DeLand mayor talks about what it’s like to not be able to say no
DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar probably speaks for many elected officials when he says there are things about development projects he wishes the public understood better.
Apgar, over 20-plus years on the DeLand City Commission, has many times faced crowds of people organized to protest against large, new housing developments. Often the crowd is pushing for the City Commission to “just say no.”
But the City Commission can’t say no.
Well, they can, but in many cases, it’s likely they would be violating the law and would be taken to court, only to see that “no” overturned at a significant cost to taxpayers.
Florida law — state law, not local law — is weighted in favor of property owners and developers. And, over the past decade, a Republican-dominated state government has been steadily eroding the ability of local governments to control growth — to “say no.”
The protesting public doesn’t necessarily worry about such things.
“The public is unimpeded by any requirements in what they say we can and cannot do,” Apgar said.
Not so for the elected officials.
“We are bound by legal requirements,” the mayor added.
Chief among those requirements is the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act, a 1995 law that essentially gives property owners the right to make a claim for monetary damages if governmental regulatory action diminishes the value of their property; i.e., if the property cannot be developed to the degree that might have been expected. (See accompanying story about the Bert Harris Act.)
Under the circumstances, in Apgar’s view, one of local government’s best defensive tools is PD — or “planned development” — zoning. It’s sometimes called PUD — planned unit development — zoning.
Rezoning to PD is what has made the proposed Southridge or Sandhill Golf Course project a matter of intense public debate, spanning at least half a dozen meetings since 2020, with plenteous public comment.
PD zoning is also what has transformed the project from an 860-house development with a small private park to a project with 615 housing units, mostly clustered in town homes, and a 21-acre public park connected to West Volusia’s trail system.
PD zoning works like this: Let’s say a property’s zoning is residential, and 100 houses are allowed, with lots of at least 60 feet wide. Plus, no buffer is required between the development and the neighbors.
But the developer, to make the desired profit and get the needed financing, really wants to build 120 houses, with some of them on 40-foot-wide lots.
Enter PD zoning, and the art of the deal. And, it’s a deal that is often negotiated largely in public meetings.
If a property is developed with straight zoning — not PD — the project is legally entitled to approval, if it meets the requirements of its zoning. There’s little debate, and little time for the public to weigh in and make a difference.
“The planned-development process is a heavily negotiated process that allows a lot of give and take,” Mayor Apgar said. “Through that process, I think, in my mind, we get a better product.”
Let’s say, in our hypothetical example, the city gives the developer 115 houses instead of 100, and allows some 40-foot-wide lots, but requires a 25-foot conservation buffer between the development and its neighbors. Plus, requires that 10 acres be set aside for perpetual conservation. That all gets codified in the PD agreement, which becomes the law that replaces the zoning regulations, for development of that particular neighborhood.
Usually, what the city requires of a developer that reduces the developer’s profit must be offset by concessions that give the developer at least some of what he or she wants.
“It’s got to work for everybody,” the mayor said.
Under Apgar’s leadership, the City of DeLand development staff has become very comfortable with the PD process, although it does complicate things — the rules are different for every new neighborhood.
But in some citizens’ view, this doesn’t go far enough. There’s still simply too much new development. Apgar’s not sure that’s the case.
“Maybe I’m too Pollyanna about it,” Apgar said. “To me, it largely centers around one issue: transportation.”
Determining whether growth is a problem, the mayor said, depends in part, at least, on monitoring travel time. The trip across town that took five or 10 minutes when he was young, Apgar said, now takes 10 to 20 minutes.
“At least to this point, traffic still flows pretty well through DeLand,” the mayor said.
Apgar is also sensitive to the portion of the population that may not show up at City Commission meetings or be vocal protesters, but sees the positive side of growth, such as having a large enough population in DeLand to attract a Trader Joe’s grocery, a Panera Bread restaurant, or better-paying jobs.
“Some of that stuff requires a certain number of people,” the mayor said.
The job of elected officials, Apgar said, is one of balancing the needs, desires and viewpoints.
“How do you balance those things to make it work?” he asked, and answered, “There’s no magic formula.”