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Annexation of show-jumping training center property clears first hurdle

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Despite public opposition, Winter Garden appears inclined to approve more development on Tilden Road

Crown Pointe Equestrian
Horses turned out at Crown Pointe Equestrian. Owner Anne Bingler is fighting annexation into Winter Garden. Photo: Anne Bingler/Facebook

Updated: June 1, 2023

Despite overwhelming public opposition, a trio of ordinances to annex 30 acres off of Tilden Road, between Tiny Road and West Country Club Drive, into Winter Garden, change its designation from agricultural use and rezone it to allow for a new housing development, cleared its first hurdle last week. A divided city commission voted to approve the ordinances on a first reading. The second, final, reading will be June 8.

The votes — 4 to 1 for annexation, 3 to 2 for land use change and rezoning — came after a nearly three-hour hearing in which attorneys for both a show-horse training/breeding facility, which is fighting annexation, and a developer aiming to build 24 homes to the east of the facility’s property, along with Kelly Carson, the city planning director, who recommended the developer’s project, made their cases before the commission.

The meeting was standing room only as supporters of Crown Pointe Equestrian, along with residents from surrounding neighborhoods concerned about increased traffic and safety, packed the Commission Chambers, lining the walls and sitting on the floor. Many of them, like Julia Visser who lives in Emerald Ridge, also spoke, voicing strong opposition to the planned development.

“Winter Garden was founded on agriculture. Anybody who stops in at the Historical Society knows this was a citrus town, and to strip all of that away is a real shame,” Visser told the commission during public comments. “When we just keep turning it over to developers like every other basic city in the state of Florida, we’re no better than any other random suburb in South Florida — except they have better roads than we do. We have history and charm in Winter Garden, and we are begging for you to maintain that along Tilden Road. Like, make the right decision.”

“We’d all of us like to see this project go away, quite frankly,” District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel announced before the attorneys’ presentations began. “We have some legal obligations so I need to hear things that will help us legally deny this project.”

Maciel must not have heard those things as he voted yes on all three ordinances. So did District 1's Commissioner Lisa Bennet and the famously animal friendly mayor, John Rees. Commissioner Colin Sharman who represents District 4 was the only commissioner to vote against all three. Commissioner Ron Mueller of District 2 voted for annexation but against rezoning and changing the land use designation.

Lost in the mail?

The crux of the hearing is that although Anne Bingler, owner of Crown Pointe Equestrian, signed a letter in 2013 to join an area that would eventually be annexed, she does not want her land to be annexed into the city now. Bingler already has a suburban housing development to her west —Tilden Place, built in 2019.

She opposes construction of another suburban housing complex on the east side of her facility because — as she and her attorney S. Brent Spain of the Orlando firm Theriaque & Spain explained — the activities of daily suburban living are incompatible with breeding and training hunters and show jumpers, many of them destined for Grand Prix and Olympic-level competition. Children playing, the VROOM of a lawn mower, a ball bouncing over a fence, can all spook a horse, and lead to injuries to both horse and rider.

Grand Prix is the highest level of show jumping. Here, Anne Bingler rides Cobalto, a 16.1-hand Oldenburg, at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.

Spain, a land use attorney and government law expert, showed the commission photos of one of Bingler’s horses, which had run blindly into a barn wall and severely lacerated its face after being frightened.

Bingler herself has been thrown to the ground by a horse she was training to walk down a ramp, she told VoxPopuli. It got spooked by the sound of a ball hitting a PVC fence, “threw me into the air, and I landed on my head with my helmet on.” Bingler ended up with a concussion and unable to compete in several shows at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.

When it was her turn at the mic, Bingler told commissioners about Tilden Place's dog run and tot park, built next to her stallion, broodmare and foal paddock.

“The kids throw the balls across the fence at our horses — weekly! WEEKLY! There are dogs that jump up on the fence. We had a loose dog that jumped the fence. What do you say to that? There is no regard at all for when these developments get approved and where these things are placed.”

Tilden Place dog run
Tilden Place's dog run has a 3'9" high fence. Bingler says dogs frequently jump over it. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Broodmare with foal at Bingler farm
Bingler spent $20,000 on individual stables and turnout paddocks for her broodmares and foals. They are now directly across a narrow path from Tilden Place's play area where, she says, kids throw balls at the horses. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

In a 17-minute frustration-fueled commentary, Bingler told the commission that although hundreds of notices had been sent to Winter Garden and Orange County residents around the development project, she and her husband Paul learned about Tilden Place only when earth movers crashed through her fence at 7:30 one morning. “They forgot to mail us ours. Isn’t that bizarre?” she said. “To me, that seems a little shady.”

The city called it an "oversight" at the time, Bingler said. The city also called it an "oversight" in 2021 when staff neglected to inform surrounding communities that construction plans for nearby Riegl USA's new W. Colonial Drive headquarters included a helipad. Asked whether the city had a pattern of not informing residents who were likely to challenge projects, City Manager Jon Williams said in an email, "I have no comment on that as Mike [Bollhoefer] was the City Manager at that time."

Meeting with Bollhoefer and Stephen Pash, now assistant city manager, to learn how Tilden Place had gotten approved without their knowledge or a discussion of the adverse impacts such a project would have on her business, Bingler told the commission, “Mike Bollhoefer stands up, slams his hand on the table, tells me to F- off! And if I don’t like it, tells me to sue the city.”

Bingler alluded to retaliatory measures she believes the city has taken against her and her business since her meeting with Bollhoefer.

“We are a nasty thorn in the city staff’s side, and they know it. I could go into a lot of details about things that have happened since we started to challenge the city,” she said. She pointed to a visit she received from an Orange County property appraiser “to make sure we were AG[riculture]” shortly after meeting with Bollhoefer. “In 20 years, I’ve never had anyone inspect my farm,” she said.

Bollhoefer, now county administrator for Frederick, VA, did not respond to a phone call or email request for comment. Williams said in that email he was "not aware of any harassment campaign the city initiated."

"He tells me to F- off! And if I don't like it, sue the city!"

That was then, this is now

Spain argued that the city should have verified with Bingler that her 2013 letter agreeing to annex into the city still reflected her wishes in 2020 when the city commission voted to add her land to the joint planning area agreement [JPA] it has with Orange County.

“I submit, respectfully, that a lot can happen in seven years," he told the commission. "There may have been a reason in 2013 to support it and in 2020 maybe you don’t support that anymore. You don’t have any documentation that Ms. Bingler re-affirmed her agreement to be in the JPA . That’s a little incomplete to say that our client consented to that from seven years back.”

Indeed, Bingler also told the commission she had signed the letter in anticipation of a development deal that fell through and that Pash had assured her that the letter “meant nothing” and that she would retain the option to “do whatever I want with my property.” She said she had no wish to join the city because it lacks a land use designation for agriculture.

In an email to VoxPopuli, Pash said that he did not recall the conversation in 2013 with Ms. Bingler.

Spain also argued the annexation plan created an illegal enclave and that the Tilden Road location for the applicant’s proposed housing subdivision “just beyond a 90-degree hairpin turn” was hazardous.

He also suggested that city staff’s analysis of the proposed development was lacking, noting that the language in the new proposal attesting that the project would not “devalue the use and enjoyment of Bingler's property” is a “cut and paste” from Tilden Place’s 2019 proposal.

“There’s not a single word changed. It is verbatim,” Spain said. “There’s no analysis done. We approved it in 2019 on the west. I’ll just take the language and put it on the east. But they’re changed circumstances. We now know what putting houses next to a horse farm, what the effect is. You have to analyze that. Making my client peanut butter on a residential sandwich doesn’t work.”

Kelly Carson, city planning director, pushed back on the idea that the city was creating an enclave, saying that Orange County had raised no objections.

“If they have an issue, if they think we’re creating an enclave, they would oppose the annexation, and they have on different projects,” she told the commission. “We’ve analyzed it and we don’t think we’ve created an enclave, but they’re the ones who’re going to tell us whether they’re going to oppose it based on their criteria and they have not opposed it.”

She also disagreed with Spain’s assessment of the staff analysis, noting that the rezoning “will not substantially devalue or prevent reasonable use or enjoyment of the property. Based on our analysis of three big lots, single family, against the adjacent property, we did not feel that that rose to the level of interfering with the adjacent property owner’s reasonable expectation of use and enjoyment.”

Bingler told VoxPopuli that no one from the planning department had ever visited her facility to make that assessment.

"Making my client peanut butter on a residential sandwich doesn't work."

Public opposition

Not a single person offering public comments spoke in favor of the proposed housing development.

Dominique Perez, who said she’s helped out at the training facility, confirmed many of Bingler’s statements.

“Having to watch the horses get scared and freak out because kids were playing around and yelling, I think a ball was being bounced around, it’s terrifying,” she said. “You don’t want to have a 1,200-pound horse get spooked. Heaven forbid someone gets trampled. I’ve seen Anne fall. One of our girls came off her pony and broke her arm. This development should not go through.”

Others voiced concerns about increases in traffic congestion and traffic and pedestrian safety. There have been several single-vehicle accidents in which cars coming out of a steep curve on Tilden near Tiny Road plowed straight into the retention pond across the street from Crown Pointe Equestrian. Bingler helped pull two drivers out of the pond herself. A 2016 accident was fatal.

Tilden Road retention pond
Cars rounding this curve on Tilden Road have ended up in this retention pond. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

“The traffic is unbearable and it’s only getting worse,” said an Emerald Ridge resident.

Lack of sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians, especially for children boarding school buses or biking between the neighborhoods, were other concerns.

Even Carson admitted, the plan was not completely safe.

“We’d love to connect all sidewalks. We’d love to connect to the sidewalks on Tilden and have a complete sidewalk,” she said. “But we don’t control that road right now so we’re not able to install them to make it safe for the entire plan.”

Williams told VoxPopuli that Winter Garden has requested Orange County transfer ownership of Tilden Road to the city. When that happens, he said in his email, "the City would include Tilden in our City Wide Traffic Management Plan/Policy (presented to Commission on 3/23), which would include a series of measures to address speeding and safety concerns."

Next steps “I’d like to know what your intentions might be if this was denied tonight,” Maciel asked the developer’s attorney Logan Opsahl early in the evening. “Be very frank with us."

Opsahl sidestepped Maciel’s question. Instead the Lowndes attorney responded that since the city has long contemplated annexing the 30 acres so that it can receive utilities, and since the JPA dictates that the property must be rezoned for planned urban development, together with city staff approval of the housing development, he was confident the commission would vote in favor of it.

However, it's worth pointing out that when then-City Manager Mike Bollhoefer was urging commissioners in April 2020 to vote to include the area that includes Bingler's training facility in the JPA, he was quite clear that doing so "does not mean that we will annex, and it does not require us to annex the property."

For her part, Bingler said she wasn’t threatening a lawsuit, but she made it clear that she was setting the table should that be necessary. She indicated that she and her husband purchased a home in Winter Garden to give them standing to file. Spain told VoxPopuli he would wait until after the second reading to make that decision.

Maciel predicted that no matter how the commission voted, the matter would land in court and cost the city a lot of money.


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