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Pine Hills Liquor Store Zoning Hearing

By Kassandra M. Santiago

A handful of residents came out to the Orange County zoning hearing on Thursday, August 3, 2023, to oppose opening a liquor store, potentially becoming the 15th liquor store within Pine Hills as of 2023.

While the group waited in the lobby for the proceedings to begin, many anxieties were voiced by residents, from the fear of illegal loitering adjacent to nearby homes to the potential of increased reckless behavior on the roads to just the general integrity of the community.

I spoke to the owner of Bubbles Laundry at 6320 Clarcona Ocoee Rd. (under NorthStar Powers, LLC) in the retail shopping lot in 2022 when it first opened. He was friendly and interested in talking to everyone who came in. The laundromat has modern washing and drying machines and a mini store selling soap and dryer sheets. The new laundry center is a clean and monitored space, something not always available in Pine Hills. The owner also showed us the soon-to-be-open Vape Shop, featuring an incredible mural by a local Florida artist. He seemed genuinely interested in creating a plaza with convenient amenities for the community within walking distance. However, the issue lies within the zoning permissions and the proposed liquor store they want to open next door to the Vape Shop.

This zoning hearing would be the third appeal for NorthStar Powers, LLC in the last three years, yet the large red "Liquor Store" sign has yet to come down. The issue is that the proposed liquor store is violating the required feet away from a religious institution, The Fellowship Baptist Church, located at 6225 Clarcona Ocoee Rd. NorthStar Powers LLC. was made aware of the distance needed before breaking ground on the retail shopping lot.

The County does state that the path an "ordinary pedestrian" would take would be how the "shortest path" would be measured. Unfortunately, it seems both routes being debated by NorthStarPowers, LLC and Orange County do not comply with ADA compliances or general safety precautions and would be dangerous for disabled individuals to utilize. One commenter mentioned, "The driveway to the church isn't safe for even the able-bodied and shouldn't be considered a realistic option for a path." The County also walked through the church property and decided that the most logical, walkable, and shortest path would be to cut through the grass for an "ordinary pedestrian." The Commission sided with the County on its findings that the liquor store is within 1,000 feet (about 857 feet) from Fellowship Baptist Church, ultimately denying their appeal.

It is essential to note that residents are not against progress and new businesses in their community. We cannot ask developers to see us as "Prime Hills" for our prime real estate opportunities and nitpick what options come our way.

Community meetings and agreements with developers and business owners could be key in finding a balance between residents and savvy business owners to ensure they build more of what we need versus what we don't. Making more intentional requests when asking for economic development within our boundaries is vital. Some have proposed alternative options that would align with the neighborhood's needs. After the hearing, Fidel Gomez Jr., a Pine Hills Safe Neighborhood board member, stated, "We want nice and well-maintained businesses as they have in Winter Park, College Park, or the more affluent neighborhoods." "When I think of what Pine Hill's needs, a liquor store is not on that list." Residents have suggested inviting businesses focusing on healthier food options, cafes, or community services, which would complement and enhance the community rather than disrupt it. Neighbors and community leaders shared their thoughts on the proposed business. Deborah Carwise, a Caroline Estates homeowner of 30 years, stated in her public comment, "This is a business decision for this gentleman, but this is a matter of livelihood for us."

I am proud to have seen so many new residents take time out of their day to participate in their community's development. As the opposition to the proposed liquor store continues to grow, it is evident that the residents of Pine Hills hold a deep sense of responsibility for their community's well-being and future. Community members play a vital role in shaping the trajectory of their neighborhoods. Those interested in building in Pine Hills should remember to treat it like it was their neighborhood too. As Christine Norwood, a Lake Hills HOA board member, stated in her public comment, "I am certain that he would not put a (liquor) store like that in his community."

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