Sweeping changes help to clean up Ian’s mess

Editor’s note: This story includes quoted profanity.

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, the Winter Springs City Commission moved swiftly to pass four new changes to city code and ordinances on Monday night to reduce flood damage and help hurricane-affected residents.

“The buildback continues,” Winter Springs Mayor Kevin McCann said.

At the first regular City Commission meeting since the hurricane, a storm described by experts and city staff as a once-in-500-to-1,000-year event, resident after resident spoke about how they were affected by the hurricane, including reported torrents of water that swept into homes in the city.

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Resident Andrew Hood spoke about the large amount of septic systems in the city that cause issues both with and without stormwater influence.

“We have a lot of septic seeming to be focused right near those tributaries flowing toward Lake Jesup and we wonder why Lake Jesup’s having problems,” he said. “So this is within the city’s abilities to fix the septic tank problems. A lot of things are a county or state problem with Jesup, but this is literally our shit.”

Resident Mike Reynolds pointed to mistakes made a decade or more in the city’s past that led to residents skirting laws and causing drainage issues.

“A lot of this stuff could be mitigated by enforcing the law that we have on the books,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Brandon Morrisey asked if Gee Creek could be dredged or otherwise changed to improve flow and reduce flooding, a process which City Manager Shawn Boyle said the city is already involved in and that requires state and federal approval.

Others asked about removing debris in the city’s many gated neighborhoods, which Deputy Mayor Kevin Cannon said the city will already be handling, even if the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t end up reimbursing the city for it.

“Just because you live in a gated community doesn’t mean that hurricane debris should not be retrieved from your property, and if FEMA will reimburse, fine, and if they won’t, so be it,” City Commissioner Rob Elliott added. “We’re a community and that’s what we do. We help out all of our residents, regardless.”

The first of the changes to pass called for revising the city’s emergency preparedness plan to include more powerful storms The typical storm that cities do stormwater management for is a 25-year storm in a 24-hour period, Boyle said. The new plans would exceed that. But there would be a limit, he added.

“There’s not a system designed today anywhere in this country that will handle a 500- to 1,000-year event,” Boyle said. “They don’t design things for that. And let’s hope we never see another one.”

The second change was to the city code, which currently restricts recreational vehicles from being parked in front of homes.

“Back in 2004-2005 I worked in the insurance industry and a lot of people were out of their homes, and if you know anything about insurance, there’s a coverage that pays for you to live somewhere else, which sounds like a good deal,” Elliott said. “The problem was back then that the closest hotels were about 150 miles away because Duke Energy and the insurance companies and FEMA had already reserved all the rooms, so there was nowhere to stay.”

The new code will allow residents displaced from their homes by storm damage to park an RV in front to live out of for up to 6 months.

“This will help them stay in a normal routine where the kids get to attend local schools,” Boyle said.

The third change was to authorize up to $400,000 to Middlesex Paving, piggybacking off a contract already in place with Seminole County, to rebuild Winter Springs Boulevard between Tuskawilla Road and Northern Way. The road was flooded with water and debris during Hurricane Ian and is expected to have its condition worsen over the coming weeks as water tables drop and the damage to the road is more apparent.

“One time you get that inundated, it’s toast. It’s gone,” Cannon said of the road base under Winter Springs Boulevard. Engineers said they expected the water table to drop within three weeks, giving the city a better idea of how bad the road was damaged by stormwater.

The fourth change was also possibly the most contentious, as staff and commissioners debated whether the city should consult with the county or St. Johns River Water Management District before imposing a moratorium on “any areas that require the design concept for drainage systems for proposed developments that need to be approved.”

Cannon said he’d rather the city solicit guidance from county or St. Johns River Water Management District staff rather than opening a workshop or roundtable discussion with other government entities about Winter Springs’ business.

“I absolutely will not be in favor of ‘workshopping this’ with St. Johns or the county, because they’re going to say ‘Golly gee, we’re so busy, we’ll get around to it maybe 2024,’” Cannon said. “No, these are our construction design criteria. The St. Johns executive director said a week ago that jurisdictions are free to adopt more restrictive criteria than the 25/24. That’s what they told us a week ago, and other jurisdictions have done that.”

The moratorium would be in place while the city analyzes why some areas flooded and what can be done to prevent it in the future. Cannon said that the moratorium could be lifted after the city is finished fact-finding and developing mitigation plans.

“The beautiful thing about a moratorium … if we go through this process in 60 days, what do we do? We lift the moratorium,” he said.

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