Editor’s note: As part of our continuing series by community contributors about the history of West Volusia, this week Amy Munizzi explores some of the history of DeLeon Springs.
Munizzi is president of the DeLeon Springs Community Association. Her contribution is being published in two parts. Last week, she traced the unincorporated community’s founding. This week, she describes some of DeLeon Springs’ current challenges, and recent developments that promise a bright future.
On May 19 this year, just before lunchtime, the future of DeLeon Springs changed, in an instant, at a meeting of the Volusia County Council.
But, we’re getting ahead of our story. It starts decades ago, with several tragic hits to the DeLeon Springs community.
In the 1960s, in a system designed to distribute goods quickly, the Department of Transportation decided to roll out a four-lane highway right down the middle of this quaint little town.
The main thoroughfare was rerouted, and the fronts of business properties were paved over, making these parcels increasingly hard to build on or sell, as legislation continued to squeeze property owners with tighter setback requirements designed to separate wells from septic systems for public-health reasons.
Then, in the mid-1980s, the Johnson family found gasoline in their drinking water, and one of the largest underground fuel plumes in Florida was discovered. The plume was migrating westward toward our beloved DeLeon Springs.
Downtown businesses were forced to share new wells put in by the predecessor of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and businesses began to close or choose to go elsewhere because of the lack of water and wastewater infrastructure crucial to modern businesses.
In 2010, the DeLeon Springs Community Association Inc. embarked on a quest to bring these critically important water and wastewater lines to the business community and to McInnis Elementary School.
At the school, the water was often undrinkable for students, and the school struggled with a problematic wastewater package plant.
Community Association members educated ourselves. As an unincorporated community, we needed Volusia County’s help, and we needed a grant and a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay for it all.
A general contractor and EPI Engineering in DeLand donated thousands of dollars worth of time and talent to help.
More than 51 percent of our landowners along U.S. Highway 17 signed petitions to have a Special Assessment District formed. These signers agreed to pay assessments for 20 years, to save their properties and businesses.
But misfortune struck again, with an economic downturn that forced Volusia County to withdraw. Back we went to decay, crumbling septic systems and boarded-up buildings.
For 10 years, while we watched other communities recover, we continued to slide backward. Then a funny thing happened.
The Florida Legislature identified the Top 30 Outstanding Springs in Florida, and our DeLeon Springs was on the list!
The Legislature tasked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection with forming a plan to rescue these impaired springs, and the FDEP responded with BMAPs: Basin Management Action Plans.
The affected counties were told they would have to comply with these plans, and come up with ways to restore and protect these outstanding jewels.
When Volusia County Utilities Director Mike Ulrich got the news, he was not at first very enthusiastic about coming up with a plan for DeLeon Springs, since we are not in the county’s utilities service area.
But he and his staff dutifully complied by having engineering firm Jones Edmunds do the required study. He contacted the DeLeon Springs Community Association about hosting a public meeting on the topic.
What these officials found was an intelligent, passionate unincorporated community that has been slowly dying on the vine for decades. Ulrich came to understand that we adore our beloved spring, and care about a way of life that is disappearing quickly in Florida.
He found that we like being small and quaint, we just don’t enjoy being in a state of perpetual decay.
The next thing we knew, Ulrich was on a roll. He’s not known as “Aqua Man” for nothing. Mike and Terri Lowery from Jones Edmunds were able to get the FDEP to agree to a $2.5 million grant for a project to bring water and wastewater lines to our crumbling business community and to McInnis Elementary School.
Members of the Community Association wrote letters, conducted meetings to inform our community, sent emails to officials and shook every bush to contact landowners again, who were every bit as happy to sign on as they were a decade ago.
We held our breath and hoped this could finally be the miracle we needed.
When County Council Member Deb Denys invited us to her office to give us an opportunity to help her better understand our community’s needs, we felt again that our voices were being heard.
On May 19, every member of the County Council paid attention to Mike Ulrich’s outstanding presentation, outlining the need to protect DeLeon Springs, the drinking water supply and our kids at the school, and develop the needed infrastructure for our business community.
Every County Council member showed they cared about this little neglected jewel. With their unanimous vote to approve Item 10, they backed up their caring with action.
Coming back to this community to tell them the good news was one of the best things I have ever been part of. This was the finest of government in action, to see the state, county and local community work in tandem to do what is right to protect the Florida we love.
So often we hear people deride “government,” as though it’s some soulless behemoth, and at times it can seem that way. But, this time, “government” was people who committed time, energy and money to protect a spring and a community — now and for future generations.
Do you have memories of a special time or place in West Volusia? We welcome your contribution of around 600 words for our West Volusia Memories series, sent to firstname.lastname@example.org