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Gary Siplin pushes opposition to land trust housing deal in Orlando

Gary Siplin faces Bakari Burns in next week’s runoff election for Orlando City Council

Orlando City Council candidate Gary Siplin is placing his opposition to a controversial land trust-based housing deal in District 6 front and center for his campaign to win the Dec. 3 runoff election next week.

Siplin was joined Tuesday by Washington Shores community activists, including The Westside Alliance President Stella Lewis, vowing to fight against the proposed deal, in City Hall and in court if necessary, to have a community land trust control property for new housing along Orange Center Boulevard on the city’s southwest side.

Their opposition is to a housing development proposal that has been opposed by incumbent Orlando District 6 City Commissioner Sam Ings but was approved in May by the broader City Council with Mayor Buddy Dyer’s support. The plan is for the city to buy up about 5 acres of vacant property and sell it to a community land trust, which then would lease surface space to people to build townhouses.

The idea was pushed as a creative approach to providing new, yet affordable, housing in a struggling Washington Shores community. It has been tried in suburban Winter Park through the same not-for-profit land trust company, Hannibal Square Community Land Trust. But community leaders, joined by Ings and now by Siplin, strongly oppose, charging that it is not the kind of housing the community needs or wants, with the land itself remaining under the ownership of out of town interests.

“The people who buy a house through this land trust will not own the land, will not have the dirt to sell, if something happens to the construction. That is why we are here today, to make sure that when you sell land, sell property, here in this district, that the owner can own both the building and the land,” Siplin said. “You all remember that when the slave owners freed the slaves, they gave a promise of 40 acres and a mule. All right? Today they’re trying to sell us 40 pieces of lumber and no mule. We’re going to fight this tooth and nail.”

Orlando set aside $1.3 million to buy the property. Lewis and Siplin said they want to see the city buy the land, but then provide it to people who build there, rather than place it in a land trust They also urged the city to reconsider allowing townhouses on the property, which fronts Orange Center Boulevard for several blocks, and insist on single-family houses like those found in most of the Washington Shores community.

Siplin, a former state Senator, faces fellow Democratic health care executive Bakari Burns in the Dec. 3 runoff election. In the first election, Nov. 5, Burns finished first and Siplin second. Activist Lawanna Gelzer, who finished third, joined Siplin and Lewis at Tuesday’s news conference.

Burns maintains that since the land trust deal is already approved, what needs to be done is making sure the trust is held accountable for affordable housing and protections for homeowners. He proposed someone from District 6 should be given a chair on the trust’s board. He called Siplin’s rhetoric misleading, and a tactic to incite fear in the community as an opportunity to get votes.

“It’s already approved. What we need to do with District 6 is we need to be at the table with the land trust,” Burns said.

Siplin, Lewis and lawyer Andrew Lannon of Bogin Munns & Munns said Tuesday they were not waiting for the next city commissioner to be seated to pursue opposition. They want the project stopped for reconsideration now, and Lannon said he would file suit to stop it if Dyer and the City Council did not.

Lannon charged the deal is bad for residents of the district because it was an incompatible merging of affordable housing and economic development goals and objectives.

Lewis, Siplin, Lannon and others plan a town hall meeting for the community Tuesday evening, starting at 7 p.m., at the nearby  Dr. James R. Smith Neighborhood Center in Orlando.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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