or disband the authority, which provides medical care for about 1,600 of West Volusia’s poorest residents.
The African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand celebrated its 25th year with a series of special events.
A fatal early-morning stabbing closed Woodland Boulevard for hours Oct. 16. Jared Shaw, 32, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Christine McCaleb, 67. Both suffered from schizophrenia, according to family members. Both slipped through gaps in the safety net, ultimately leaving them unable to get the mental-health services they needed.
DeLand residents got a chance to enjoy some spooky fun as DeLand became host to a haunted house for the first time in more than a decade. Haunted Hollow, at the Artisan Alley Garage, attracted hordes of visitors eager for a fright around Halloween.
Four candidates jockeyed for two seats in Lake Helen, a city where every year is an election year. Ultimately, incumbent Mayor Daisy Raisler won re-election despite a challenge from longtime City Commissioner Vernon Burton. Former city special-events coordinator Kelly Frasca edged out a victory over incumbent Commissioner Tom Wilson in Zone 1, as well. Burton, who had to resign to run for mayor, applied to be reappointed to his Zone 2 seat. He ultimately was returned to the Zone 2 seat after much acrimony at an early-December Lake Helen City Commission meeting.
The Volusia County School Board unanimously voted to name Dr. Ronald “Scott” Fritz as the school system’s new superintendent Nov. 12. Fritz replaced Interim Superintendent Tim Egnor, who had replaced Tom Russell, after Russell was let go after School Board members complained of communication issues.
DeLandites, including artist Bibi LeBlanc and former federal-government employees Virginia and Joe Comella, recalled memories of witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago.
Residents around several DeBary neighborhoods were alarmed by the large-scale clearing and burning of trees and other vegetation at the site of Duke Energy’s under-construction solar-energy facility in the city.
Camp Winona, the Volusia/Flagler Family YMCA’s camp in DeLeon Springs, celebrated 100 years of fun with a big camp party open to the public.
Expansive new developments planned in eastern DeLand north of Victoria Park had some residents asking if roads can handle more residents coming to the area. City and county officials, meanwhile, continued to struggle to find sources of money to build much-needed road improvements around West Volusia, in light of the defeat of the proposed half-cent sales tax.
A prominent nonprofit group, the Community Life Center of Deltona, abruptly closed its doors, leaving a “gaping hole” in Deltona’s social-services network, according to one community activist.
DeLand passed new rules making it easier for police to cite noisy residents who refuse to turn down loud music or other noises after being asked to stop by an officer.
Work continued to progress on the Hotel Putnam restoration, but efforts were stymied by vandals who broke into the hotel and tossed new windows awaiting installation from a second-floor window.
DeLand cracked down on so-called nonconforming signs, as per an ordinance passed in 1999. The law included a 10-year grace period for business owners to amortize new signs that would be allowed under the ordinance. However, since West Volusia was still in the grips of the Great Recession in 2009, the city extended the deadline to 2014, then to May 17, 2019, until finally insisting that business owners comply with the long-delayed law by the end of the year. The large roof sign at Mitchell Cleaners in Downtown DeLand was among those that would have had to be removed under the ordinance, but city officials ultimately determined the shop could qualify for a variance.
DeBary instituted a mobility fee on new development within a zone near the city’s SunRail station, as a way to raise money for alternative modes of transit. Projects funded by the fee could include bicycle lanes and “micro-transit” services — unconventional ways of getting from place to place, such as electric scooters or driverless vehicles.
Residents across West Volusia celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa with parades, shows, religious services and other activities.
— Compiled by Eli Witek and Anthony DeFeo