By Dan Harkins
DEBARY - As a retired U.S. Department of Transportation law enforcement officer, Glenn Lord said he's not the most trusting of fellows.
So he did a little research in 1999 before buying his $250,000 retirement home in Saxon Pointe, not far from the city's northern gateway at Saxon Boulevard and U.S. 17/92.
At the city's Department of Planning, Zoning and Development, Mr. Lord asked about what could ever be done to the 25.6 acres of vacant scrubland immediately behind his home, right at that intersection. Nothing, he was told. It was a wildlife mitigation area. It's the same thing he heard from the home's builder.
So he and his wife took the plunge.
Then, early last year, those predictions fell apart. First, the Volusia County Council approved the zoning for an age-restricted housing development on the property, then Atlantic Housing Partners presented detailed plans to build a senior-focused apartment complex of about 80 units with federal affordable housing standards on the site, which sits directly across the street from the city's three-year-old Gateway Center for the Arts.
Mr. Lord was floored.
By this point, he'd lost about 60 percent of the value of his home. So how is affordable housing going to help next door, he wondered one recent afternoon.
"It's made it even less attractive," he said, referring to his home's prospects of regaining value. "I'm not crying in my beer here. I just want to be heard. ... What upsets me most about this whole thing is, when we voted for DeBary to be a city, they assured us they would not allow helter-skelter development and all that. They said they would listen to the community and they haven't. Now, they're going to put a low-income development there?"
Atlantic also is embroiled in a fierce community battle in New Smyrna Beach over a complex it's planning there with federal subsidies.
In DeBary, those subsidies will require income and senior-age restriction on applicants, said Planning Administrator Rebecca Hammock. Nothing bars owners, however, from inviting children and grandchildren to move in later.
"It looks like they couldn't rent to someone making more than $60-some thousand a year," she told commissioners at their recent meeting. "A few days later, she said that meant per household.
The still-vacant land has gone from being zoned for planned unit development in the 1970s to commercial retail in more recent decades of fruitless wooing of investors.
Any development, in this day and age, Hammock noted, "is welcome."
Lord was one of two who came to that recent meeting to decry Atlantic again, this time as it asked and received by a 4-0 vote a few changes to its plans. Mayor Bob Garcia was absent due to a death in the family.
Now, the developer will eliminate three-story structures from its plans and stick with a one story only approach, requiring a few tweaks to the original plans.
"Please be considerate of the people who are already there," Mr. Lord told commissioners, "and when we signed up there and built there, that development wasn't there."
That's what Jody Hill told them too.
Her house on Brassington Drive also backs up against the land.
The development, she estimated, will "put 160 new cars in and out on a very short stretch of Saxon. So I'd like to see a traffic study done before anything is approved - before (commissioners) do something that affects safety in that area."
A traffic study is currently underway.
City commissioners said they understood the concerns of those who might stand to lose their pristine Florida backdrop, but the development was already approved. The only changes were in the types of units that would be built. A final site plan was still waiting on a traffic study.
A few commissioners urged David Stokes, a civil engineer representing the builder, to keep future revisions to a minimum.
"Make sure this is what you guys want," Commissioner Dan Hunt said, "or else you're going to be back in here again ... putting everybody back in the hot seat."
Mr. Stokes said Atlantic would be required to submit a traffic study to all pertinent government agencies to plan for adequate safety. He also reiterated, since the phrase "Section 8" housing was thrown around a few times, that Atlantic was building "affordable housing" units, not subsidized units.
Commissioners actually made a few moves at the meeting related to affordable housing.
On the other end of town at the city's southern gateway, city planners will soon participate in two federal Housing and Urban Development Department studies of the area immediately surrounding the SunRail commuter rail station, expected to be open next year along U.S. 17/92, south of Dirksen Drive.
Commissioners voted unanimously to pay a $33,791 matching portion for two studies that are estimated to cost $168,954. They also agreed to join all other SunRail communities in an East Central Florida Consortium, which will spend at least $2.84 million in U.S. Housing and Urban Development grants to perform these studies all along the SunRail corridor - not only where bike and pedestrian patterns could improve, but also the availability of vacant parcels, infrastructure and affordable housing.
According to the consortium's literature, HUD's Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant aims to change "suburban development patterns to be more compact, urban and transit served to improve livability, attract the creative class, reduce infrastructure costs, preserve natural resources and to be more economically competitive."