Thursday, May 26, 2005

Celebration (Mis)Representation

Even though I read all the books and articles decrying a lack of resident representation in the governing of Celebration, I didn't let that scare me off. After all, when my husband and I bought our home, a new era was supposedly beginning. The Celebration Company, a.k.a. Disney, was relinquishing control and putting it in the hands of the residents. No matter what had come before, it would finally be (to paraphrase another resident's frequent quote) "our town now."

Today I got my first taste of Celebration (mis)representation in action. Quite frankly, it gave me a new admiration for the long-time residents who have toughed it out for years. It was frustrating enough to experience it for the first time; I can't even imagine going through it again and again for nearly a decade.

The big issue is parking downtown, or more accurately, the lack thereof. There are two large lots, locally referred to as "the church lot" and "the Stetson lot," that have served as parking for the downtown shops and restaurants, as well as the Stetson University building. On most days, finding a spot can be a challenge, although it's not impossible, especially if you're willing to walk a few blocks. But during special events like Fourth of July and the winter snowfalls, every available square inch of land, including both pavement and grass, is covered with cars. They overflow onto the residential streets, blocking driveways and alleys and generally wreaking havoc.

Now, those two parking lots are slated to become high-density condos. Bye bye, parking lots...hello, parking problem multiplied by a factor of 1000. It's interesting to note that Disney sold the parking lots to Lexin, along with the rest of the downtown. Then Lexin sold them to Issa, a local builder that is developing the condos under the name of Carlyle. Confused by the shell game yet? It gets better.

When the condo plans were rendered, no one happened to notice that they included a piece of property owned by the CCDD (Celebration Community Development District). Oops. What followed was a proposal that many (myself included) thought to be very one-sided, giving the developer the parcel in question in return for virtually nothing. Oh, we'd get some other property, all right, but it would be for a parking lot that was going to be created anyway and used by the condo owners. Sure, they'll have garages, but no one in Florida actually parks in their garage; in a basementless state, they're simply an auxiliary storage facility. Basically, we'd get ownership of the lot and therefore be stuck with maintenance and liability. Since there is a lift station currently on the CCDD parcel, Issa also proposed to relocate it. Thing is, we don't need a new lift station; the old one has been there for nearly a decade without bothering anyway.

This is a Cliff Notes version; there were a few more issues involved, such as the storage of landscaping trucks and equipment, but hopefully my non-Celebration readers can get a feel for the sleight of hand.

The meeting to discuss this mess and vote on the Issa proposal was cancelled once, then rescheduled as a buried item in the CCDD agenda. Fortunately, Celebration residents are wiser than most about attempts to sweep things under the rug. A core band of concerned citizens made sure that the meeting was publicized and that the relevant documents were made available to the public beforehand. Technology is one of our community cornerstones, but I don't think Disney ever envisioned its subversive use to actually empower the residents. Somehow, even on such short notice, they were able to organize a meeting the day before the CCDD vote so concerned residents could voice their opinions.

Oddly enough, when the organizer asked Town Hall to send out an email alert, he was shot down. Even more oddly, the person who vetoed its sending was none other than the president of our residential owners' board. Apparently, the loss of parking and its potential impact on the downtown area, and thus on the existence of the Celebration that we all know and love, is not as important as the farmer's market or swim lessons.

I had a prior commitment that caused me to miss the pre-meeting, but nothing short of hellfire or a tsunami was going to keep me away from the "real deal." Along with others, I had been sharing my opinions on the Front Porch (our community intranet) and emailing relevant CCDD members. Out of five people on the board, two were appointed by TCC (read "developer friendly"), and three were elected by the residents. In theory, those three should reflect the will of those who elected them (or so I thought...I forgot that Celebration has an entirely different definition of "democracy").

Even though the meeting was held at 4:30 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, the little room in Town Hall was packed to the rafters. I was toting a tape recorder, loaned to me by a friend, because I dug up some regulations in the CCDD documents that said there must be a verbatum recording of a meeting if anyone wants to take issue with something later. Besides, I figured that it might have good entertainment value.

I was pleased to see the turn-out; even after being shafted so many times, it's clear that the residents of Celebration still care about the future of their town. I knew many of the people personally, and others were names from the community intranet that suddenly became faces. And none of those people were shy...there were many impassioned questions and comments, often met with approving applause. Sadly, I got the impression that it was like the old Far Side cartoon that goes something like this: A man is telling his dog, "Sit, Rover. Sit, boy. Come on, sit! Sit!" In the next frame, the balloons show what the dog is hearing: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

Of course, I knew that it was going to be bad when the developer's representative announced at the beginning of the presentation: "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but if the board turns down our proposal, we've just going to go ahead with the development anyway. And if there is no vote, we'll take that as a vote of 'no.'" Since the county had already rubber-stamped it, they were free to do that. The only difference would be that they'd have to build four less condos, since they wouldn't have the lift station land. So even though the residents made some excellent points, I could just imagine what the powers-that-be were hearing: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

Some minor good did come out of all the efforts. Out of the goodness of their hearts, and apparently to show their concern for our community (yes, I'm chucking as I type that), Issa negotiated some minor points. They will try their darndest to get the county to forbid left turns into the condo complex. That might sound silly, but it could actually preserve a few precious parking spots. Otherwise, traffic tie-ups caused by left turners could cause the county to mandate a "left turn only" lane, which would elimate some of the on-street parking.

Instead of giving the parking lot to CCDD, they will retain it and grant a perpetual easement. That way, we get the benefits without the potential liability and maintenance costs. We might even get to park there if we can roust all the multi-car condo dwellers (those poor souls have no idea of the parking nightmare that they're moving into). And of course they get their precious lift station land, to cram in four more condos (at Celebration prices, that means over $1 million).

There were some other concessions, but since this is a Cliff Notes version, I won't go into detail. Let's just say that it leaves the door open for CCDD to obtain some other land for the possible construction of a parking garage or perhaps some other partial solution.

To be a bit vulgar, we got it pounded to us. The choice was not whether that would happen or not. It was whether we'd take a hard pounding or a slightly softer one. Or to put it another way, the dog turd was coated with frosting. Unfortunately, when you bite into it, it still tastes like a dog turd.

I know the tone of this entry is a departure from my usual posts. I love Celebration and enjoy focusing on the positive. There are so many wonderful aspects of living here, and there's no other place that I'd rather be. I like to share my love of our community with others who are thinking about joining about us.

But tonight was a disillusionment for me. I know that such things have happened in the past, and I'm sure this wasn't the last time. It's one thing to read about the battles in the pages of a book and quite another to sit among the good townsfolk and feel their passion for their community, knowing that there's nothing any of us can do. Sure, we had a minor victory (or perhaps less of a major Obi-Wan Kenobi says, "Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view").

At least there was one funny part, although it was a bittersweet laugh. Someone asked how the country could have approved plans for property that didn't even belong to the developer. The answer? "It was a mistake." The room roared with laughter, but it's sad if you really think about it. Is the process of approving Celebration developments such a joke that you can get approval to build on land you don't even own?

I fear that this is yet another step down the primrose path of killing off downtown Celebration as we know it. No parking means no customers for the stores. No customers means empty storefronts. And what do empty storefronts mean? Will they be converted to still more condos? If so, won't that mean that the Celebration we know and love today will become just like every other Orlando-area subdivision?

Hard questions with no easy answers. The issue is much larger than Issa's 82 condo development. A year from now, when I look back at this blog entry, I hope that my worries will turn out to be for naught. We'll see.....

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