DeBary Considering a CRA
Seven years ago, DeBary rebelled at the idea of labeling part of the city as “blighted” to qualify for a special taxing program. Back then, objectors knocked the proposal to form a Community Redevelopment Agency out of the water.
Now, the possibility has come up again.
This time, the proposal comes from DeBary’s Economic Development Advisory Committee. Chairman Sid Vih-len went over the basics with the City Council during their Dec. 7 meeting.
Community Redevelopment Agencies, or CRAs, divert tax dollars for use in a designated district where improvements are needed. A property-value baseline is established, and when values rise above that, property taxes collected on the increase — including county taxes, hospital-authority taxes and city taxes — go into the CRA fund, to pay for more improvements in the designated district.
To start the process in DeBary, the City Council would have to formally identify blighted conditions within a targeted area, then set up a CRA board to oversee the agency’s budget.
The County Council would also have to grant its permission. When CRAs became popular several years ago and began to proliferate, the County Council took control and now oversees all CRAs in Volusia County.
Although the long-term hope is that a CRA will ultimately cause property values to rise permanently in a way they would not have without the improvements, the County Council was concerned that the diversion of tax revenue could eventually hurt county government if too many CRAs were formed.
Vihlen pointed out that the improvements in the downtown business districts of DeLand, Sanford, Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach were all accomplished through CRAs. In all those cities, the process started by labeling those central business districts as “blighted.”
Therein lay the rub when the matter came up last time. Neighborhoods just off U.S. Highway 17-92 near Highbanks Road and near the Community Center would have been declared “blighted.”
With visions of their tidy homes declared blighted and condemned by the city to make way for development, residents brought that City Council discussion to a halt. It was the CRA proposal that stirred Norm Erickson and Lenny Marks to become City Council watchdogs, to form DeBarypop.com online, and to run for City Council. The two men each served 2007-10.
This time, Vihlen said, if the city wants to proceed, the redevelopment area could focus just on the U.S. Highway 17-92 strip running through the heart of town, not including the homes on side streets.
“It’s not pleasant; it’s not scenic,” Vihlen said. “A lot of improvement could and should be considered.”
A number of buildings along the highway date back to the 1950s and ’60s, and have had little care in recent years. Some are empty.
Vihlen noted that nine cities in Volusia County have CRAs, and have taken in more than $60 million without extra cost to their local taxpayers.
Mayor Bob Garcia said increasing parking for businesses on Highway 17-92 may involve properties on streets behind the highway, incurring the wrath of residents.
Vihlen said he is familiar with the former controversy.
“Our only interest is the commercial corridor,” he said, adding, otherwise, there would be a war.
Garcia and City Council Member Chris Carson said the south side of town needs “TLC,” as Carson put it. They suggested the focus of redevelopment be around the SunRail station at Fort Florida Road and U.S. 17-92.
Council Member Dan Hunt said his house was one prospectively labeled “blighted” back in 2004.
“I had it in my head they were going to take my house and pay me pennies on the dollar,” Hunt said.
Later, he talked with Carmen Rosamonda, who was mayor at the time, and came to understand the city had had no such intention, Hunt said.
Now, Hunt said, a CRA might be the right strategy to improve DeBary’s business core, as long as people’s property isn’t taken.
“We do need to clean up this area,” Hunt said.
Vice Mayor Jack Lenzen agreed. Some funds may be needed for stormwater infrastructure along 17-92 as well, he noted.
Council Member Nick Koval said the Economic Development Committee should also look into Community Development Block Grants.
These grants are funded through the U.S. Deptartment of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and provide money for housing, a suitable living environment, and the expansion of economic opportunities; some grants are designated for small cities.
“Cover all the bases,” Koval recommended.
“That’s what we’re doing,” Vihlen said.
The council voted unanimously for the committee to continue to explore CRA funding “and any other mechanism available to us,” according to Hunt’s motion.
Former Council Member Erickson attended the Dec. 7 meeting.
A CRA lasts many years, Erickson pointed out. He said in 2004, the concern was there was no way to prevent a developer from coming in later and wanting a deal on “blighted” property, whether the owner wanted to sell or not.
There has to be a large enough chunk of property within the redevelopment district to make a CRA worthwhile, Erickson added. He said he doesn’t know if that can be accomplished with a CRA covering just the business corridor on U.S. 17-92.
Erickson said he will be watching what happens.