DeLand gives Automall deal initial OK

NEW PLAN — Under a proposed agreement between DeLand, Lake Helen and the developers of the I-4 Automall, the plans for the mega-dealership would be tweaked. This graphic shows how a distribution center (top left) would be reoriented and moved east, farther away from nearby homes. 

NEW PLAN — Under a proposed agreement between DeLand, Lake Helen and the developers of the I-4 Automall, the plans for the mega-dealership would be tweaked. This graphic shows how a distribution center (top left) would be reoriented and moved east, farther away from nearby homes. 

GRAPHIC COURTESY CITY OF DELAND

DeLand officials have agreed in concept to a plan that would end the city’s dispute with Lake Helen over the I-4 Automall, and that clears the way for the project to be constructed.

The two cities have been feuding over the project, the brainchild of Brendan Hurley of DeLand Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, since it came to light in January that the developers would seek to have Lake Helen annex the roughly 52-acre site along Orange Camp Road.

DeLand asked a judge to review Lake Helen’s annexation. The proposed settlement, if approved by both cities in its final form, would moot the pending court battle. 

“The week of June 18, the developer's attorney approached us with a settlement agreement they wanted us to consider,” DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus told city commissioners at their July 2 meeting.

Under the proposed agreement, DeLand would annex the western portion of the project site, slated to contain a hotel, restaurants and a gas station. 

The actual Automall, with 11 dealership buildings, would be annexed into Lake Helen. DeLand will provide water and sewage services to the entire site.  

“Although it was our sincerest hope to reduce the number of buildings to a number less than 11, we could not get the developer to agree to a lesser number,” Pleus said. “However, we were able to get agreement to improve the project on almost every other point of concern.”

The two cities will jointly adopt a planned development agreement for the entire site, which will lay out exactly where buildings may be constructed, along with architectural standards and a host of other regulations, like operating hours, signage and more. 

Lake Helen will agree not to annex any more land west of Interstate 4, except for a cemetery on the south side of Orange Camp Road. 

In the future, at Lake Helen’s expense, DeLand will provide water, sewage and reclaimed-water service to certain properties east of I-4 in Lake Helen. Customers of DeLand’s services in Lake Helen will pay a 25-percent surcharge. 

Several points remain to be resolved, such as the exact dividing line between the two cities. 

Pleus said the settlement would give the city certainty about the future of the property, whereas going to court is uncertain. 

Even if the city were to win its legal challenge, Pleus explained, the Automall might still be built in some form on the eastern portion of the site, and the western half of the property could be broken up and developed under less-restrictive county zoning with no protections for DeLand residents.

DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar said that while his “emotional response” to the project was still negative, on a more rational level, he recognized the settlement agreement was likely DeLand’s best option. 

“I’ve learned through my professional life that sometimes the best agreements are when nobody’s happy,” he said.

At the very least, the agreement gives DeLand control over the portion of the project closest to DeLand residents, the mayor added.

“It allows DeLand to have control over the property that is closest to DeLand and to Victoria Gardens and Victoria Park,” Apgar said. “It gives us code enforcement, law enforcement over the properties that are the most contiguous to the City of DeLand.”

A few DeLand residents commented on the proposed deal, expressing sentiments ranging from grudging acceptance to continued discomfort.

“I believe this is not good for a majority … it is good for a very few though, a few people that will benefit from it,” resident Jan Potter said. “It looks like this project is going to happen. It’s very, very disappointing to me and to many thousands of people.”

Commissioner Jessica Davis agreed the project was still undesirable, but praised Pleus and City Attorney Darren Elkind for their efforts in negotiating the settlement.

“For the most part, we’re in agreement that we don’t agree with it,” she said. “We’re just trying to look for the best solution possible.” 

Ultimately, commissioners voted 4-0, with Jeff Hunter absent, to allow Pleus and other city staff to work toward finalizing the agreement. 

A final agreement will be brought back to the DeLand City Commission for approval in the coming weeks. 

Lake Helen City Administrator Jason Yarborough said his city won’t take a vote until a final agreement exists in writing, which he said might be the case later this month.

While Yarborough said he thinks Lake Helen would have won the annexation lawsuit and approval at the Volusia Growth Management Commission, the agreement will allow the project to get started sooner. 

“It would have been a Pyrrhic victory by dragging the project out,” he said. “It wasn’t helpful for the applicant or Lake Helen to drag the lawsuit out for a year, year and a half.” 

While the agreement is “not ideal,” Yarborough said it’s pragmatic. 

“We would rather have had the whole project; financially it was in our best interest; but we understand that DeLand felt that they needed to financially benefit from this project, even though they weren’t initially big fans of it,” he said. “I think we’ve come up with a compromise where we get about 70 to 75 percent of the total tax base and revenue stream, and we can more importantly get the project moving.”

Yarborough emphasized that although sewage lines from DeLand may be extended into Lake Helen, sewage service will be exclusively for new commercial projects — not for residents. 

“In no way, shape or form are we talking about getting people off of septic tanks,” he said. “The only reason we need sewer is so commercial projects on Main Street and possibly downtown can flourish.”

— Anthony DeFeo, anthony@beacononlinenews.com


Tweaking the Automall

— The number of dealership modules, which may each stand up to 80 feet tall, is reduced to 11 from the 13 originally planned.

— A warehouse distribution facility has been moved farther east, and reoriented. 

— The dealership modules will be set farther back from Orange Camp Road.

— The building on Lot 5 — the lot closest to Victoria Gardens, where a hotel is envisioned — will be reoriented, with parking in front of the building to reduce the effects on nearby residents.

— Truck stop and fueling stations designed to serve tractor-trailers are prohibited. 

— The maximum number of fast-food restaurants allowed is capped at three, and any franchise restaurants built into the service station (for example, a Subway built into a Circle K) will count toward the total.

— No temporary signage visible from I-4 or Orange Camp Road will be allowed in the Automall.

— Mass clearing of lots 2-5 (the non-Automall portions of the site) is prohibited.

— The architectural standards for lots 2-5 will be similar to those in Victoria Park.

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