The Sanford City Commission work session is not normally the place to see fireworks.

Monday was different.

As the crowd shuffled into the conference room for the 4 p.m. meeting, I could tell something was amiss. Seminole County Manager Nicole Guillet was in attendance. So was County Commission Chairman John Horan.

Soon after the meeting started, Horan’s colleague, County Commissioner Brenda Carey, charged into City Hall as I was talking to Sanford Airport Authority President and CEO Diane Crews outside the meeting room.

“I need to talk with you,” Carey barked. A lump instantly formed in my throat until I realized Carey had her icy stare fixed on Crews.

Two county commissioners, the CEO of the county and the CEO of the airport – WTF?! In 18 years of covering local government I’ve never seen that many Seminole County leaders attend a city work session meeting.

Also attending the meeting was Richard Anderson, for decades the right-hand man to former Apopka mayor John Land and now a politically connected developer, who has land to develop near the airport.

Something was about to go down, even the late, great Ray Charles could see that.

The genesis for this display of Seminole County political firepower? Regular Meeting Agenda item 8E, a very innocuous sounding resolution that proposed “declaring zoning in progress relative to lands immediately surrounding the Orlando Sanford international Airport (OSIA) and lands proximate thereto …”

In reality, though, the resolution was not some boring piece of planning legislation. It would have put an immediate stop to all development around the airport that was not already in the city’s planning process.

Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte wrote in his memo to city commissioners that the reason for the moratorium was so the city, county and airport authority could come up with a planning document and appropriate zoning for future development. Again, it appeared like a reasonable measure, given that the airport authority recently spent $250,000 to determine the highest and best use for the nearly 500 acres it controls.

The devil’s in the details, however.

A close look at the map attached to the resolution showed all of the airport authority’s property was EXCLUDED from the development moratorium. All privately-owned land surrounding the airport would be barred indefinitely from developing. So, too, would Seminole County, which has land it wants to develop next to the sports complex.

Furthermore, zoning-in-progress resolutions typically establish an end date, generally for short periods of time, say six months. The resolution drafted by City Attorney Lonnie Groot included no end date.

In layman’s terms, this was a sneaky AF power play by the airport.

There is a behind-the-scenes race to build a hotel at the airport. The first property owner to open a hotel will have a huge advantage over other land owners with similar plans. Airport authority board members have made it abundantly clear they want to be first.

So much so, apparently, that somebody at the airport is willing to use strong-arm tactics like a building moratorium for private property. How else do you explain that none of the airport-owned land identified as possible hotel sites are included in a moratorium, while all of the potential privately-owned sites are barred indefinitely from developing?

If the moratorium had been approved (the city commission struck it from the agenda), the airport could have had at least a year to start construction of a hotel while private land owners were frozen from moving forward.

City Manager Bonaparte told me he put the resolution on the agenda at the request of airport CEO Crews

“I didn’t see there was a comprehensive plan joining the city, the county and the airport,” Crews told me.

Crews decision to push this resolution is very odd for 3 reasons:

  • First, it’s never been the airport authority’s role to create planning policies for property not controlled by the airport. Those responsibilities belong solely to the city and county.
  • Second, I regularly attend airport authority meetings, and at no time in the last 3 years has the airport authority board directed Crews to ask Sanford City Commission to adopt a moratorium, nor have members indicated they want to enter into a tri-party building moratorium with the city and the county. Just the opposite, board members repeatedly talk about how the airport is a major economic development engine for Seminole County. Moratoriums are at cross purposes with economic development.
  • Third, the city commission has not previously discussed a building moratorium around the airport. Neither has the county commission. And there’s certainly been no discussion by either commission about allowing the airport authority take the lead on creating planning policy on non-airport land.

“This public document (Bonaparte’s memo) that’s floating around out there that the mayor and city manager have been meeting with the county and the airport is absolutely not correct,” Carey forcefully declared during the work session. “We have had one meeting, back in June, to talk about design standards, not to talk about planning around the airport.”

Crews said the airport will back off its request and take a more deliberative approach.

“We’ve work long and hard to maintain a good relationship with all property owners around the airport,” Crews said. “We’re now looking at taking our time, working with the city to see how we can include all the property owners in this process.”

Good luck with that. Property owners are understandably leery of the airport’s intentions. So too are city and county leaders.

It would seem Crews made this decision on her own, but I doubt it. It’s not really her style. I have my ideas about folks that were involved in these shenanigans, but I can’t prove it, so I’ll keep my lip zipped. Suffice to say, there were some outside-the-sunshine conversations happening because Crews clearly felt she had backup from her board or others in order to make such a bold request.

In addition, it looks like Bonaparte got played for a fool by the airport. He was fully aware the city commission had not previously talked about a moratorium, so why would he put a resolution on the agenda expecting a vote solely based on Crews’ request?

Ultimately, the Sanford City Commission pulled the moratorium from the agenda. Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett said he was “shocked” to see the moratorium request, and made clear he would not entertain a similar request by the airport in the future. Commissioner Art Woodruff assured Carey, “We’re not tabling (the resolution) for it to come back, we’re removing it.”

This resolution came out of the blue. It should stay there.

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