"It was just an oversight"
Sunday, December 5, 2021
Jon Williams, Winter Garden interim city manager, flanked by Steve Pash, community development director, responds to residents' concerns about Riegl USA's proposal to build a helicopter landing pad near their homes during the Nov. 30 community meeting at Winter Garden City Hall. City planners had forgotten to hold a public meeting before the helipad was placed on the commission agenda for a vote. The helipad was pulled from the agenda in mid-November to allow for a community meeting and is now on indefinite hold.
Were it not for a pair of scheduling snafus, Riegl USA might have gotten its helipad — and the residents in nearby Brandy Creek, Oaks at Brandy Lake and Hyde Park wouldn’t have known a thing about it until the backhoes showed up.
Winter Garden city officials told VoxPopuli that they simply forgot to schedule a community meeting to hear residents’ concerns before putting Riegl’s proposal to build a helipad at their new headquarters on West Colonial Drive on the city commission’s agenda for a vote twice in October and then again in mid-November.
Riegl, which produces laser and LiDAR scanning systems for surveying, submitted an application to construct a helipad site plan adjacent to the three communities in February. City planners began working with Riegl’s team of builders and engineers in March. Internal memos from September and October, obtained by VoxPopuli through a public records request, show that the city's Development Review Committee had recommended that the commission approve the helipad site plan. Riegl had twice requested to postpone a commission vote because of staff scheduling issues before the helipad plan vote was rescheduled again for the Nov. 11 city commission meeting.
City staff discovered on Nov. 14 that they’d never looped in residents. They removed the Riegl project from the Nov. 11 agenda and hastily put a community meeting on the calendar for Nov. 30, Jon Williams, interim city manager, told VoxPopuli in an interview at city hall.
“It was just an oversight that it made its way to the agenda without having a community meeting, and that’s the whole reason why it was pulled off of the agenda,” said Williams. “I don’t think there was any attempt to quietly slip it onto the agenda to get it approved without having a community meeting.”
"This was by no means trying to get around anything,” added Steve Pash, community development director.
That wasn’t quite how it played at the highly contentious community meeting at Winter Garden City Hall on Nov. 30. Angry residents packed the commission chambers, spilling into the lobby, in a show of force against building a helipad anywhere near their homes.
“Why are we just finding out today or recently?" demanded one woman who did not give her name.“There’s no excuse for homeowners to be finding out about it now.”
Residents had been stunned to learn from a Riegl project manager at the meeting that city planners had known about the helipad for two years. One man shouted, "I want to see those meeting minutes!"
Williams explained to VoxPopuli that the city doesn’t convene community meetings about every project proposal because not all of them come to fruition.
But this one was scheduled for a commission vote with city staff approval — three times. The helipad is now on indefinite hold while Riegl explores “all our options,” as company president Johannes Riegl Jr. told VoxPopuli after the community meeting.
In the Brandy Creek neighborhood Friday afternoon, homeowners said the first they heard anything about the helipad was in mid-November when they received the city's notice in the mail about the Nov. 30 community meeting.
“Everybody in the neighborhood got the letter around the same time,” said Brandon, who declined to give his last name, as he strung holiday lights on his SUV.
“We got a letter, I want to say two weeks ago, maybe. That’s the first time I heard about it,” said Misty Avera. “We were concerned about where [the helicopter] would be flying over. You never know if it’s going to crash. There’s other things I think we need here besides a helicopter pad to be honest with you.”
Andee Garrison was probably the first among her neighbors to hear about the helipad. She makes a point of reading city meeting minutes and noticed a mention that Riegl was considering building a helipad two years ago.
“I didn’t really think much about it because it didn’t move any further,” she said as she walked around the neighborhood with her husband and all-white German Shepherd. “I assumed because we’ve gotten other letters before about things that happen around here that we would hear about it once it moved forward.”