With nearly 2,000 new homes approved for development in bustling eastern DeLand over the past two years, disagreements over the mostly residential growth have become a familiar pastime.
The pattern plays out as if from a script at times: First, a new neighborhood of hundreds of homes is proposed on virgin land. Current residents and others make their opposition known. Then, often, said developments are approved despite the objections, sometimes with minor tweaks to assuage residents’ concerns.
The most recent example is Cresswind, a new “active-adult” community that will occupy land on the eastern bank of Lake Winnemissett. Cresswind will have some 600 new homes and the amenities to serve potentially thousands of new residents.
While some existing Lake Winnemissett residents supported the development — some lakeside-dwellers even have financial stakes in it — many others in the neighborhood were opposed, citing potential damage to the pristine lake environment and further strain on eastern DeLand’s already-choked traffic network.
When the debate over Cresswind concluded, the DeLand City Commission voted 4-1 to approve a rezoning that will make the new community possible.
Most of the City Commission members said they are convinced Cresswind — as opposed to different kinds of developments that could happen on the land — is the best way to protect the lake and secure smart growth in the area.
The discord over Cresswind, and other projects, raises the question: Is there a disconnect between residents and city officials on development?
DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar: ‘People are generally resistant to a level of change’
DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar said when he gets comments about development, they don’t usually reflect universal opposition.
“Most of the comments that I get are related to specific developments, as opposed to the general notion of stopping growth,” he said. “Some of the comments I got about Cresswind, while they were aimed at Cresswind, they were not necessarily residents [living] on top of Cresswind, for want of a better word, and they were just talking about more traffic in that area of the community.”
Indeed, many of the comments in opposition to projects like Cresswind, Park Lake Estates, The Reserve at Victoria and Victoria Oaks have had to do with traffic.
State Road 44 and Kepler Road regularly back up during rush hour, and while a roundabout and an extension of Beresford Avenue are in the works, neither improvement has a definite start date for construction.
“That Beresford extension and the roundabout — Beresford has been a conception for more than 25 years, and we’ve grown a whole lot in 25 years,” said Joni Gonzalez, a member of the Lake Winnemissett Civic Association. “The percentage that it’s going to help isn’t going to help that much, once we put 2,500 homes in eastern DeLand with no other infrastructure.”
Cresswind’s backers argue that the active-adult community will generate less traffic than a similarly sized all-ages neighborhood.
Apgar said people sometimes don’t realize that when land is already in the city, its owners are entitled to some kind of a zoning classification — in other words, the city can’t stop development entirely on a given parcel.
“Cresswind, for example, was already in the City of DeLand and had an existing land-use designation, so under the law, they’re entitled to some zoning classification, and so that situation is somewhat different than a piece of property that’s being annexed and asked to change land use and rezone.”
Apgar understood, however, how some people can be resistant to change.
“When a change is going to occur to a particular area of DeLand, or almost any particular community, where people are used to looking across the street at vacant property, people are generally resistant to a level of change,” he said.
Reticence about development needs to be balanced, the mayor said, with both private-property rights and economic growth. For example, he said, businesses that many people want to see come to DeLand — like Trader Joe’s or Panera Bread — require a certain level of development and a certain demographic to exist in any location they might consider.
“People keep saying, ‘When are we going to get this, or when are we going to get that?’ but they don’t come without certain numbers, a certain demographic, in terms of households,” Apgar said.
Residents like John Engle, who was also involved in the Cresswind debate as a member of the Civic Association, have expressed frustration about what they feel is a lack of responsiveness from elected officials and developers, despite public meetings.
Engle said objections residents brought up in June were heard, but not acted on, and didn’t come up again when the project was voted on in July.
“They just sort of sailed it through,” Engle said.
He said it seems elected officials are pressured into approving developments based on what the city planning staff recommends.
“I feel like they feel like they’re required to go along with whatever the staff report says,” he said. “If the staff says that they recommend approval, well, then [the commissioners think they] should recommend approval, but if that was the case, why would we even need the City Commission to vote on stuff?”
Still, not all of DeLand’s elected officials feel exactly the same about development.
Vice Mayor Charles Paiva:‘A good bit of discretion’
Vice Mayor Charles Paiva, the lone dissenting vote on Cresswind, said there are a few factors involved in any decision on development, from what the law allows local officials to do, to what type of development request is being considered.
He said he feels people generally understand that landowners have private-property rights.
“I think people tend to understand that a little bit better — private-property rights versus maybe what the community wants or what they can bear,” Paiva said. “The change of zoning and land use, I think, is the more complicated matter.”
Paiva said the city has “a good bit of discretion” in what it could push for, but oftentimes, compromise and a willing developer are needed ingredients. He also noted that one commissioner out of five cannot single-handedly do much more than bring up topics for discussion.
“The only way we’re going to get a final product that will work and balance out those needs, is with the commission kind of holding their ground, and that’s kind of where I was with the last vote [on Cresswind],” he said. “But a lot of it is also compromise. You have to have other votes, and you have to have a developer willing to do things, and sometimes that compromise is difficult when there’s a lot of different variables.”
Paiva explained that the DeLand City Commission acts in a “quasi-judicial” capacity under state law during zoning and land-use matters, meaning commissioners have to act more like judges or interpreters of law, and less like legislators.
“Ultimately, the term quasi-judicial means we are acting as a judge, not necessarily as a representative government, or acting merely just in the wishes of the community,” he said. “We have to look at what the state allows you to do, and what prior litigation allows you to do. So, there are multiple factors.”
Paiva, who has served on the City Commission a total of 15 years since 2001, said he has been around long enough to know that timing is also a major factor in how development is received by the community.
“I do think timing is a big point of it, and I’ve been on the commission long enough to have ups and downs of growth and no growth,” he said. “We got to the point where we were saturated with development in 2005-06, and, two years later, the market dropped out.”
When no homes were being built and jobs were being lost, people were more tolerant of growth, because it meant potential new jobs and economic growth, Paiva noted.
Before the current recession caused by COVID-19 took hold, the growth rate had swung back to busy, he said — and, ergo, people might have been a bit more likely to scrutinize development.
“We’re probably reaching a breaking point,” he said.
“Speaking for myself, obviously I voted against Cresswind, because I felt like we could have held the line to have a little less density,” Paiva said. “Obviously, they have the right to develop the property, but with a planned development, we just need to be more aggressive. But I guess the rest of the commissioners thought they met all the standards for them to basically have to vote yes. I didn’t feel that way. I felt we still had some discretion.”
Commissioner Chris Cloudman: ‘Something different’
Meanwhile, Commissioner Chris Cloudman, who has expressed a desire for more creative forms of development in DeLand, said something he quickly learned after becoming a city commissioner was how hard decisions on development are.
“It’s definitely much more difficult to sit up on the dais and make these decisions, than when I used to sit in the audience,” he said. “It was an easy yes or no for me then. You get up there, and you realize that it’s not just as easy as what you personally think, but you have to look at procedures in place and criteria that’s been developed over the years.”
Cloudman said sometimes if a developer comes in and meets the criteria set out by law, even if it’s a development a commissioner may not personally like, a commissioner may need to simply “at least try to make the best of it.”
The only other way may be to change DeLand’s development regulations.
“I think there’s been a little bit of conversation about that recently, as to whether we need to take a look at that existing criteria, and the existing procedures that are in place,” Cloudman said.
“There are times where it feels like you need to make the best of what it is, because you are balancing the property rights of the people who already live in the area with the property rights of the owner of the property in question. And, it’s tough,” Cloudman added. “I would love to see more creative developments coming before us — just, something different.”