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Student-housing law falters in DeLand

Stetson footballers rush onto the field at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium during a game last year.

Stetson footballers rush onto the field at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium during a game last year.

BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN

With an unexpectedly narrow vote, DeLand city commissioners April 17 passed an ordinance laying down new rules for where private student housing can be built. But final approval of the new law on its required second reading in a month seems far less certain.

The ordinance, which won on a 3-2 vote, prohibits building student housing complexes within 300 feet of any land zoned for single-family housing. Student housing is defined as apartments with at least three bedrooms, leased separately to unrelated students.

The new rules come after several rounds of battle over student housing in DeLand, with heated, hourslong meetings about proposed developments not terribly far in the City Commission’s rearview mirror.

Commissioners spent much of late 2015 and early 2016 battling with nearby residents over Athens Commons II, a proposed student-housing project on North Amelia Avenue between Oakdale and Plymouth avenues.

That project was denied twice in two separate forms, but it highlighted the need in many people’s minds for consistent rules for student housing — especially in a city with a growing university at its heart.

So it perplexed many, including DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar, when the new rules passed only narrowly, after months of preparation and joint workshops with the city’s Planning Board.

Apgar had anticipated his vote might be the only disapproval.

“I full well intended to vote no on this,” he said.

Apgar said he had a problem with the fact that the law wouldn’t kick in to govern student housing unless the units had more than two bedrooms.

“I myself don’t really understand the difference between 60 students living in three-bedroom apartments and 60 students living in two-bedroom apartments. But one is student housing, and one is not,” Apgar said.

But, after Vice Mayor Leigh Matusick moved to approve the new rules and nobody seconded her motion, the mayor found himself having to pass his gavel and second the motion himself.

After Commissioners Chris Cloudman and Jeff Hunter voted against the proposal, Apgar’s was the decisive vote in favor of the proposed ordinance.

Cloudman said it wasn’t anything specific that caused his disapproval, but the general idea of regulating student housing.

“There’s just something that still bothered my moral fiber about regulating certain classes of people,” Cloudman said. “I understand the frustration of the people who spurred this on, but I don’t believe I can support anything that regulates certain classes of people.”

“I’m with Chris all the way on this,” Hunter added. “When I look at this … it comes off as anti-student housing.”

Apgar noted the city has been working on the problem for at least two years, and he noted commissioners weren’t exactly vocal about their concerns in a February workshop with the Planning Board and city staff.

“We didn’t really provide any different direction [for] staff on what to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Darren Elkind cautioned the City Commission about dragging the issue out any longer, noting not everyone would be happy, no matter the amount of resources the city puts into the debate.

“If it’s going to be voted down, let’s vote it down and be done with it,” Elkind said.

Cloudman argued the rules were unnecessary, and pointed to the success of a group of homeowners who stopped the Athens Commons II project.

That project was proposed as a planned development, or PD, under the city’s code — a sort of legal do-it-yourself zoning class for large projects, where the developer and city hash out a contract stating what’s allowed and what’s not.

Because city law prohibits more than two unrelated people to live in a single housing unit in any residential zoning classification, developers currently have to go through the PD procedure, which involves multiple public hearings before the Planning Board and City Commission. Cloudman said the PD process is good enough regulation.

“In the case of Athens Commons II, the neighbors were successful,” Cloudman said.

He said having a special law for student housing would be like having a citywide ordinance regulating sandwich restaurants, and then telling Subway it would have to comply with special additional regulations.

On the other end of the spectrum, Vice Mayor Matusick largely agreed with the ordinance, but pushed to increase the number of parking spaces developers will be required to build for visitors.

“I don’t think we can deal with another Athens Commons I, either,” she said, referring to the already-built student housing complex on the north end of Downtown DeLand.

The ordinance won’t be back before the City Commission for a second reading for “at least a month,” Apgar said, rather than the customary two weeks.

The extra time is designed to give all five members of the City Commission additional time to review the discussion at the workshop and determine what they want to do about regulating student housing.


DeLand and student housing

October 2014 — The first Athens Commons, a 21-unit student housing complex along East Ohio Avenue, is approved.

July 2015 — Winscott Co. LLC, the company behind Athens Commons, proposes Athens Commons II, a 31-unit development along North Amelia Avenue near the University Terrace subdivision. The City Commission votes 3-2 in favor of a land use change on the proposed site. Nearby residents form DeLand Neighborhoods Inc., to spearhead their opposition to the project.

August 2015 — As the school year begins, students move into the original Athens Commons. A hearing on Athens Commons II is delayed over questions as to whether the complex would fly under the federal Fair Housing Act. 

October 2015 — The City Commission denies a zoning change for Athens Commons II at a “marathon meeting with more than a dozen impassioned speakers and no fewer than four lawyers,” according to Beacon archives. 

January 2016 — A smaller 15-unit version of the Athens Commons II project, dubbed Athens Townhomes, goes before the Planning Board. The Board unanimously recommends the City Commission reject the new proposal.

February 2016 — The City Commission unanimously votes down the Athens Townhomes project.

March 2016 — Matt West, president of DeLand Neighborhoods Inc., calls for specific guidelines on student housing in a Beacon opinion piece. 

May-October 2016 — City staff and the Planning Board work to craft rules regulating student housing.

February 2017 — A joint workshop between the Planning Board and City Commission seemingly finds consensus on the makeup of the regulations. The Planning Board endorses the proposed rules the following month.

April 2017 — The City Commission votes in favor of the new rules by an unexpectedly close 3-2 margin.

 

- Anthony DeFeo and Barb Shepherd, anthony@beacononlinenews.com

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