Developers cry foul over St. Cloud utility agreement demands

A handful of Osceola County developers are pushing back against the city of St. Cloud for what they say are unreasonable demands from the city's utility department that are driving up the cost of new home construction.

At issue is a growing list of conditions the city's utility department is placing on developers for projects in unincorporated Osceola County. The city routinely asks for larger lot sizes, larger homes, wider streets, larger setbacks and more expensive amenities.

Osceola County Planning Director Kerry Godwin said the two municipalities have been meeting and working together to implement common development standards. 

"They went ahead of us in some things," Godwin said on Tuesday. "I'm not sure we're going to pursue things the same way they did."

Keewin Real Property Company, currently a partner on a planned 313-lot subdivision on Jones Road, has applied for Preliminary Subdivision Plan (PSP) from Osceola County. President Steven Rosser told GrowthSpotter the city wants to add multiple conditions that exceed the standards in the county's Land Development Code.

For example, the conditions would include a 25-foot setback for the garage -- the county requires 20 feet. The city also wants 60-foot lots, even though the county's LDC allows 40-foot lots in Low Density Residential zoning districts.

"They're really not shy about it,"  Rosser said. "They're wanting these things even when you're not able to annex. It's very unusual."

Osceola County's LDC requires four parking spaces for single-family detached homes (two in the garage and two in the driveway) with four or fewer bedrooms. St. Cloud is requiring 4.5 spaces, regardless of the number of bedrooms.

Another proposed condition is a minimum home size of 1,800 square feet. There is no language in Osceola County's LDC that sets a minimum size for single-family homes.

"What it does is it makes it less affordable for the home buyers," Rosser said. "St. Cloud wants to drive the prices up. They tried to make us do larger lots. It’s coming from the city council."

He said he's working with the city and has agreed to the conditions. 

"Luckily, we're able to deal with it," he said. "Our builder is OK with the changes."

St. Cloud officials declined to speak to GrowthSpotter or to answer questions about the city policy. 

The city and county have a Joint Planning Agreement (JPA) for areas served by city utilities. The developer must agree to be annexed into the city at a future date to receive water and sewer service. In some cases, those annexations could be years away or may never take place.

Randy Wright, owner of Wrights Excavating Inc., said the city tried to place similar conditions on him for 76-lot subdivision on Alligator Lake Road last year. 

"It's ridiculous," he said. "They want to control stuff outside their realm. I told them to get their own house in order before they tell me what to do." 

Wright's project is a quarter mile from the city limits, and he was willing to pay to extend the water and sewer lines to his property. He said St. Cloud Utilities tried to get him to agree to expand the lot width from 50 feet to 60 feet. The department also wanted a 25-foot front yard setback, more parking and a 30-foot-wide road. The county standard for residential streets is 24 feet.

"They wanted 4.5 parking spaces," Wright said. "We agreed to move the garages back. The crazy thing about it is these aren’t upper-end homes – they’re working man homes, and I don’t know too many working men who have more than four cars."

Wright said he refused to agree to the other conditions. 

"They were overstepping," he said. "It would have cost me another $300,000 to do the improvements they asked for. Plus, if I had agreed to the larger lot size, I would have lost eight or 10 lots. The difference between me and other developers is I don’t care if I develop it or not. I’ll sell it. I’m a stubborn old fart."

Wright is the exception. Rosser said he and other developers working in the JPA area have mostly acquiesced. 

"It’s clearly not legal," he said. "But if you challenge it, it would slow you down for months, and we want to get our project moving now."

Greater Orlando Builders Association spokesman Raleigh Steinhauer said the city is showing a disturbing pattern, and if it persists GOBA may take legal action.

"If it's a one-off situation, we usually don't get involved," Steinhauer said. "But this is affecting numerous members of our association. They don't want to take this battle on themselves and risk the political blowback. As an association, we can give them a layer of protection."

One developer, who asked not to be named because he has a case pending before the city, said the utility department is placing similar conditions on his project.

His proposed utility agreement includes conditions setting the minimum home size at 1,500 square feet. It also requires that the developer agree to place language in the HOA documents that prohibit the builder from building the same model home next to or across from each other.

And it requires that he build a community pool and cabana, as well as passive recreational amenities, such as park benches and picnic tables.

Godwin said the city and county are both trying to set minimum standards that will attract high-quality development, but they're going about it in different ways. 

"We're looking for developers to be creative and take advantage of things," he said. 

So, for example, while St. Cloud is pushing developers to build 60-foot lots in LDR zones, the county is considering reducing it's minimum width to 32 feet. 

"When you talk about lot width, we're really more concerned with how you treat garages -- especially two-car garages," he said.

The county has not, and will not, establish a minimum home size in LDR zoning. "From my standpoint, and this is personal, I don't think more square footage translates to high-quality development," Godwin said. "They're trying to set a minimum price for a house. We want the developer to add high-quality finishes and street trees and parks -- the kinds of things that add value to the community."  

Developer Bill Canty, who is in permitting for a 645-lot subdivision on Jones Road, said he doesn't have an issue with the city or the utility agreement, and he believes most of the city's requests have been reasonable.

"I am not aware that they have enforced any minimum lot sizes," Canty said. "We've discussed lot sizes, but I would consider those comments to be exploratory. My experience with St. Cloud is that we try to listen to each other, work together, and things usually work out."

Editors Note: This story was updated on Aug. 9 to correct the status of Keewin's PSP application with Osceola County and to clarify the company's position on requested conditions.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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