Play nice, kids

In March, the Orlando City Council rezoned a proposed time-share near Turkey Lake and Wallace roads into 445 houses and apartments. In doing so, it aggravated Orange County commissioners, who have fought a contentious two-year battle against school crowding by denying high-intensity residential developments near packed schools.

Orange's policies stop at the city limits, though many schools share city and county children. Dr. Phillips High School, which will be affected by the new housing development, is already three times over capacity. In fact, 21 of the 34 schools within the city limits are overcrowded.

"The county is slowing growth and municipalities are not," says county Commissioner Ted Edwards. "So are we really accomplishing anything?"

Last week, Edwards asked the city to join county commissioners in curtailing growth, then became infuriated when Mayor Glenda Hood refused. He accused her of putting her selfish agenda ahead of schoolchildren. If the city doesn't come around on the issue, he told his fellow commissioners, "either the voters can decide [how to deal with Orlando leaders] or we can go to the state legislature."

The next day commissioners voted to ask all of Orange's 13 cities to sign on to its slow-growth policy within 60 days. If they don't -- a good possibility -- the county would ask voters to change the county charter, forcing the cities to comply.

The county's action has ratcheted up the long-running tension between City Hall and county leaders. "You can understand where [we] might bristle a little bit," says Hood spokeswoman Susan Blexrud. "We're not sure that it's good for us. In the meantime, don't force it down our throats."

Critics say the city -- or more specifically, the mayor -- is doing the forcing. "You play it [Hood's] way or you get your nuts cut off," says former city Commissioner Bruce Gordy, who unsuccessfully challenged Hood for mayor two years ago.

The battle has been brewing for some time. It peaked over light rail four years ago: After years of prodding by then-Chairman Linda Chapin, a rail advocate and Hood ally, the commission still shot down the city's train aspirations on a razor-thin, 4-3 vote. Hood painted the naysayers as obstructionists and forged ahead with an unsuccessful, shorter rail line.

Later, Orlando and Orange each forked over $150,000 toward a $1.7 million public-private planning venture designed to forge a regional vision among Central Florida leaders. In the 2000 election, Gordy ridiculed Hood for what he regarded as paying a consultant to teach civility.

"You don't need to get a consultant," Gordy says now. "You need to get people that are willing to get along. The problem has been ... a mayor who doesn't want to get along."

An example of the inability of the two governments to see eye to eye has been the city-run Community Redevelopment Agency, a special taxing district created to restore blighted areas. The CRA takes in about $9 million a year. Though nearly half comes from what would otherwise be county money, Orange has had no control over how the money is spent. City leaders credit the agency with rejuvenating downtown and argue that the county wanted nothing to do with it until it was successful.

Hood and county Chairman Richard Crotty ironed out a compromise to place three county leaders on the seven-member board and to give the county a portion of the money. But the county and city have not been able to agree on how much the county should get, and the situation is at a stalemate. "We're going to wait [for any further negotiations until] there's a situation where the county has more leverage," says Orange deputy administrator Sharon Donoghue.

It's the same sort of bickering that defines the growth-management issue. The city claims it is too urban to adopt the county's rules. The day after Edwards' speech to the county commission, Hood met with the rest of Orange's mayors, all of whom agreed that the county's one-size-fits-all policy isn't for them.

County commissioner Clarence Hoenstine says Hood is just "blowing smoke. For the city to say, 'We're urban' -- that is so false." He points to the Lake Nona development, an 11-square-mile swath of farmland annexed by the city. It is slated for 9,000 new homes.

Blexrud counters that the redevelopment of Thornton Park and several high-rise downtown apartment complexes that don't specifically cater to families with children might have been blocked by the county's policy. She pins the problems on a lack of discourse from the county's end. "The [county] staff didn't meet with us and say, what do you think?" she says.

Besides, Blexrud says that city attorneys think it's unconstitutional for the county to attach its growth-management plans to its charter.

As city Commissioner Patty Sheehan points out, it's almost hypocritical for the county to criticize anyone's growth plans. While Hoenstine points to development at Lake Nona as a problem, Sheehan points to Waterford Lakes, which comprises thousands of upper-middle-class homes on the edge of the county's urban-service boundary.

Still, county leaders say the playing field needs to be leveled.

"It's a shell game," Hoenstine says. "Developers, if they can't get their way in the county, they just annex. ... You've got to have a hard line [on] this thing. The city's working against you." Cooperation, he notes, "sounds good, [but] it's what we've been trying for years. It's all politics, and [the city people] they've all been bought by the lobbyists and developers."

Ideally, these issues could be worked out without hostility, Sheehan says, but -- with strong leaders heading both city and county government -- "there's this fear that [if] they share the power, they're gonna lose power."

According to former county Chairman Chapin, "Glenda and I did not have the turf and ego problems. A lot of it is human nature. It depends on whether you want to work things out or not work things out. If you want to work things out, [there are] generally ways to do it. Attacking people is the worst possible way to arrive at any solution."

"I think [Hoenstine and Edwards] just don't like the mayor," says past Countywatch chairman Linda Stewart, who gave up her watchdog role to challenge Hoenstine in November. "They'd rather point fingers. We just can't keep on like that. That fighting is getting no one anywhere. We could be going all summer long if they don't get a hold of it."

Therein lies the rub. "We all need to get in a big room and duke it out," Sheehan says.

Stewart agrees with that idea, as long as cool heads prevail. "You have diplomats for a reason," she says. "They need to be diplomatic about the way they assert themselves. Some of the leaders are not diplomatic; they don't approach [conflicts] in the right way and that causes animosity."

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