Residents are pushing to be included in the city. They just need Orange County to pay attention.
Approximately 600 residents call Tildenville — the tiny community around the corner from SunRidge Elementary and Middle Schools and across Avalon Road from where Winter Garden is developing Tucker Ranch Recreation and Nature Center — home. And if some residents get their wish, this historic Black community could become the next neighborhood to be annexed from Orange County into Winter Garden.
Originally known as “South Apopka,” Tildenville, traces its beginnings to the citrus industry when New York state farmer Luther Fuller Tilden purchased the parcels of land southwest of Winter Garden that eventually became home to the Black field workers who worked in the citrus groves and fruit processing plants and the domestics who worked in the white homes around Lake Apopka.
Talk of Tildenville’s annexation gained attention in July when resident Deloris Riggins and Winter Garden District 2 City Commissioner Ron Mueller spoke to FOX 35 and WESH 2 News about the issue. Riggins, president of the Tildenville Safe Neighborhood Association, told reporters the community has been put on the “back burner” and would need a “green light” from both the city and county to move forward.
Winter Garden has long been interested in bringing Tildenville into the fold, at one point even surveying residents there in the 1980s to gauge interest in annexation. The residents roundly rejected the idea, preferring to maintain their independence. But in 2006 city officials were still thinking about Tildenville. A former city planner told the Orlando Sentinel, the city would consider annexation if the residents were on board.
Tildenville wouldn’t be the first community annexed into Winter Garden. Just last year the remaining 60-plus East Winter Garden homes that were still in pockets of Orange County were annexed into the city. When asked about any similarities between the two areas, Mueller said while the paths of both are similar, the difference lies in their identities.
“What’s different is that the eastern part of Winter Garden was always part of Winter Garden even though it's part of the county, and Tildenville has its own sense of individuality, its own sense of pride,” Mueller said.
While District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel notes that past efforts "haven't worked out,"
Mueller, an outspoken supporter of the annexation, said “the city is receptive.” He said it makes sense for the community to be represented by a government that’s “less than two miles down the road” and for residents to have access to public services, something Bettie Clay, who’s lived in Tildenville for 52 years, said the neighborhood urgently needs.
“When you call the police, if you call, you might have to wait an hour,” she said. “My neighbor’s house got shot up by a drive-by shooting one day, and it took an hour and a half before the police got out here.”
Clay, vice president of the Tildenville Safe Neighborhood Association, said improved access to public services is also needed for the support of the community’s younger residents.
“We don’t got something for them to do out here,” Clay said. “But if we had more of a recreation center, with tutors out there to help them with their homework and everything, I believe we could keep the kids out of trouble and help the kids to get a good education.”
While Winter Garden youth recreation programs are available and close by, Clay said Tildenville’s children have to pay more to participate because they’re not city residents. For example, the school holiday camp at the Jessie Brock Community Center charges $24 a day for residents and $30 a day for nonresidents.
Clay hopes other community members see what the annexation could potentially do for the neighborhood but said gathering support can be challenging, especially without ready meeting facilities.
“We’ve been passing out flyers and asking people to come to my house for a meeting because we don’t have a meeting place to meet for the community unless we meet in the park,” Clay said. She added they’ve tried using churches and have even asked the county for a trailer to serve as a recreation building, but have been unsuccessful.
Despite his support, Tildenville is not Mueller’s purview but that of Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson.
Wilson told VoxPopuli in July that she was annoyed that Mueller talked to the media about annexation, saying that doing so undermined the work her office had done in the neighborhood.
After agreeing to speak with a reporter, Wilson did not respond to multiple followup requests for comment. Wilson’s communications aide, Andrew Dietzen, emailed a statement:
“Our office has been facilitating discussions about the possible annexation of Tildenville for some time. Ultimately, we want Tildenville's residents to be able to decide whether it's a move that makes the most sense for the community. This means maintaining a dialogue and providing key information to residents, which we look forward to continuing to do.”
Clay isn’t buying it. She said that while there have been some discussions with the county, not much real action has been taken. She believes it would be easier to rally resident support if Orange County offered a more direct statement supporting annexation. But for now, she added, there doesn’t seem to be much care for her small community.
“They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk,” Clay said. “They seem like they agree with you when you’re having a meeting with them just to shut you up. The county’s not getting enough taxes out of Tildenville to even really worry about Tildenville.”
So, what's next for this small community?
“The ball’s really in [the residents’] court” to inform the county they want their neighborhood to be annexed into the city, Mueller told VoxPopuli. Mueller also called on Orange County officials to “step up” to help residents find the space they need for community meetings and to help raise awareness about what annexation entails.
But there’s an order to how these legal things get done. City Manager Jon Williams told VoxPopuli that Winter Garden would “work with the county just like we did with the East Winter Garden annexation” but the city has not yet received a formal application to annex. “There’s been nothing. There's been no progress made in that department,” he said.
And there’s no clear indication that the county plans to introduce a motion for annexation anytime soon. But if and when that occurs, it's the community’s residents who will drive the decision.
“The annexation of Tildenville into Winter Garden needs to be under Tildenville’s terms,” Mueller said. “It’s their sense of community, it’s their sense of pride. It’s been their community longer than Winter Garden itself has been around.”