At a jam-packed meeting that lasted nearly six-and-a-half hours Feb. 13, the Lake Helen City Commission showed in at least six different ways how small-town local government gets things done.
Two citizen initiatives proposed months ago came to fruition, a state grant was torpedoed on purpose, a house accidentally built on city land will be picked up and moved, commissioners navigated an incredibly unlikely race for a seat on the Historic Preservation Board, there was respectful discussion of a topic with no solution and differing viewpoints, and — of course — Shelldon, the Daytona Tortugas mascot paid a visit.
There was that unique Lake Helen flair: A member of the audience loudly asked if Shelldon — who has been making the rounds of city meetings drumming up support for his baseball team — could take off his costume because “I can’t see for his big old head.”
Shelldon retreated from the front row to a corner in the back, and waited nearly an hour for his turn on the lengthy agenda.
As the meeting that started at 6:30 p.m. stretched almost to 1 a.m., the commissioners, many of whom come to the nighttime meeting from full-time day jobs, gamely discussed each item in depth but occasionally went off topic.
“People get too sensitive about death,” City Commissioner Rick Basso said to the audience. “Every single one of us here is going to die, folks.”
“Thank you, Rick, for that,” Commissioner Vernon Burton replied, after a brief pause.
At the end of the night, the mayor checked the board to see if any topic was left undiscussed.
“Oh, you’re still talking?” City Attorney Scott Simpson replied. “I have nothing to say except you should have a policy to end at midnight.”
In October, Lake Helen resident Candace Collins-Finn, driven by her passion for the stately sandhill crane, introduced the idea of Lake Helen becoming a Sandhill Crane Sanctuary City.
Collins-Finn has been lobbying for the initiative for four months. On Feb. 13, the commission unanimously passed a proclamation announcing the sandhill crane as the official Lake Helen bird. Signs will be erected.
In November, another local, Chase Otero, proposed reintroducing Little League baseball at the Mitchell Brothers Sports Complex, whose neglected and underused baseball diamond claims its fame as a location for filming The First of May, a 1999 film starring Mickey Rooney in one of his last on-screen roles.
By the February meeting, the City Commission had drafted a facility-use agreement with the Lake Helen Little League group, which plans to hit the ball out of the park this summer after some minor revisions in the proposed contract.
State $$: No, thanks
More than three years ago, Lake Helen applied for a grant called Safe Routes to Schools, targeting key areas around Ivy Hawn Charter School and Volusia Pines Elementary that are in desperate need of sidewalks.
But, major modifications by the Florida Department of Transportation District 5 office require every city that gets money through the program to administer the funding through Volusia County, adding a layer of government that nearly doubles the costs.
Lake Helen decided it would be more efficient and less expensive to build the sidewalks without the state’s help.
“It sounds to me like we’re going to eat up the funding available. We’re going to give it to the county for administrative and engineering work,” City Commissioner Basso said. “It’s a net-zero; why even bother?”
“It’s a negative, yes,” City Administrator Becky Witte replied.
If they accepted the grant, Lake Helen would add the costs of paying for county engineers, administrative workers, overhead and more.
Without accepting the funding, the city would pay about $68,000 for design and about $343,000 for construction.
Using the county would push design costs to nearly $219,000, and construction to $569,200.
Lake Helen nixed the agreement, and included a plan to draft letters on their reasoning to the FDOT, and the governor’s office.
“They should understand — if you put a grant system in place to do something specific and we get down to it and we can’t do it because you have so many layers of government eating up the funding before you even get it on the ground — we need to do things differently. And everyone in that trail needs to know about it,” Basso said.
Just move it
Travis Martin appeared before the City Commission to talk about his business, Trayton Homes.
“We currently have a couple of projects going on here in the beautiful city of Lake Helen. We have one we’ve made a slight oops on,” Martin told commissioners.
A home was under construction in late January when Martin discovered that he was about 60 feet off — and about 50 feet into city-owned property adjacent to Melissa Park on West Ohio Avenue.
After a town-hall meeting Feb. 12, the builder decided to pick up the home and move it, at his own cost.
How exactly the goof occurred is unclear, but suspects include improperly placed survey markers and incorrect city plats, according to officials.
Two women, one seat
The Historic Preservation Board oversees applications for renovations and new construction in Lake Helen’s historic district, and usually discusses for hours whether projects deserve certificates of appropriateness, before those applications are debated again, in-depth, by the City Commission.
Historic Board members are paid nothing for these hours of work, so there isn’t usually more than one candidate for any open seat.
But two well-qualified candidates — Stephanie Clark and Melissa Mong — presented the City Commission with a difficult decision Feb. 13 as they moved to fill one open seat.
Resident Betty Doherty, who is often seen knitting in her seat throughout lengthy city meetings, saved the day by announcing she would give up her position as an alternate on the Historic Board.
Mong was named to the open position, and Clark will serve as alternate.
“That’s Lake Helen right there,” City Commissioner Jim Connell said, as the audience gave a round of applause to the satisfactory conclusion.
No good solution
A demolition company has caused some problems for its neighbors at New York and Summit avenues in Lake Helen.
Summit Avenue is a thoroughfare that is zoned residential on one side of the street and commercial on the other.
Trucks idling outside homes at 4:30 in the morning, loud noises and bright lights were a few of the complaints brought by the Johnstons, who live across the street.
But the demolition business is in compliance with Lake Helen laws for zoning, noise and fencing. The company is following all the rules for the commercial side of the street.
“Even if we knew this was going to be a problem, what could we have done?” Basso asked.
But that doesn’t mean the Johnstons, and others, aren’t correct, as well, that the noise, lights and heavy traffic are disruptive, commissioners added.
After a long discussion of possible solutions, including moving the demolition company’s driveway and fence — both of which come with headaches and problems of their own — the way forward was not clear.
The city had discussed creating an alternate entrance, but was stymied by the condition of New York Avenue, which was not built for heavy-vehicle traffic. Even then, members of the audience asked, why should the taxpayers shoulder the burden?
“I think we’re trying to be a kinder, gentler city, and be amenable to anyone who was impacted by this,” Basso said.
“I think just morally we should do something. We’re not required to do a darn thing,” Connell said.
“I see your side, and you see my side,” said Ryan Wilkins of Sterling Enterprises, who installed the fencing around the business.
“Let’s keep working the problem,” Connell said.