The old Sonic Drive-In at 1601 N. Woodland Blvd. in DeLand needs someone to love it.
The now-dilapidated restaurant has been empty since Sonic closed for good in 2012, depriving DeLand of the frosty limeades and roller-skating carhops the community had enjoyed for several years.
Following a foreclosure, the property is now owned by RS Lending Inc., whose address is at a Miami lawyer’s office, according to the Volusia County Property Appraiser.
The neglected condition of the old Sonic was one of 18 code-enforcement cases considered by DeLand’s special magistrate at DeLand City Hall on the evening of June 22.
In the Sonic case, Special Magistrate Julie Zolty was considering imposing a fine for the repeat violation of “an accumulation of waste, yard trash or rubble and debris and grass or weeds are in excess of 12 inches tall.”
Earlier this year, $4,800 in fines for a similar offense were paid, and another $500-per-day fine accumulated for 23 days, resulting in another $11,500 due.
At this most recent hearing, Zolty imposed a fine for the third time, at the rate of $500 a day starting May 30, 2023, and continuing until the property is cleaned up.
It’s nothing new. The vacant Sonic property also ran into such deep code-enforcement trouble in 2016 that the City of DeLand began foreclosure proceedings in an attempt to recoup the fines owed.
Realtor Todd Swann was present June 22 to explain what has been difficult about keeping the Sonic property in good shape more recently.
Swann, a veteran of more than three decades in West Volusia real estate, took on the Sonic listing earlier this year. He has the parcel listed for sale at $497,000.
It’s not Swann’s job to maintain the property or to try to prevent the City of DeLand from imposing more code-enforcement fines on the absentee owner, but it is in Swann’s best interest to keep the property in marketable condition, he explained.
That hasn’t been easy.
Several times, Swann has had to have the help of the DeLand Police Department to remove transients who set up camp there. When the homeless people leave, Swann said, they inevitably leave behind trash: discarded bedding, items of clothing, fast-food wrappers, assorted paper and cardboard, and other debris.
Swann told the code-enforcement magistrate he could have the people removed and pay to have the property cleaned up on a Monday, and it would be trashed again by Wednesday, by a new group of homeless individuals.
Then there was the time Swann called the police about having yet another group of people trespassed. He got a call back after officers visited the site; they said there was a problem.
In order to charge individuals with trespassing on private property, when the property owner or a representative isn’t present, specific signage is required.
The police told Swann they couldn’t remove the individuals this time. Four no-trespassing signs are required, one on each side of the property. A vandal had removed one sign from the Sonic property, so there were only three.
The officers’ hands were tied.
Swann expressed frustration about the pervasiveness of the problem of homelessness, and its impact on the owners of vacant property.
“We’ve got a serious problem in our city, and we’ve got to figure it out,” he said.
Swann also told the code-enforcement magistrate another story, about the time he wanted to pressure-wash the buildings and walkways at the old Sonic property, to improve its appearance.
“I’m trying to do my best to be a good neighbor for the community,” Swann said.
He visited DeLand City Hall to see about having the water at the property turned on for 24 hours to enable the pressure-washing. It wasn’t possible, he was told, because of unpaid, past-due water bills.
Swann explained that he just wanted to clean up the property and take care of the code-enforcement issues, but the water department wouldn’t budge. Finally, he said, he was told that if he was considering purchasing the property, the water could be turned on to allow for an inspection.
“You mean that, if I lie to you and tell you I’m thinking of purchasing the property, you’ll turn the water on?” Swann asked in frustration, adding, “I can’t lie to you.”
He ran a hose from a neighboring property. The neighbor was happy to help get the Sonic spruced up, Swann said.
Then, Swann said, while the person he had hired was pressure-washing with the neighbor’s water, city officials stopped by to make sure Sonic’s water hadn’t been turned on illegally.
Later, at his office on New York Avenue, Swann reached into a bookcase and pulled out a small, slim volume containing the City of DeLand zoning codes as of 1987. The same book today, he said, is much larger, about 3 inches thick, and has at least 250 pages.
What’s been lost in the expansion of the city’s codes and in enforcement methods focused on fines, he said, is the kind of common sense that should come to the aid of a citizen trying to do the right thing.
“Common sense has left the room,” Swann said. “You end up in a bureaucratic dance, where trying to ‘do the right thing’ for the city is frustrating or impossible.”