An issue of school portables blocks Horizon West’s free-wheeling development

Amanda Rabines
GrowthSpotter

A dispute over school capacity and portables in Horizon West is panning out to be a cumbersome moment for developers with pending projects.

Over the past couple of years the region has been feeling the squeeze of its own rapid growth and building new schools to relieve existing ones that are packed with students — an act of which Orange County Public Schools is legally obligated to provide.

But when growth outpaces relief programs, like new school construction or portables, agreements given to developers looking to rezone their property or request a Comprehensive Plan Amendment for their projects in the area can be withdrawn, as one was last school board meeting.

Some developers took it as a sign of trouble ahead, Lee Steinhauer, director of government affairs for Greater Orlando Builders Association, said.

“If you weren’t able to get a Capacity Enhancement Agreement (CEA) it would have a huge affect on development,” Steinhauer cautioned. “We’re still trying to learn what we think might be a one-off situation.”

Lauren Roth, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an email the CEAs were withdrawn from the agenda by Orange County’s Public Schools’ Facilities Planning and Office of Legal Services because it “needs to resolve some additional issues before moving forward.”

For one, in order for OCPS to approve a CEA, the board must have a plan for a relief school within the next three years or at least a plan to place portables in the shorter term. Each option proving to be a controversial item in a community adamantly known to fight against new school construction and portables. 

Orange’s newest high school, Windermere High School, opened in 2017 as a relief school for West Orange High School. But according to a recent Orlando Sentinel article, the school is over capacity with enrollment topping 3,300 students on a campus meant for 2,750.

There are currently no portables in the school, but the principal is requesting 19 for the 2019-20 school year. That's seven more portables than the 12 limit allows for. The ask goes before Orange County's Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) next week. After that, it will go before the full board of Orange County commissioners. 

The county is also working on building another school on 68 acres at the southeast corner of State Road 429 and Seidel Road. Construction is planned for 2020, with a move-in date set for August 2022.

Attorney Vivien J. Monaco of Burr & Forman, represents a number of developers active in the area and familiar with the issue at hand.

“I personally think it would be difficult to get it built [on time],” she said. “There’s a whole gamut of rules, regulations and statutes that OCPS has to follow. If it was a private high school then they can likely build it in 2020, but [private high schools] don't have the same constraints.”

In the meantime, projects on vacant land, where commercial zoning hasn't likely been set yet, could be affected, Monaco said. That goes for developers with projects that are seeking Comprehensive Plan Amendments too, like adding additional lots or units.

“A developer that does not have a CEA in Horizon West is going to run into problems,” Monaco said.

Horizon West founder Jim Karr said he has an application in for some of his property in the area, but is still refining plans.

He recently filed a rezoning application for a new Planned Development that would add a combined 700 homes and apartments plus retail uses to the community's Village I.

Horizon West was planned to provide sites for neighborhood schools, he said in an email response. But while there are school sites available to build on, “the funding and timing has not always lined up.”

No CEA agreements could act as a shock for the timelines for proposed developments seeking amendments. For developers, that means potential expensive consequences, Monaco said.

“A delay is always going to be costly because there are developers out there purchasing property with financing and they have to continue to make those payments,” Monaco said. “Somebody can say it’s only a couple of months, but two or three months worth of interest can be pretty substantial.”

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at arabines@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-5427, or tweet me at @amanda_rabines. Follow GrowthSpotter on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

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