Automall: DeLand votes to fight

A TENSE MEETING — Mark Watts, an attorney for I-4 Automall LLC, stands against the wall in the DeLand City Commission Chambers and listens to proceedings at the commission’s April 9 meeting. The body voted to authorize legal challenges against the project, which would sit on DeLand’s doorstep.

A TENSE MEETING — Mark Watts, an attorney for I-4 Automall LLC, stands against the wall in the DeLand City Commission Chambers and listens to proceedings at the commission’s April 9 meeting. The body voted to authorize legal challenges against the project, which would sit on DeLand’s doorstep.

BEACON PHOTO/ANTHONY DeFEO

Feeling frustrated, unheard and concerned about a massive project on their city’s eastern doorstep, DeLand city officials are rolling up their sleeves for a possible legal fight over the I-4 Automall. 

Since it came to light in January that the mega-dealership project’s backers would annex the 52-acre site along Orange Camp Road into Lake Helen, DeLand officials have been trying to work cooperatively with Lake Helen city staff and representatives of Automall developer Brendan Hurley to make the project more tolerable to nearby DeLand residents.

Many of the city’s concerns were addressed, according to DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus, but important ones remain — not least of all the massing of about a dozen “dealership modules” up to 80 feet tall near DeLand’s gateway.

Mark Watts, an attorney with Cobb Cole representing the developer, made a final offer to DeLand officials April 4, with a plan that addressed many but not all of the city's concerns — if the city was willing to refrain from any legal challenges, in exchange. 

Among other concessions, the offer would have seen the maximum number of dealership modules reduced from 13 to 11, and elimination of a sign made up of large 10-foot-tall letters spelling out “I4 AUTOMALL” at the project’s main entrance along Orange Camp Road.

Accepting the offer would have given the city certainty about what would be developed. 

Rejecting it and moving toward legal action, on the other hand, might kill the Automall project — if only because the developer might be loath to wait out months of proceedings. However, killing the Automall would also open up the question of what would be built in its stead on the property, part of which is already zoned for highway-commercial uses, such as large truck-stop-like gas stations. 

Faced with two difficult choices, on a recommendation from Pleus and his staff, the DeLand City Commission took the plunge April 9 and, with a unanimous vote, authorized City Attorney Darren Elkind to “file and litigate any appropriate legal or administrative challenges against the City of Lake Helen and I-4 Automall LLC.”

Three legal procedures are in play, each of which can be challenged to varying degrees in varying venues: Lake Helen’s annexation of the project site; Lake Helen’s attempt to change the land use on the project site to allow more intense development; and the development agreement that will govern the specifics of the project. 

Mayor Bob Apgar personally made the unusually lengthy three-minute-and-12-second motion, which also authorizes Elkind and city staff to continue to negotiate with Lake Helen and the Automall backers. 

Lake Helen City Administrator Jason Yarborough called DeLand’s decision “disappointing.”

“We’ve done our best over the last several months to try to work with them ... 17 concessions have been made, addressing a lot of their issues, and an additional 15 concessions we would agree to if they would drop their fight against the project,” he said. “We’ve offered to work with them, within reason.”

Yarborough expressed confidence Lake Helen would prevail in any challenges filed regarding the project. 

— Anthony DeFeo, anthony@beacononlinenews.com


WHAT COMES NEXT?

For now, the project will continue through the approval process in Lake Helen, according to attorney Mark Watts, who represents I-4 Automall LLC. At The Beacon’s press time late Wednesday, Lake Helen is scheduled to take up the final reading of an ordinance annexing the project site into the city at its April 12 City Commission meeting. The Lake Helen City Commission was to also vote on the first reading of the project’s development agreement.

A land-use change needed to make the project possible will have a public hearing April 25 before the Volusia Growth Management Commission, a body unique to Volusia County that was set up, in part, to hear disputes between cities about development. The DeLand City Commission has authorized DeLand City Attorney Darren Elkind to object to the land-use change on the city’s behalf.

The City of DeLand has 30 days after the City of Lake Helen approves the second reading of the annexation to challenge that annexation in Volusia County Circuit Court. The DeLand City Commission authorized Elkind to file such a challenge.


WORDS YOU SHOULD KNOW:

Comprehensive plan — Since 1985, all cities and counties in Florida have been required to adopt a plan, broadly laying out what land in their jurisdictions can be used for. A comprehensive plan typically maps out where different categories of residential, commercial and industrial development may be built. This element of the plan is called the future-land-use map.

Future land use — A land use is a broad category that lays out what a city or county decides should be built on a given piece of property. A city might have several categories of residential land uses — usually depending on density — and a few categories of commercial and industrial development. For example, Lake Helen’s future land uses include Downtown Commercial, Neighborhood Commercial, Transitional Commercial and Employment Center. These categories are broader than zoning categories.

Zoning — If land use provides a skeleton for planners to work off of, zoning categories flesh out specific details of what is permitted or prohibited on a given piece of land. DeLand, for example, has 23 zoning categories, 11 of which deal with residences. Each zoning category spells out things such as minimum lot size, minimum building size, how far a building needs to be set back from a road, the number of homes per acre, and so on. Commercial zoning categories spell out exactly what types of businesses can be built on a lot. Some uses might only be allowed under certain conditions, or they might require the city or county to grant a special exception to the property owner, which requires a public hearing.

Planned development (PD) — Also known as a planned unit development, or PUD. The developer of a large project, such as the I-4 Automall, might want more flexibility than what traditional zoning categories allow. The project might incorporate aspects found in several zoning categories. For projects on a lot above a certain size — generally, 1 acre in DeLand, and 5 to 10 in Lake Helen — a developer can enter into a development agreement with the city or county.

Development agreement — A contract between a developer and a city or county that governs a planned development. The agreement will typically spell out all the things zoning regulations would normally govern, such as building sizes, density requirements, business hours of operation, specifically allowed and disallowed uses, and more.

Floor-area ratio (FAR) — This measurement is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the lot it’s built upon. For example, if a lot’s zoning category allows for a floor-area ratio of 0.50, the total area of all floors on any buildings constructed on the lot can be half the size of the lot itself. If the lot is 20,000 square feet, a developer may construct a one-story 10,000-square-foot building, a two-story building with two 5,000-square-foot levels, a four-story building with four 2,500-square-foot levels, and so on. The developer could also potentially build two separate one-story 5,000-square-foot buildings. Indirectly, this controls how dense a project may be.

FAR is a sticking point between the I-4 Automall developers and DeLand officials. Lake Helen is allowing a 0.55 floor-area ratio for the proposed Automall site. The project includes up to 13 dealership modules, each up to 80 feet tall, with several levels. The ground level would be a showroom, while upper levels would be used for vehicle inventory storage.

DeLand officials argue that all levels of the building should count toward calculating the floor-area ratio. The Automall backers argue that the upper floors are simply parking areas, which normally don’t count toward FAR calculations. DeLand has raised this issue in its request for a hearing before the Volusia Growth Management Commission. If DeLand were to get its way, it could potentially require the Automall to be smaller or less dense overall, if it were constructed at all.

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