After several years of contentious attempts by Orange County Public Schools to find locations for new schools, the Orange County Board of Commissioners approved a new set of rules Tuesday that were worked out in cooperation with the school board.
The rules reduce the minimum acreage necessary for new schools, providing more flexibility for the school board, and revises height maximums for the schools, while also putting more emphasis on making sure the locations more accommodating for walkers, bikers and traffic.
The ordinance, approved 6-0 Tuesday by the commissioners, also bans new schools in communities the county has designated as “rural settlements,” seeking to assure such communities are not overrun by traffic.
The Orange County Board of Education and county planners have been working on the new measures for a couple of years, after the school board’s last couple of attempts to locate high schools in far east and far west Orange County drew fierce opposition, including opposition from the county.
The two governmental entities have had mutual agreements and county ordinances to work with since 1996, but steady growth left much of the previous accord out of date.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs praised the cooperative relationship and the new accord while at the same time acknowledging, to on of the school board officials, “We’ve come a long way.”
“The approval of the new school siting ordinance represents our continued, long-standing cooperative relationship with Orange County Public Schools,” Jacobs said in a statement issued by her office after the vote. “We work hard to ensure that our schools have adequate capacity before development occurs. This ordinance is integral to making sure this happens.”
Orange County Public schools echoed the sentiment in the release.
“This new, improved school siting ordinance will help us avoid future conflicts over neighborhood schools for our children and will allow us to better accommodate the explosive growth our county is experiencing,” stated School Board Chairman Bill Sublette. “The new ordinance will strengthen the school board’s partnership with the county and will improve communications. By allowing us to build the schools best suited to an increasingly urbanized county we will be able to preserve the integrity of our neighborhoods and protect the safety of our community’s most prized asset, our children.”
The rules still may have fallen just short of hopes of some of the critics of how the school board and the county had previously dealt with the siting of new schools. Ricardo Cumberbatch of the West Windermere Rural Settlement had fought against placement of Windermere High School in that area, and argued that it wasn’t just a problem with a school, but a big school, inconsistent with the otherwise largely-rural lifestyle of the area. He expressed disappointment that the ban did not come four years earlier, but also suggested that the character of the schools should be consistent with the character of the communities.
“I was hoping we’d see some sort of size limitation, some sort of how it looks, how it feels, how it fits in the community” Cumberbatch said.
The walking and biking aspects of the new rules are more guidelines than rules, contingent on traffic studies that now are required. Another potential incentive for walking and biking came with a revised rule that no longer requires schools to be built on major artery streets, provided there are multiple points of access.
That left Amanda Day, executive director of Bike/Walk Central Florida, applauding the overall effort but ruing that more could have been done, had the county given the school board more flexibility in finding locations.
“We hear a lot that high school kids, they want to drive to school, they don’t want to bike or walk. A lot of that has to do with the way we design our roads as well as our schools,” Day said. “What about the future of looking at other ways of looking at other ways to promote biking and walking and putting high schools and schools in neighborhoods? If they build it, they will come.”