The site of the now axed Automall along Orange Camp Road.

A new state law has bypassed the wishes of the Lake Helen City Commission and breathed new life into the project formerly known as the Automall.

The current plan, approved in a 4-1 vote by the Lake Helen City Commission July 13, is for 348 residential units on no more than 20 acres, with 35 percent of the project dedicated to commercial properties.

So how did this happen?

Developer Brendan Hurley has been attempting to convince the City Commission for nearly two years to allow residential development on Lake Helen’s side of the joint DeLand-Lake Helen project — property that was originally intended to house multiple car dealerships, giving Lake Helen a much-needed boost in commercial development.

The switch to residential was unpalatable to the City Commission, which narrowly voted in February to tank a proposal for more than 400 residential units.

Then, the Florida Legislature passed a law usurping the city’s control over the commercially zoned land.

The Live Local Act, passed this year and effective July 1, is intended to incentivize affordable housing. The law allows developers to take any area zoned for commercial, industrial, or mixed use and turn it into residential without approval from local municipalities, as long as at least 40 percent of the housing built is affordable.

“As it is written, planning, zoning, height, density and use — the state took that right away,” Lake Helen City Attorney Scott Simpson said.

The new proposal includes a mix of residential and commercial. If the city refused it, Simpson said, the developer would have the right to go ahead with a purely residential project that would include 40-percent affordable housing.

A large portion of the value of affordable housing is eligible for property-tax exemptions, reducing the potential revenue for the city.

“This is a good compromise,” Simpson said of the plan. “Like it or not, call your state legislator and yell at them.”

There are many questions remaining about how the law will play out, Simpson said, although one thing was for certain — the city may not currently block a residential project.

“You have more control going this route than them pursuing their rights under the law,” Simpson said. “It’s not solely at your discretion like this was three, four months ago. That choice doesn’t exist today.”

The vote, which Simpson described as “conceptually signing off” on the project, is only the first step in a long process. The addition of residential units will increase the utility needs, which will be provided, per the joint planned development, by DeLand. Toilets, showers and kitchens could require 32 percent more water than the Automall project would have needed.

The developer is in “ongoing discussion” with DeLand, according to attorney Rob Doan of Cobb Cole, who represents Hurley and I-4 Automall LLC.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Doan said. Affordable housing, the point of the Live Local Act, was an undesirable prospect for both the City Commission and the developer.

“When you have a higher percentage of affordable housing, you devalue the commercial. You make it much more difficult to develop a lot of the land,” Doan said.

“My guess is there are not really many planners elected to Congress,” Simpson said of the complications created by the new law.

The City Commission voted 4-1, with City Commissioner Charlene Bishop the lone no vote.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here