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New Orange County School Siting Ordinance Passes to Make Future Schools Bike/Walk Friendly

Orange County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve new a school siting ordinance in cooperation with Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). The new rules allow for greater flexibility in where future public schools can be located by dropping minimum acreage requirements and not requiring sites to be built on high-traffic roads. Commissioners responded to several years of advocacy by OCPS, Bike/Walk Central Florida and other advocates seeking more neighborhood-oriented, safer school sites.

Bike/Walk Central Florida has coordinated with partners at Orange County and OCPS by providing analysis of and recommendations for the ordinance.  “Our goal was to get children off our most deadly roads,” said Rick Geller, BWCF board member who championed the school siting recommendation report on behalf of the BWCF board. (Read Rick Geller’s Guest Column  For Kids’ Safety, Stop Isolating Schools from Neighborhoods printed in the Orlando Sentinel on March 24, 2017.)

This year’s class of 2017 wasn’t even conceived when the ordinance was last updated in 1996! With the new school siting ordinance, OCPS will be able to choose better, more walkable sites for new schools.

Read more about the new ordinances in the Orlando Sentinel article below.

Orange OKs smaller campuses for new schools
by Annie Martin and Steven Lemongello

Ending a long battle with school leaders, Orange County officials agreed Tuesday to loosen restrictions on future schools and allow the district to build campuses on smaller sites.

The county and school district have debated the rules for years, with tensions flaring as school leaders searched for appropriate sites for relief schools in the rapidly growing east and west sides of the county.

The new rules call for the minimum campus size to drop from 15 acres to 7 to 11 acres for elementary schools; from 25 acres to 12 to 16 acres for middle and K-8 schools; and from 65 acres to 40 to 50 acres for high schools. The exact requirement will depend on the campus size and location.

The Orange County Commission unanimously approved the changes at its Tuesday meeting.

“We’ve come a long way,” Mayor Teresa Jacobs said of the agreement with the Orange County School Board. “Thank goodness, we’re back where we belong.”

The old rules were “a relic from a bygone era,” when the county was more rural, said Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette.

The changes should give the fast-growing district, which added about 6,000 students this year, more flexibility in choosing school sites.

“It was truly a heavy lift,” Sublette said after the commission’s vote. “It’s a significant change … that will help us to keep up with growth.”

One of the biggest battles over school locations was over a high school being built in the West Windermere rural settlement, a designation meant to keep development to a minimum.

Three lawsuits were filed by nearby residents over the 350,000-square-foot Windermere High School, designed for 2,776 students and being built near Ficquette Road and County Road 535. The school, scheduled to open this year, is meant to relieve crowded West Orange High.

The plaintiffs eventually dismissed the suits after the commission added some conditions, including an off-site stadium.

Now, according to the new rules, high schools can’t be built in rural settlement areas.

“I would have hoped this resolution would have occurred maybe four years ago, so we wouldn’t have to go through with the Windermere High School debacle,” Ricardo Cumberbatch, a leader of the group opposed to the high school, told the commission Tuesday.

He still had some reservations about the agreement, adding that “commissioners change, boards change, and this can come back and change. … Hopefully, we, as a community, will continue to be vigilant and continue to hold everyone accountable.

The new rules should help the district choose the best sites for new schools, especially in residential neighborhoods, said school board member Pam Gould, who represents southwest Orange.

“We’re urbanizing as a county,” she said. “It’s not the big, sprawling space that it was 20 years ago or 30 years ago.”

On the east side of the county, the district paid $1.1 million in 2015 so it could increase the size of a site for a relief school for Avalon Middle to 28 acres. Many neighbors supported the new school on a 17-acre site, but county commissioners initially turned it down, partly because the old rules called for a middle school campus to have at least 25 acres.

All public schools — both traditional and charter — in unincorporated areas will be covered by the new rules.

In addition to loosening the size requirements, the new rules also call for the district to connect new campuses to existing sidewalks in residential areas.

The county and school district will have a ceremonial signing of the new ordinance Wednesday.

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