Stories of vaccines, development and housing dominated in 2021
We hope you enjoy this review of stories we reported in 2021.
The Beacon appreciates all of our readers, and we look forward to chronicling the local news for you in 2022.
For the first time in 50 years, Volusia County installs an elected tax collector. Will Roberts — along with Sheriff Mike Chitwood, Elect ions Supervisor Lisa Lewis and Property Appraiser Larry Bartlett — officially became state officials independent of the Volusia County government hierarchy, as a result of Florida voters’ passage of Amendment 10 in 2018.
DeBary marches ahead with plans for Riverbend South, a planned conservation area along the St. Johns River that will include a freshwater research center, bike paths and other spaces where people can picnic and walk along the water.
COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out to people age 65 and older. The first members of the general public to receive vaccination shots in Volusia County got them in Daytona Beach. Some lined up as early as a day in advance.
By the end of the month, the more contagious variant, known as the U.K. variant, was detected in Volusia County.
While many Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in West Volusia were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Beacon spoke to a number of community members about celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King for the first time since George Floyd’s police-involved murder in 2020 in Minneapolis.
“We just have to keep doing the three things,” former Florida state Rep. Joyce Cusack said. “Move forward; try to better conditions where we are today; and remember where we have been, so we don’t ever have to go backwards.”
Both West Volusia hospitals in the AdventHealth system get new top officers. Lorenzo Brown is named president and CEO of AdventHealth Fish Memorial in Orange City, and David Weis takes over as president and CEO of AdventHealth DeLand.
At the School Board meeting on Jan. 12, board members approve an increase to starting salaries for new teachers, and an additional 2.5-percent increase for all other teachers. The move was partly in response to statewide minimum-wage increases. By September, the state minimum wage increased to $10 an hour.
The Volusia County Council votes unanimously Jan. 19 for a slimmed-down plan to provide a daily 32- stop schedule on weekdays at a SunRail depot next to the Amtrak station along Old New York Avenue.
The estimated cost of the extra tracks, a depot, a parking lot and road crossings is almost $42 million. Volusia County’s share of that capital outlay will be 25 percent, or about $10.5 million.
Gregory Ramos, 17, is sentenced to 45 years in prison for the murder of his mother, Gail Cleavenger, on Nov. 2, 2018, in DeBary.
As COVID-19 vaccines become available to the general public, demand is high. Some people set up multiple computers and cellphones to try and snag an appointment to get a shot.
Jim Judge retires as Volusia County emergency management director after seven-and-a-half years. He is replaced by Helene Wetherington, a former disaster-recovery director for Monroe County.
Dejah Woods, 24, becomes the first Black female firefighter in the history of DeLand, according to city records. With her hiring, Woods is the third woman — and the third Black person — in the current ranks. The department has 53 total employees, including 49 in uniform.
The owners of private tag offices in Volusia County, including one in Deltona, sue Tax Collector Will Roberts for the right to remain in business. The case was voluntarily dismissed by both parties in June.
Once a bustling center of commerce and community activity, at the center of a Black downtown business district in segregation-era DeLand, the J.W. Wright Building is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The minimum age to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine continues to drop, first to 60 at the beginning of March, and 50 later that month. This came after spikes in the number of positive cases in January and February.
Growth and development are hot topics in municipalities across West Volusia the entire year, but the issue begins to come to a head in March when a number of subdivisions, including one planned on the former Southridge Golf Course in DeLand, begin to work their way through the planning process.
The Volusia County Council begins discussing short-term rentals, or vacation rentals. After nearly three months of debate, and flip-flopping between yes and no, the County Council decisively nixes the idea in May.
The first ceremony for a lynching victim is held in Volusia County by the group Volusia Remembers. Soil was collected at the site where Lee Snell, a 41-year-old Black man, was lynched in 1939, along the side of the old brick highway between DeLand and Daytona Beach.
The City of DeLand reinstates former DeLand Police Officer Johan “Joey” Mulero, after an arbitrator determined that the city failed to properly investigate after it was alleged Mulero used excessive force with a citizen.
In a video, Mulero told the civilian to “get out of my space” and arrested him after the civilian suggested Mulero was acting like a “f—— Nazi.” According to the arbitrator, Mulero’s behavior justified the December 2018 firing, but the Police Department’s internal affairs investigation was flawed enough to make it not fair.
From increased anxiety, to job loss, to housing insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic brings hard times — and hunger — to West Volusia. Community organizations and churches tried to respond.
A Beacon investigation into gopher-tortoise relocation caused by development projects finds that in just one year in West Volusia, hundreds of tortoises had been evicted from their homes and relocated up to 100 miles away to make way for houses and municipal projects.
The City of DeBary begins talks to take over Gateway Center for the Arts, a venue that hosts many community events.
What’s a mural, and who gets to put one on a building in DeLand? The City of DeLand tightens up its rules regarding murals and creates the Public Mural Art Committee.
The committee is tasked with approving art installations around town, and the first mural it approved was a pastoral scene featuring some cows on the side of the T.G. Lee Dairy on State Road 472.
The debate over the use of herbicides to control invasive aquatic vegetation in Lake Helen’s lakes intensifies, tapping into countywide — and statewide — struggles. City leaders struggle with whether spraying herbicide is the best way to protect the health of the city’s lakes.
First hired as an intern at DeLand’s Athens Theatre 10 years ago, Alexa Baldwin takes over as the executive director. Baldwin helped steer the theater through a period of growth and change, beginning in 2009 when the Athens lost its previous director.
Irene Johnson passes away at the age of 92. Johnson and her husband, the Rev. Maxwell Johnson, who predeceased her, established the African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand.
After approval from the DeLand Planning Board in March, Beresford Reserve, the housing development planned for the former Southridge Golf Course in DeLand, seems poised for approval by the DeLand City Commission.
Not so, as the development discussion is first pushed from April to May, when it is formally delayed by the City Commission.
After much speculation, attorney Rob Doan of Cobb Cole, who represents I-4 Automall developer Brendan Hurley and I-4 Automall LLC, confirms to the Lake Helen City Commission April 28 that the new concept for the “Automall” on the border of DeLand and Lake Helen includes no plan to sell automobiles.
The project is now called “Orange Camp Point,” and the plan is for up to 300 multifamily two-bedroom, two-bath units, and 150 town homes.
Sometimes, you just want to smash things into little tiny pieces of their former selves. A new DeLand business to facilitate just that opens: Fellow Earthlings Rage Room.
In April, the Deltona City Commission approves a 189-home development project on 110 acres of land in Osteen, a move that one Deltona city commissioner said would “forever change” the character of Osteen.
In response, neighboring landowner Kelli Chambers sues the City of Deltona over the adverse effects the development would have on her property and the surrounding area. The case is still pending.
A working group of DeLand movers and shakers brings a dire message to the DeLand City Commission: There isn’t enough affordable housing.
At the time of the May workshop, there are just 67 homes on the market with a median price of more than $300,000. All this in DeLand where at least 50 percent of the population is considered “cost-burdened.”
The mysterious killing of DeLand High School student Laralee Spear in 1994 left the community transfixed and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office puzzled. The Sheriff’s Office hopes advances in technology and a new $50,000 reward could bring new evidence forward in the cold case.
While little is still known about plans for a 129-acre plot of land in Deltona, plans begin to materialize that suggest an industrial park even larger than the Amazon warehouse built in the city in 2020 will make its way to Deltona in the coming years.
Volusia County Council Member Fred Lowry, a Baptist preacher, delivers a conspiracy-theory-laden sermon May 30 at Deltona Lakes Baptist Church, calling the COVID-19 pandemic a fabrication and accusing Hollywood elites of sex trafficking and taking the blood of kidnapped children.
Despite some calls to step down, Lowry is serving out his term, which ends Jan. 1, 2023.
Sometimes, no news is good news. Hurricane season kicked off as usual June 1, but despite a few storms that appeared poised to slam Central Florida with wind and rain, Volusia County made it through to the season’s end Nov. 30 unscathed.
A 12-year-old and a 14-year-old run away from Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Enterprise and brandish stolen firearms in a standoff with Volusia Sheriff’s deputies on June 1.
Deputies shot the 14-year-old after she fired a shotgun at them. She was released from the hospital June 8.
The two children were arrested on felony charges of attempted first-degree murder of a law-enforcement officer, and armed burglary.
Florida ceases providing daily updates on COVID-19 cases on June 4. The Beacon, which had provided daily, weekly and biweekly reports of COVID-19 data for a year, is no longer able to track new cases in West Volusia cities.
Beacon reporter Al Everson reports on the steep increase in the price of construction materials and shortages in labor.
“By and large, contractors and their customers are willing to pay extra, as prices show no sign of leveling off,” Everson wrote.
The DeLand City Commission votes to increase the minimum hourly wage for all city employees to $15, effective in July.
A cow-sized fiberglass cow that once sat atop the T.G. Lee Dairy in DeLand garners attention when the dairy removes the cow over zoning concerns.
What will it take to get Maggie the cow back on top of the building? No one is quite sure yet, but the T.G. Lee folks want to have a cow, man!
Two big retirements bring big changes to the City of DeLand. Public Services Director Keith Riger retires in May after a 30-year career with the City of DeLand, and Public Works Director Demetris Pressley steps down from a 17-year tenure.
Beacon publisher Barb Shepherd reports on the three-year saga of Mohamed Rashad’s attempts to rehabilitate the Hotel Putnam.
Volusia County’s tax base hits a new record high in 2021. The county Property Appraiser’s Office put the tax roll at $42.7 billion. That is the sum of all properties — homes, farms, vacant lands, commercial and industrial buildings — in the county subject to ad valorem taxes.
The rising tax base reflects a red-hot real estate market fueled by seemingly nonstop in-migration of people from other states. The new settlers come in search of milder winters and lower taxes, as well as a desire to get out of big cities. Volusia County’s population now totals almost 568,000, and it is part of the Sunshine State’s 21.6 million. Florida is the third-largest state in the U.S.
West Volusia cities, including Lake Helen, DeBary, Deltona and DeLand all celebrate Independence Day with fireworks and other celebrations after putting celebrations on pause the year before amid COVID-19 concerns.
The Volusia County School Board unanimously votes to end its mandatory-school-uniform policy, in place since 2016.
Dr. T. Wayne Bailey, professor emeritus of political science at Stetson University and a co-author of Volusia County’s Home Rule Charter, dies June 29 at the age of 86.
Bailey’s teaching career began in 1963 and continued until his retirement in 2016 after 53 years. In that time, he mentored countless individuals, including Dr. Joyce M. Cusack, a former Florida state representative and later a Volusia County Council member.
Villages at Pelham Square, a SunRail-inspired development slated to bring nearly 650 homes near the DeLand train station, is approved by the Volusia County Planning and Land Development Regulation Commission.
The development’s rezoning was later approved by the Volusia County Council in September despite some concerns and protests from members of the community regarding the development.
Initially issued in September 2020, a moratorium on evictions in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic is slated to end July 31.
Some organizations like Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida feared an influx of evictions was on its way. Before July 31, an additional moratorium was put in place that expired in October 2021.
Volusia County is still offering assistance to renters who may be in danger of eviction. Applications will be accepted beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12, at www.volusia.org/era.
In June, a 21-year-old DeLeon Springs man is arrested after allegedly pointing a gun and yelling racial slurs at a Black family driving through the DeLand area.
Not long after, in July, a 55-year-old Deltona man is charged with assault with a hate-crime enhancement after he follows a Black man home after a road-rage incident and threatens to kill the Black man and his family, according to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.
The West Volusia Beacon wins six awards for local news coverage in the Florida Press Association Media Conference Weekly Newspaper Contest in Sarasota.
Deltona city clerks are swamped with public-record requests from anonymous citizens, Beacon reporter Al Everson reports.
COVID-19 case numbers begin to surge, as the more transmissible delta variant of the virus spreads.
Hospitalizations soar, and area hospitals see record numbers of patients. The AdventHealth Central Florida hospital system records a peak of more than 1,600 hospitalizations.
Municipalities across West Volusia raise taxes. Reasons given range from the rising costs of, well, everything, to some cities’ plans to raise wages for employees in line with the statewide minimum-wage increase to $15 an hour, which will be phased in and take full effect in 2026.
Elected officials across the county were, in some cases, met with protests and complaints from residents about the hikes.
After a run of more than two decades, DeLand artist David Finkle announces that his comic strip Mr. Fitz will come to an end in early 2022. Mr. Fitz, which began in 2000, chronicles the world of a high-school teacher.
As the City of DeLand considers a plan to put more than 700 homes on the site of the old Southridge Golf Course, city residents find themselves emboldened to speak out against development practices they fear are altering the fabric of the city they know and love.
A surge of new COVID-19 cases, thanks to the delta variant of the virus, makes its way across West Volusia, Florida and the rest of the country. The spike in cases brought the number of hospitalizations due to the virus to all-time pandemic highs.
School begins Aug. 16, and schools immediately experience a surge in COVID-19 cases. A debate rages over a mask mandate for schools, turning normally sedate School Board meetings into raucous occasions, complete with parents being trespassed, and large protests outside the school-administration building.
The School Board initially mandates masks with exemption only for medical reasons. By the middle of September, they alter the policy to include a parent opt-out option.
The Volusia County Elections Office passes a ballot audit of the 2020 election conducted by the organization Citizens Oversight Projects.
A small restaurant in DeBary becomes a tourist attraction and conversation piece after the owner of the DeBary Diner posted a sign that advises some would-be customers who support President Joe Biden to “take your business elsewhere.”
A 9-year-old California company, Cookies LLC, which grows and sells medical marijuana, begins operations at a warehouse located on the DeLand Municipal Airport. The total investment by the company is expected to be around $100 million, and could provide up to 600 jobs.
The Volusia County Council approves a proposal to increase funding for multimodal trails from $1 million to $1.5 million, using money from the voter-approved ECHO program fund.
The Volusia County Council learns accidental-overdose fatalities rose 75 percent in the county from 2019 to 2020, and are on track to remain high in 2021, Medical Examiner James Fulcher warns.
Fulcher attributed the rise in part to high fentanyl use in the community. Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
The Hotel Putnam is sold for $2.325 million to Axia Partners, which, in December, unveiled plans for 64 one- and two-bedroom apartments at the newly named “Putnam Estate.”
The Bridge — DeLand’s shelter for individuals struggling with homelessness and poverty — finally has a grand opening. The Bridge has served more than 50,000 meals and helped 228 people since opening its doors in 2020.
Representatives from across West Volusia celebrate the shelter on its one-year anniversary with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
On the last day of the 2021 fiscal year for the federal and local government, a big increase in Florida’s minimum wage goes into effect, thanks to an amendment of the Florida Constitution approved by more than 60 percent of the state’s voters in the 2020 general election.
Effective Sept. 30, the base hourly wage of most workers jumped from $8.56 to $10. The constitutional amendment mandates increases of $1 per hour for each of the following four years, culminating in a state minimum wage of $15 per hour by 2026.
As grocery prices increase, more people turn to free distributions of food offered by nonprofit organizations and churches. A food drop sponsored by Backpack Buddies and stocked by Farm Share helps 187 households and 689 residents to fend off hunger.
Many of those who attended highlighted a widespread need for help in making ends meet in their household budgets.
“If I were a millionaire, I wouldn’t be here,” one man replied, when asked why he had come to a similar food distribution in Deltona a few months earlier.
Following contentious debates surrounding face coverings in Volusia County Schools classrooms, Superintendent Scott Fritz moves to make masks optional for teachers, staff and other adults in schools.
Following record hospitalizations due to the delta variant of COVID-19, numbers begin to trend toward good news. Cases drop, and vaccinations against the virus rise.
The West Volusia Chapter of the NAACP and DeLand Pride work to create a fully searchable directory of Black-owned businesses, not only in DeLand, but throughout Volusia County. The project began when DeLand Pride, a local nonprofit organization active in the LGBTQ community, was awarded a microgrant by the Central Florida Foundation to “Improve racial inclusivity in DeLand.”
The Volusia County Fair & Youth Show returns after a year off in 2020 due to COVID-19. The 2020 cancellation marked the first year without a Volusia County Fair since World War II.
Emotional pleas from Volusia County Schools’ teachers and paraprofessionals shine a spotlight on the low wages earned by many working in the school system.
“At least one of your employees … is homeless. Living out of his car, crashing on couches from time to time, and getting showers at friends’ houses,” paraprofessional Charles Peacock told the School Board in an emotional appeal. “I dare you to look me in the eyes right here, right now, and tell me that this is OK.”
After a few returns to the drawing board, the concept for Beresford Reserve, planned on the old Southridge Golf Course, returns to the DeLand City Commission. But, after more than four hours of debate and public commentary, the City Commission once again postpones a decision on the rezoning — this time until January 2022.
After a year off due to COVID-19, the DeLand Christmas Parade comes back in full force in 2021.
Two top staff members abruptly leave The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia. One of them, Michael Forrester, director of The Bridge homeless shelter, was fired Dec. 14. Neighborhood Center officials said they have been advised not to comment on why.
In what Neighborhood Center officials emphasized was an unrelated development, Susan Clark, the nonprofit’s executive director for 15 years, resigned Dec. 9.
Top 10 Beacon stories online in 2021
Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 26, The Beacon website, www.beacononlinenews.com, had more than 1.5 million views.
Here are the Top 10 stories during the year, as decided by our readers.
- Diner’s sign puts DeBary in the global limelight
- Your questions answered: COVID-19 vaccinations
- PHOTOS: Love is Love DeLand Pride Fest
- PHOTOS: Easter in Lake Helen, Deltona, and DeLand!
- IRS to issue debit cards for stimulus payments
- Emotional pleas from teachers and paraprofessionals
- Bigger than Amazon: New industrial complex planned in Deltona
- Volusia County lands $4 million federal economic development grant
- FOODIE FILE: New restaurant casts its spell on DeLand
- Florida gov makes changes to vaccine eligibility