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In a public hearing punctuated with moments of passion and anger, the Deltona City Commission Sept. 21 approved a residential development that calls for more homes on smaller lots.

“Who’s directing our growth?” City Commissioner Dana McCool asked. “Are developers directing our growth, or are we directing our growth?”

The project known as Three Island Lakes South had spurred some controversy, as Deltona’s population may top 100,000 in the next few years. City leaders are weighing where the new settlers may live.

“The city may take the position that it does not want growth, but that will shift growth to other areas,” Deltona Planning and Development Services Director Ron Paradise said. “The city will be impacted by that growth, traffic being one.”

By a 5-2 vote, the commission rezoned 16 undeveloped acres along Lake Helen Osteen Road, just west of the intersection with Collingswood Drive, for 61 single-family homesites.

The land in question had previously been carved into six lots zoned RE-1 (Rural Residential Estate). The developer, Courtland Acquisitions LLC, had asked for the zoning to be changed to RPUD (Residential Planned Unit Development), which allows for more smaller lots. Many of the surrounding lots are greater than an acre.

The tendency to make homesites smaller stems from the higher costs of land and development, along with a growing number of new homeowners who shun labor-intensive yardwork and landscaping.

The RPUD zoning provides for the clustering, or grouping, of the homes closely together, so that part of the property may be left for green space for a children’s play area and a dog park.

The lots in Three Island Lakes South will have an average size of 4,800 square feet, with 40 feet of street frontage and a length of 120 feet. These lots contrast with Deltona’s older standard lots, which are 85 feet wide and 120 feet long and cover about 10,000 square feet.

McCool and Commissioner Loren King were on the losing side of the rezoning vote.

King, who represents Deltona’s District 1 wherein the property is located, wondered aloud if he was getting the full story about the requested rezoning.

“My Mama taught that a half-truth is as good as a whole lie,” he said. “I don’t believe that the city needs to build all of the houses today that we may need. … Once we rezone it, it will be gone from the city forever.”

That remark stirred the wrath of Commissioner Chris Nabicht.

“For you to insinuate that staff would lie to us is irresponsible,” he told King.

When someone in the audience voiced support for King, Nabicht told the person to “Shut up!”

Outbursts from spectators moved Mayor Heidi Herzberg to threaten the removal of those who would not be quiet. To defuse some of the tension, Herzberg called a five-minute recess about halfway through the protracted deliberations.

In conjunction with the vote to approve the Three Island Lakes South subdivision, the City Commission agreed to review and possibly revise its comprehensive plan, probably after the beginning of the new year. Deltona’s state-mandated growth-management plan was drafted in 1989, six years before the sprawling settlement actually became a city.

“When times change, we all have to change,” Commissioner Anita Bradford said. “It’s 2020, and we need to get on the bandwagon.”

The opposition

City Commissioner Loren King took the lead in opposing the Three Island Lakes proposal.

“I think it will destroy the natural environment,” he said. “In this particular development, all but nine homes are located around the edge of the property.”

King said he had canvassed many of his neighbors and other people living in his district, and he had found no one in favor of the new project.

“We have heard from the professionals, but we have not listened to the residents,” he added.

Environmental concerns

While Deltona’s planning staff had supported the rezoning for Three Island Lakes, the Deltona Planning and Zoning Board voted to recommend that the City Commission reject it.

Critics of Three Island Lakes South objected to its density and possible additional traffic, along with possible environmental concerns.

“The eastern end of the property is wetland,” Commissioner Loren King said.

King represents Deltona’s District 1, where the property lies.

The mention of a wetland raised alarms about flooding, especially after several days of heavy rains.

“None of the property is within the flood plain,” Mark Watts, the attorney for the developer, said.

Still, area homeowners such as Brandy White, a frequent attendee at City Commission meetings, voiced fears of flooding on adjoining lands and roads, some already in need of repair.

“If you’re going to take more of this surface and put cement on it, where’s the water going to go?” she asked.

A Lakeland consultant for the developer told the commission his firm is working to resolve stormwater woes that may arise.

“We would be designing for a 100-year storm,” David Holden, the urban-development manager of Quigg Engineering Inc., said.

Before development may begin, the St. Johns River Water Management District must issue a stormwater/drainage permit. Holden said the developer may not be prepared to seek the stormwater permit until early 2021.

The planning staff report on the project noted there will be an environmental survey to determine if gopher tortoises and/or scrub jays are on the land. If any tortoises are found, they “will either be preserved on site or relocated.”

“The property supports other wildlife such as opossums, raccoons, and various song birds,” the report reads, adding there are also other “game animals like deer and hog.”

Giving people choices

Throughout the proceedings, supporters of the rezoning made the case for more housing choices. In other words, Deltona has an abundance of homes with larger lots, and they argued for homes on smaller lots for the buyers who want them.

The developer’s attorney, Mark Watts, said Deltona’s variety of housing is consistent with the city’s growth-management plan.

“One of the things about your comprehensive plan is, it encourages diversification,” he told the City Commission.

Commissioner Loren King flipped the argument, warning Deltona is taking away opportunities for prospective homeowners who want bigger lots, such as the ones on the rural fringe of the city.

“We’re running out of open space for people to have RE-1 homes and have the choice in that district, and we’re running out of land,” he said.

What about the pandemic?

Is another housing crash over the horizon? If so, Deltona may have an abundance of vacant homes.

“After we come out of this pandemic, how many new homes will be foreclosed?” resident Kurt Sniffen asked, as the City Commission considered the Three Island Lakes project.

“We have a moratorium on foreclosures right now, but that’s going away,” City Commissioner Dana McCool said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Imposed a freeze on evictions and home foreclosures in the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic, and the moratorium was supposed to expire Sept. 1, but DeSantis extended it until Oct. 1.

Deltona is poised to grow

City Planning Services Director Ron Paradise said Deltona needs more housing to accommodate a growing number of newcomers.

The city now has some 94,000 residents, and that number will exceed 100,000 by 2025, and 105,489 by 2030, according to the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

In a 10-year time frame, the city planning staff’s report on Three Island Lakes notes, the city will grow by 11,122 people, and will need more than 3,700 new homes by 2030 to accommodate the expected population.

Paradise later told The Beacon there are approximately 2,000 buildable lots remaining in the original Deltona Lakes subdivision.

For those who want to rein in growth, Brandy White, a local government critic who lives near the Three Island Lakes South property, gave a twist on a familiar maxim.

“If you don’t build it, they can’t come,” she advised the City Commission.

Asked about the anticipated surge in Deltona’s population, Paradise replied, “We should be asking those questions. That’s a healthy thing.”

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