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Winter Garden buys 16 acres for county school district property swap

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Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Monday, February 13, 2023


Element5 Digital

Winter Garden jumped on a deal to buy 16 acres from Panther Land Development so it could swap the property for the Orange Technical College West Side Campus, owned by OCPS.

The Winter Garden City Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve a $5 million purchase of property on W. Colonial Drive. Owned by Panther Land Development, the 16-acre parcel is intended for a land swap with Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) to prevent a proposed school bus depot from being built in an historically Black residential neighborhood.

While the Orange County School Board wasn’t quite ready to ink the land-swap deal, Ed Williams, the city’s planning consultant, told the commission that he felt confident enough “to come to you with this proposal to prepare contracts and a closing date,” so that the city would “be in a position to move quickly to do that swap and implement a different set of plans for that bus station.”

In a Monday phone interview with VoxPopuli, Williams explained that the school board is still inspecting the property, which sits just west of Avalon Road, next to the U.S. Post Office, for “bad soils, sinkholes, pollution and traffic issues. They’re being cautious. They’re spending tax-payer money so they’re being cautious.”

District 7 School Board Member Melissa Byrd described the deal as “promising” in an email to VoxPopuli.

“There is still a lot to work out because the land would require a lot more development costs before a bus depot could be put there,” Byrd wrote, “but everything is moving along with the intent of the land swap being the ultimate goal. It’s just a slow process.”

At least some of those development costs will involve sound-buffering components like noise walls and landscaping, said Williams, so that nearby residents are less likely to notice the comings and goings of 200 school buses.

Growth in southwest Orange County areas like Horizon West is driving the need for more schools and more school buses. OCPS already has one west-side bus depot in Pine Hills, a majority Black community. Originally, OCPS wanted to build the bus depot on the site of the Orange Technical College campus on Story Road after the vocational school moves to its new Ocoee location in 2024. 

In another incarnation, the vocational school was the city's segregated Drew High School until it closed in 1969, and the campus sits in the middle of East Winter Garden, the city's historically Black neighborhood, which is now receiving $15 million in community funds to redevelop the area with new infrastructure, businesses and homes. An industrial bus depot was not in the plans. 

At an OCPS-hosted community meeting almost a year ago, residents from the neighborhood, with the city’s support, pushed back against the county school district’s effort to install the depot there.

Ideas for repurposing the school buildings were discussed as part of the Dover Kohl community meetings last summer. But the city has not yet confirmed any plans for the site.

Williams told commissioners that Drew High School “had a lot of historic significance, which had been completely ignored up until this point, and deserved better than to be a bus stop and storage and repair facility, maybe with a plaque.”

“The community convinced them that they were barking up the wrong tree, that this was not the place to do that,” Williams said of East Winter Garden during the commission meeting.

District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett, a realtor, said that Panther Land Development's price per acre “when I ran the numbers, was a good purchase price.”

District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel, a developer, said he thought it was “a good price. It’s a good use of taxpayers’ money, and it serves our community, particularly the East Winter Garden community, if it works out the way it’s supposed to.”

Byrd told VoxPopuli that she was “so pleased we are almost there.”

“This is a huge win for our community in East Winter Garden. As I said at the community meeting at OTC [Orange Technical College] Westside, I promised the community that I would find a way to find another site for the much needed bus depot on the west side of town and I’m really happy that I was able to keep that promise to the community,” she said.

“I heard them and their concerns at that meeting and made it my priority to get everyone together to find a solution that would find another place for the depot without costing the district more money since they already owned that property. A land swap was a great solution.”

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