Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mark Your Calendar

Coming off the heels of our town’s fabulous exposure on Tampa’s Fox Channel 13 last Friday morning, March is shaping up to be a busy month with some exciting events for every age group:

  • Wednesday, March 5, at 8 a.m. at the Albert Kirkland Gymnasium, near the intersection of Third Street and Seminole (one block east of the Scenic Highway): the Polk Senior Games will hold the basketball shooting contest, one of many events to be held throughout the County. For further information call Jennifer at the Depot Museum at 676-4209.

  • Wednesday, March 5, at 5 p.m. in the City Commission Chambers at City Hall: CALLING ALL SKATEBOARDERS! City staff will seek input on the final design of the skate park being built in Kiwanis Park (at the corner of Lakeshore Blvd and Tower Blvd.) Our skate park will be similar to the skateboard area in Mary Holland Park in Bartow, consisting of a large, smooth concrete slab which is currently being constructed. The specific skateboarding elements, such as rails and ramps, will then be selected, purchased and bolted to the slab. The park is being funded by a grant from the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program, and by a generous donation from the Jahna Corporation here in Lake Wales. City staff will have catalogues of skateboarding elements for skateboarders to review. Please participate in the design of your park!

  • Saturday, March 8, 10 a.m., at the 1919 building across Third Street from the Kirkland Gymnasium: Open House at the 1919 building hosted by De. Gabe Statom. Representatives of the architect, contractor, and City will be present to answer questions regarding design, construction, and financing of the project. Everyone is cordially invited to hear Dr. Statom’s exciting vision for this magnificent building, which is expected to become both a premier performance venue for our town as well as Central Florida and a community center for music education. This will enhance our tradition of superior student music performance at the middle and high school level. Everyone is also invited to see for themselves the progress that is being made, and to view the section of the south exterior wall that is being reconstructed. A brick column between two second floor windows in this section was found to have buckled, and it was inspected by a structural engineer. Following the engineer’s recommendation, that section of the wall was taken down by the contractor and is being re-built.

  • Saturday, March 15, 2-6 p.m., downtown in the Marketplace between Stuart and Park Avenues: The World Dance Bazaar, an event featuring a variety of dancing exhibitions. This will be followed by a street dance party from 6-9 p.m.
This last item deserves special attention: It is one of a number of events that is sponsored by our Main Street organization. It would be a perfect opportunity for individuals who have not been downtown lately to come and see the dancers and check out what Channel 13 found last Friday: that we have an inviting, interesting, and charming downtown.

The Main Street organization is dedicated to preserving our downtown and is seeking new members. You need not be a downtown business owner to join –everyone is invited for membership. This organization has a particular appeal to those who grew up, as I did, in a community with a historic downtown. You are cordially invited to join the preservation effort. Please call the Main Street manager, Dolly Pelletier, at 678-4182, extension 270, for more information, or visit the Main Street section of the City website.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Residential Development Process

In recent columns I have noted that in order for our town to realize its best future, citizens need to be involved in growth management decisions. For citizens to feel comfortable in participating, it is necessary to have an understanding of the basics of the development process. Let’s review the typical process for approval of a residential development.

The first step for a developer is to meet with the City’s planning staff on a general concept for the development. Natural resources, particularly water bodies and stands of shade trees, are identified to be preserved and showcased, not obliterated. City standards are reviewed: lot size, minimum house size, water and sewer lines, drainage, street widths, etc. Also required are parks, underground utilities, landscaped buffers, street lights, sidewalks, as well as tree and wetlands preservation.

At this point, a decision is made whether the applicant intends to meet all of the development standards or to apply for “Planned Development Project” (PDP) approval, which allows some flexibility and creativity of layout. PDPs are encouraged because they result in less of a “cookie cutter” layout and provide the opportunity for more sensitivity to the natural resources.

The process is the same for a PDP as for a standard development: a recommendation from the Planning Board and approval by the City Commission. However, a PDP plan requires more care in design and a more rigorous review. Several revisions are normally required before the plan is presented to the Planning Board.

Often a developer prefers the PDP to allow for smaller lot sizes and other waivers. Approval of waivers is not granted easily. For instance, increased park acreage is required to compensate for reduced lot size. In Whispering Ridge, on 11th Street S., sidewalk requirements were relaxed on some of the small streets in favor of an 8-ft. wide, landscaped bikeway corridor through the development.

There is great opportunity for public input in the PDP process, while there is very little in the standard subdivision process. By law, an owner has a right to subdivide his land, if he meets all of the development standards. A PDP plan can be turned down by the City if it is not “superior” to a standard layout.

After approval of the preliminary plan (also called the “preliminary plat”) by the City Commission, detailed engineering plans are prepared, and various county and state permits are obtained. After City staff and the City engineer approve the plans, the developer can begin constructing the infrastructure --- water and sewer utilities, electric and (in some subdivisions) gas, streets and stormwater retention ponds. The City staff inspects the water and sewer infrastructure, since the ownership and maintenance of these mains will become the City’s responsibility. Depending upon the type of subdivision, the streets may also be turned over to the City. In such cases, they are similarly inspected.

The final step is the “platting” of the legal subdivision of the land into lots. Approval of the final plat by the City Commission is a formality, acknowledging that the plat meets all legal requirements. The final plat is then recorded with the clerk of courts. Only after the City Commission approves the final plat and it is properly recorded can the developer sell lots. By this time all of the infrastructure serving the lots has been constructed.

Through the review process, care is taken to design neighborhoods that reflect the character of Lake Wales – not a minimal design that could be approved anywhere else. Our City’s land development regulations were overhauled several years ago to do just that.

Margaret Swanson contributed to this article.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Principles of Good Planning

In this space last week I proposed that successful growth management requires active citizen participation. This is particularly true in Lake Wales, a special place that needs citizen involvement to ensure that the town can maintain its unique character through periods of intense development and expansion.

Whispering Ridge, a newly developing subdivision on 11th Street south of SR 60, is a good example of this concept. Six years ago a developer came forward with a plan that was a perfect grid of north-south and east-west streets, with 550 lots, all 50 feet wide. On Grove Avenue, which at that time was little more than a driveway from Minnesota to 10th Street, the developer proposed a 7-acre park that had no access other than the lots that backed up to it.

When Margaret Swanson arrived to take the position of City Planning Director, she came with a knowledge of the planning principles espoused by Frederick Law Olmsted – the designer of Central Park in New York City, the White House gardens, and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. (His sons designed the grounds at Historic Bok Sanctuary and prepared a landscaping plan for Lake Wales.) His principles include:
  1. Have the best land reserved for public open space

  2. Have natural-looking and irregular groupings of trees rather than orderly lines of trees

  3. Have a “spine road” that takes you through an area, with side roads leading to neighborhoods

  4. Have parks and open space throughout the development

  5. Have interesting, curvilinear streets rather than straight line streets in a grid pattern

  6. Have pedestrian walkways through interesting landscapes
These principles are the opposite of what had been presented in the first plan for the property. After many discussions and numerous draft drawings, a plan prepared by local landscape architect Marshall Whidden using Olmsted principles was endorsed by City staff and taken to the Planning and Zoning Board for approval.

This plan featured:
  1. A spine road curving through the development from 11th Street to 9th Street. Along the road is an 8-foot concrete pedestrian/bike path in a landscaped corridor with the historic black pole, acorn lens light fixtures. The Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Commission has endorsed a plan to extend the path to both the east and west as surrounding properties develop in the area.

  2. There are no driveways coming out on the spine road, and no houses facing it. Side roads lead to intimate neighborhood settings, each with its own green space.

  3. There are sidewalks throughout the development. A mulched path leads from the spine road to Grove Ave., connecting to new sidewalks built by the developer on Grove and Marietta.

  4. Besides the landscaped bikeway corridor, there are numerous small parks and green areas. Pine trees have been saved throughout the development, and natural vegetation has provided a base for plantings along Grove Ave.

  5. The final development plan was reduced from 550 – 50-foot lots to 350 lots with varying lot widths.

  6. Despite the new housing market decline, 50 lots have been sold and 23 are now under construction.

  7. In addition to these features, the developer will be extending Grove Avenue from Minnesota Street to 11th Street. The developer is also constructing a sidewalk on Marietta Street, from Grove Avenue to SR60.
Good land planning is essential to maintain what has made Lake Wales special. Citizens are cordially invited to attend the Planning and Zoning meetings, which are held the last Tuesday of each month.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Best Future for Our Community

My wife and I left Northern Kentucky in 1985 and came to Lake County just north of us for my first City Manager job. Shortly after my arrival several reporters from the local paper descended on me and asked what I felt was the biggest challenge facing that town. From my research, I did not hesitate to answer: Growth Management.

Over 20 years later and now in Lake Wales, my answer is the same. Growth Management is a multi-faceted challenge with effects for the long-term, one that begs for citizen participation. The questions to be answered include, what kind of community are we building for the future? Will it be a “bedroom community”, with most working adults leaving during the week-long daylight hours to work somewhere else? Or will we have industry and commerce here? When they reach adulthood, will our children have the opportunity to work here, or will it be taken for granted that they must move away to find career jobs? If we have a bedroom community, will it be sustainable? That is, will the revenues from that type of community be able to support the public services such as police and fire that are necessary to serve the community, or will it take a mix of industry, commercial, and residential in order to be sustainable? And if we develop a community with adults leaving to work, what about the children? Will they have to leave during the day to find a quality education? In such case, what is the mindset of the families in the community when family members spend most of their weekday time in another community, away from where they live? Will they be as willing to volunteer their scarce free time to contribute to the community where they live? Will they have true community pride?

These were some of the questions posed five years ago at the outset of the Polk Vision process. The planner hired by the then new, non-profit Polk Vision group went around the county and met with citizens in various communities. His first meeting in Lake Wales was at the library, and he commented that it was the largest community meeting in Polk County that he had had up to that time.

The fundamental concept that came out of the Polk Vision process was that we – as a town and as a county – do not want to be a bedroom community. We do not want our citizens to have to leave during the weekday for employment or education.

I believe that Lake Wales has exemplified this point more than any other city in our county, and the foundations for this concept were well in place long before Polk Vision came along. Ready examples of this concept can be found in the last 7 years: in the sale of the Lake Wales Medical Center, and the establishment of the Lake Wales Charter School System.

Shortly after I arrived here in 2001, I was invited to a meeting to discuss the status of the Lake Wales Medical Center. At that time it was owned by Winter Haven Hospital, and over time there were fewer services being offered. After a series of meetings it was decided that the group would approach the parent company to encourage them to sell the hospital to another firm that would provide us with an independent, stand alone hospital with many more services. I remember thinking that this mission seemed like a long-shot… but then - Mission Accomplished! Winter Haven Hospital sold the Lake Wales Medical Center to Community Health Systems, based in Brentwood, Tennessee, a company with one other hospital in Florida. Our new and improved hospital now features many services that have returned, along with new services including cardiac catheterizations and other diagnostic procedures that have been added. Success!

Similarly, many parents over the years have been concerned with the quality of education at the county district schools in Lake Wales. A group was formed through the Chamber of Commerce to explore the formation of a city school district. Interestingly, the city had its own school district many years ago before merging with the county district. After much work and discussion, a new charter school district was formed that converted four elementary schools and the high school into charter schools under one district, with a new charter middle school starting up in the fall. The results have been very impressive, with many improvements including new science labs in all five schools. There has been a refreshing new energy in the schools, with more community involvement. Another Success!

These are just two examples of what I and my family have found here: that Lake Wales is a very special place, and the fundamental concept conveyed in the Polk Vision effort has been demonstrated here. But, looking ahead, there is more to do. There is much interest in expanding and growing our community. In order to achieve our “best future”, we must have active citizen interest and participation. In this space next week, we’ll explore how that can be accomplished.