Commissioner Mark Maciel wins last-minute concession from developer for sound wall; Bingler "exploring options" for next steps.
Anne Bingler puts her gelding Cobalto, a 9-year-old Oldenburg, through a show jumping training session at her Crown Pointe Equestrian center.
A deeply divided Winter Garden City Commission voted June 8 to pass a trio of ordinances that cleared the way for 24 homes to be built next to an elite equestrian training facility on Tilden Road. This was a second reading of the ordinances. The first took place May 25. The prospect of a new housing development engendered a fierce fight that galvanized neighboring residents to oppose the project.
Commissioner Mark Maciel, a developer; Commissioner Lisa Bennett, a realtor, and Mayor John Rees voted in favor of annexing 30 acres of Orange County land into the city, changing its land-use designation and rezoning it for the Tilden Club housing development.
Commissioners Colin Sharman, an air conditioning company executive, and Ron Mueller, a technology specialist, voted against both annexation and altering the land-use designation.
Sharman voted in favor of rezoning after Maciel made a last-minute request to replace a planned PVC fence with an 8-foot sound wall to help block noise coming from three home sites that will eventually abut Crown Pointe Equestrian, owned and operated by Anne Bingler since 1998.
“I’m going to make the assumption that the pictures they’ve shown are real, and the dangers from the existing subdivision [Tilden Place] are real,” Maciel said, referring to photos and testimony, of injured horses and riders shown during the first reading of the ordinances on May 25. "I think we should take that into consideration.”
Representing the developer, Lowdes Law attorney Logan Ophsahl balked at the request, maintaining the project was “as presented today.”
Maciel then made a motion to approve rezoning with the sound wall. That passed 4 to 1 with only Mueller opposed.
High Density Warnings
It was a two-plus hour marathon of attorneys’ arguments and presentations by city representatives in front of a packed commission chamber before commissioners reached that decision.
The city sought to play two sides: advocate for the developer's project, providing expert witnesses, including its own assistant city attorney Daniel Langley — something one attorney described as unusual — and impartial arbiter of the evidence presented before the commission voted on the ordinances.
City also appeared to attempt to discredit Bingler by bringing up an unrelated 2021 Orange County Environmental Protection Division investigation into whether she had filled in wetlands on her property. City Manager Jon Williams described the action as "illegal." Planning Director Kelly Carson suggested the matter was still under review. However, Bingler's attorney, S. Brent Spain, of the Orlando firm Theriaque & Spain, introduced a letter from the EPD before his presentation, which stated the matter was closed and warranted no further action.
According to aerial photos, this area has been used intermittently as pasture since at least 1958, and perhaps even earlier. However, there appear to be some year’s in which the area was not actively utilized and vegetation with a wetland signature appeared. More recently, the area has been actively used and improved to accommodate horses. Due to the apparent historic and intermittent use of this area for agricultural purposes, EPD will not be further pursuing enforcement for this area as an unauthorized wetland impact.
Additionally, a recent review of the Orange County Property Appraiser website and property card for the property indicates that this parcel is zoned for agriculture and currently has a bona-fide agricultural exemption. Therefore, the referenced incident has been administratively closed and no further action is required.
The city’s planning department also staked out an It Could Be Worse stance to sway the commission to approve the ordinances. Carson quoted from Orange County’s comprehensive plan for Horizon West, warning about high housing densities and county housing developments that might be entitled to access city utilities. The assumption was that outside developments could tax the city’s services. Spain countered that in such a situation, the city was entitled to charge 25 percent more for those services.
Carson told the commission that Tilden Place had been conceived as a Horizon West project with 161 homes before the city annexed the property and slashed the number of home sites to 55.
“If I were a developer, and my goal was to maximize my unit counts on that property, this scenario would be a win-win for me,” Carson told the commission.
She added that voting against annexation would not necessarily preserve the area as rural.
“[Orange County’s] long term goal is to transform these properties — including the subject property, including Ms. Bingler’s property — from rural to urban,” she said. “We all know they are keeping true to their vision down there. We’re all familiar with Horizon West. They’re developing tons of residential projects from townhomes and apartments and lots of commercial uses, you name it. They want to go from rural to urban, and by god! They’re doing it!”
Spain did not share that view. “I can assure you [the developer] would be walking into Orange County if they could get more units than they could get from you. Right now in the county, they can get a whopping one dwelling unit per 10 acres.”
He added that Carson’s Tilden Place example was mere speculation. “She has no knowledge of what the Orange County commissioners would or would not do at submittal. Never mind that the county commissioners never even voted on it.”
Bingler has long maintained she does not want her property annexed into Winter Garden because the city — despite its foundation in the citrus trade — has no land use designation today that recognizes her horse farm as an agricultural entity.
A professional show jumping rider who competes at the highest level of the sport, Bingler has opposed the Tilden Club development on the east side of her training facility because she learned, after living with Tilden Place homes to her west, that suburban life is frequently at odds with the requirements of breeding and training elite equine athletes.
Sudden loud noises, a tossed ball, a dog jumping into a paddock can scare horses, causing injuries to the animals and riders. Bingler was thrown to the ground not long ago, she told VoxPopuli. It got spooked by the sound of a ball hitting a backyard PVC fence, “threw me into the air and I landed on my head with my helmet on.” Bingler got a concussion and was unable to compete in several shows at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala.
Still, Carson noted in her presentation that changes had been made to Tilden Club’s plans specifically to accommodate Bingler’s concerns. These included placing three homes next to the training facility, compared with Tilden Place’s 14; forbidding trampolines in those backyards; raising the privacy fence from the standard 6 feet to 8 feet; and planting bamboo along the fence line.
Carson, who did not respond to emailed questions regarding whether she had incorporated a personal site visit to the Bingler facility into her department’s analysis, said she felt “confident” that three homes will not interfere with Bingler’s “reasonable expectation of use and enjoyment” of her property.
Bingler doesn’t quite see it that way.
"We've poured our life savings into redoing the infrastructure [of the training facility], and like some sick joke, now we're getting squeezed out," she said in a recent interview. There's no place on her property to move her training ring to shield the horses from sudden noises nor can she relocate where potential buyers would visit to look over the foals she is breeding from her prize-winning competition horses.
"We looked into it," she said. "We'd have to move so far out, we would be so far away that no one would come to look at what we had to sell. Here, we're centrally located between Ocala, Wellington and Tampa, and we could sell our stock."
She told VoxPopuli she is considering her next steps and “exploring all of my options."