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Historic Sydonie Mansion could end tours because of costly requests

The Sydonie Mansion is pictured in Zellwood.
The Sydonie Mansion is pictured in Zellwood.(Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel)

The­ historic Sydonie Mansion near Zellwood might have to end public tours permanently if owners do not convince county and fire department leaders for leeway in fees and the number of people that can be in the 116-year-old building.

Owner Amy Colyer-Frogley says the problem started shortly after she took ownership of the property in 2014 and rezoned it from residential to commercial.

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With that rezoning came new requirements related to capacity, fire codes and inspections.

“I thought they’d say, ‘Thank you for rescuing this building and we want to work with you,’” said Colyer-Frogley, who estimates she has already poured more than $1 million into the site. “That’s not at all what I got.”

Instead, she has faced stop-work orders, impact fee bills of more than $91,000 and occupancy limits that she says would severely hamstring her ability to operate tours.

The courtyard of Sydonie Mansion in Mount Dora.
The courtyard of Sydonie Mansion in Mount Dora.(photo provided)

A spokesman for Orange County Commissioner Christine Moore, whose district includes Sydonie, said the rezoning led to the impact fees.

Colyer-Frogley has appealed the transportation impact fees and county officials expect to reassess the building to see how much of the site should be included in the calculation.

“The staff that works impact fees will see if there is any flexibility to reassess or lower the fees,” the spokesman said. “She believes that because she is being assessed impact fees that her capacity should be bigger but impact fees are not related to capacity.”

An estimate in a 97-page inspection report filed by Orange County said that a fire sprinkler system could be installed for $244,000. As of now, the building is not compliant with sprinkler requirements in the building code, the report says.

Colyer-Frogley estimates that it would cost her $600,000 to update the systems.

The fire marshal oversees safety hardware and occupancy limits on a commercial property.

The committee on Wednesday denied a request to waive impact fees in a voluntary agreement with Colyer-Frogley that she says should get her in front of county officials within eight weeks.

Orange County Planning Administrator Eric Raasch referred phone calls to building official Shane Gerwig, who did not immediately return a phone call Thursday.

Even if she gets the fees waived, there is still the matter of trying to resume walking tours that the venue has hosted for years.

Colyer-Frogley sought formal occupancy permits so she could boost marketing on the historic site.

But once she made it past the zoning board, fire officials slowed the process down, listing several requirements that would need to be completed before the site could receive permits. These included the hiring of an architect and engineer to coordinate upgrades, which she did.

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In addition, she would need costly fire suppression installations and a fire alarm rather than a standard sprinkler system.

Without upgrades to the sprinklers, the site would have a limit of 12 guests and a guide for tours, with a two-tour limit at a time, meaning the maximum would be 26 people.

“The math doesn’t work,” she said. “It would be financial suicide to spend that much.”

Sydonie Mansion is set on a 10.7-acre property just north of Lake Minore in far northwest Orange County.

Last year, it hosted 46 outdoor weddings in its picturesque garden. The venue has hosted weddings for decades.

A mansion built in 1904 by a steel magnate was bought by a NY couple in 2014 for $1.5 million, who plan to turn it into living museum.

But since 2014, when Colyer-Frogley took over, its guided tour traffic has screeched to a halt.

She says she should have hired a lawyer when she first sought permits and discovered that the cost of a fire alarm and site upgrades to accommodate it alone would be about $160,000.

“It’s been nuts,” she said, noting that some historic mansions in Lake and Volusia counties have different requirements. “We are not being held to the same standards as other historical structures in the state of Florida.”

Historic home tours can be an extremely lucrative business in Florida, especially if they can accommodate tour buses. The Stetson Mansion in DeLand, for example, welcomes about 13,000 visitors per year.

Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales is another popular tourist attraction. Adding a home tour of the historic Pinewood Estate raises the adult admission price from $15 to $22 per person. The popular Holiday Home Tour has been reported to draw 15,000 visitors per year.

Got a news tip? msantana@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5256; Twitter, @marcosantana

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