Petitioners file appeals opposing planned high-rise near Lake Eola 

Petitioners who filed arguments opposing the Orlando Municipal Planning Board's decision to allow a 28-story high-rise near Lake Eola Park will now have to wait a month for the city and developers' response.

In July, the board approved partial plans for the City Centre project, a 215-unit residential tower near Lake Eola Park, despite protests from residents who opposed the encroachment on the park, citing environmental, building setback and quality-of-life concerns. The board did not approve plans the city had to lease a part of Lake Eola Park to the group of developers, which includes Mark Bortz of Chicago and Thomas Committee of Naples. The developers' proposal for the area included outdoor seating for a café, water walls and landscape improvements, which can still be approved through a separate agreement with the city. Although the planning board approved the rest of the project, it still requires final approval from Orlando's City Council.

On Aug. 17, the Cathedral Church of St. Luke's legal adviser and chancellor, Hernan Castro, filed a petition against the city and Jennifer Tobin, the chair of the Municipal Planning Board, who is also the applicant for the City Centre project and represents the developer group. The church's petition alleges that neither Tobin nor the city notified the church of the board's meeting in July, which the church found out about through an anonymous source.  

Castro says that in 1913, Orlando was consolidating the property around Lake Eola for its park. E. Frank Sperry, mayor of Orlando from 1913 to his death in 1916, was a member of St. Luke's and persuaded the church to donate land it owned around the lake to the city.

In 1914, St. Luke's deeded a portion of its land to the city, with the condition "that the same shall be used for the purposes of a public park only, and that no building, or other structure, shall ever be erected thereon, but the same shall be kept free and clear of all such, so that there shall be no obstruction between the shore of Lake Eola and the property known as [the] The Cathedral School property."

In its meeting minutes, the city of Orlando also acknowledged the conditions on the parcel with the lines, "deed upon the express condition that the land used for park purposes be used for park purposes only and that no buildings or other structures be erected thereon."

"St. Luke's donated this piece of land with a promise," Castro says. "That's the promise we're asking the city of Orlando to keep."

Kisimul Holdings LLC, which represents the descendents and family members of John Maxwell Scott and Mildred Ewing Scott, also filed a petition against the board's decision, according to city documents. The Scotts used to own the 1927 Lubbe House, which sits on the property along with the 1925 former Masonic Hall. The developer group plans to demolish both buildings.

In the petition, Kisimul argues that the city made a previous developer of the property agree in 2008 to donate the Lubbe House to the city and relocate it at the developer's expense. Their petition also alleges that minimal information was provided to the board about the removal or cutting back of trees within the subject properties and the public park. City documents enclosed in the Kisimul appeal show an earlier staff report for the proposal contained a subsection called "Encroachment into Park," that details the Park Department's opposition to the removal of trees and the relocation of the Sperry Fountain.

"The proposed location of the café would necessitate the removal of large trees in Lake Eola Park," the documents say. "Park Department objects and recommends the café be relocated elsewhere on-site."

That subsection and the entire Parks section was removed from the final staff report and replaced with the line "Impacts and removal of existing mature or specimen trees shall require mitigation as determined by the city arborist."

Also notably absent is a petition from the Rosalind Club. At July's board meeting, the prominent social club brought more than 100 of its members to protest the project, which could become its immediate neighbor.

During the meeting, the club's attorney, Karen Consalo, and the developers' attorney, Micky Grindstaff, said they had met in the past year to try to come to some sort of mitigation, but disagreed after the club demanded that the developers offer parking spaces for its members and $150,000 for the construction of a sun porch. At the end of the meeting, Grindstaff said Consalo told him they would probably request an appeal to go before a quasi-judicial officer. Consalo could not be reached for comment for this story. Tobin said neither she nor her client have a comment at this time.

Chris Betsher, an attorney and Orlando resident closely following the turmoil surrounding the project, says he is concerned about this negotiation. "I don't have anything against the Rosalind Club, but I don't think they speak for an entire population," he says. "They have a unique interest because the project would be their next-door neighbor, but I don't think they have the standing to give things away."

Millie Lopez-Campillo, a resident of Orlando for 18 years, says she filed a "friend of court" brief in opposition to the board's decision. Her petition asks why the project didn't require an environmental study to see how the construction of the tower would affect the lake and its surroundings.

"It's more about the city rushing through these deals to push development," she says. "City staff doesn't have a chance to go through and analyze what they're doing here."

Cassandra Lafser, a spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer's office, says the next step for petitioners is a quasi-judicial process where an independent hearing officer hears the appeals and makes a recommendation, which then goes on to the City Council. The city and the developers have 30 days, until Sept. 16, to respond to the petitions.

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