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Is Auto Row our destiny?


Dear Leader
Staff member
As you may be aware, I'm the town planner for a small town of about 1,300 residents (and increasing by about one person a day), located about 15 miles west of downtown Orlando. A town this size has a planner because local officials felt that they are stewards of a very special, unique place -- they're not anti-growth, but they want to ensure that the character that drew residents here isn't threatened by the spectre of growth. They've seen what has happened to other towns in a similar situation -- special places that lost their sense of place when growth took over -- and they don't want to see that scenario repeat itself here.

However, there seems to be a sense of hopelessness among my planning commissioners; that market forces are too strong to prevent lowest-common denominator growth, despite very tough architectural design, landscaping, signage and site planing regulations. Here's what I'm facing.

1) There's no sewers, mostly because earlier leaders thought it would increase population densities, and thus destroy the unique "small town character" of the place. Residential development is mostly medium-to-high end single family houses on 1/3 to 1 acre lots -- no apartments, no duplexes, no townhouses. No sewers precludes low-end residential development, so in a sense that strategy worked. A town address is seen as very desirable.

2) The town is essentially "landlocked," with little room for annexation and growth -- a county line on one side, a culturally and economically independent satelite city of Orlando with a predominant "Southern rural working class" demographic on the other. We'll max out at five square miles, of which two are undevelopable because of wetlands and town-owned open space.

3) There's only one major east-west street running through my town. That street leads straight into the working-class town, with development along the corridor there being dominated by "mechanical commercial" uses -- auto sales, RV dealers, heavy truck dealers, vehicle repair, auto body shops, tire stores, flex-space for mechanical trades, and so on.

4) The commercial district along that major east-west road is essentially a blank slate -- a few old billboards (that are being amortized away), a lumberyard, and a gas station. That's it.

5) Most of the inquiries I've been revieving regarding development along that corridor in this town are for "mechanical commercial uses." No restaurants, no retail, no office, no nothing but uses related to objects powered by internal combustion engines. Oh yeah ... storage, too, but that's prohibited in commercial districts in the zoning code. Why these uses? The natural extension of the strip from the next town over, and the lack of sewer. Auto dealers don't need sewer.

6) Also, most of the interest is from small "mom and pop" developers -- no large regional or national developers. The locals fight us on our design requirements -- "We don't have the money, and in (the next town over), they don't need all this fancy architecture and landscapin' -- I can do a metal buildin' there!"

7) Due to the overwhelming interest of vehicle-related uses that want to locate here, and the complete lack of interest by those interested in non-vehicle related uses, we implemented a moratorium on vehicle-related development. Vehicle related uses congregate, and if too many of 'em get in too soon, we're looking at a new, unavoidable "Auto Row." I'm rewriting the zoning code, and I'm looking at a cap -- 25% of commercial front footage for vehicle-related uses. However, it might not be a long term solution -- without sewer, commercial land isn't viable for many other uses.

BTW, in the works before the moratorium was imposed -- four auto dealers, two motorcycle dealers, and two gas stations. They can continue with their projects, but no new vehicle related uses can be submitted.

8) We're not considered "rural," so forget grants for sewer construction in rural communities. Demographics are ticking upward, so forget about grants for infrastructure improvements for disadvantaged communities. Our budget is tight, and we're already taking out bonds to pay for a charter school and new town hall. We can't afford to pay for sewer on our own, and the property owners that would benefit aren't interested; they're being courted by the gas stations and auto dealers as it is.

9) That east-west road has incredible traffic counts -- 45,000 VT/D. However, the numbers don't work in the eyes of those doing site location for mid-end retail and dining. Traffic, yeah. Access, yeah. Rooftops ... getting there. However, there's almost no daytime employment, and the demographics of "the next town over" suck us down -- drywallers, auto mechanics and roofers don't eat at Applebees, Chilis or TGIF, or shop at Pier One or Barnes and Noble.

I've got some thoughts, but I want to hear what you think. Is it our destiny to become a new "Auto Row?" Can we avoid it? Have any other communities been in our shoes?

Lee Nellis

I have to confess that I am always amused by places that think they can avoid growth by not providing infrastructure … and at a certain point, a town's history IS the dominant determinant of its future. Your folks may well have to live with their past.
I do think it unusual that state regulations would not drive auto dealers to look for places with a central sewer. Car washing generates huge volumes of water and detergent and grease and it seems to me that a state with such a dependence on ground water would make individual treatment of car wash waste very expensive. At any rate, the first thing I would think about is groundwater protection. The town's development pattern may already have trashed the local groundwater with residential systems, and if you can show evidence of contamination, perhaps you can forestall development and lobby for funds for central sewerage (although local homeowners would still have to cough up considerable sums!). Beyond this or some similarly sneaky and dramatic strategy, you just better hope your town officials are willing to tell folks who want to erect a steel building that they will be happy to have them do so, in the next town!


Ditto Lee's concern with protecting groundwater and surface waters. A Onsite Sewage Disposal System may be feasible,and the wetland areas in town could help mitigate the effluent discharges.

What about farm markets or crafter's/artisan co-ops or even landscape and horsefeed businesses.. like car lots, they don't really need sewer. Do they?


I think that your 25% frontage idea is good if you can make it stick. I have nothing of use to offer you except maybe hope: I think that in the future car dealerships may decline sharply as people find out how much easier it is to shop and order cars over the internet. I keep thinking that in the future we will see the latest model being displayed in downtown storefronts but no reason to keep an inventory...you simply order and wait 3 days. Can you make a play on the 50's auto row? Mix together Sonic drive-ins, dairy queens, a place to park and look at hot rods, all that "googie architecture"?

Who provides them with water? Can you tax them dearly for water, build a reserve for sewers, hope they go away in 20 years and make sure the zoning does not accommodate miles of metal warehouses?
My biggest fear for you is that you may be setting the stage for the other thing that I think the future will bring…..massive amounts of wholesale warehousing, storage and trucking hubs.


add 10-15yrs here's what you'll get...

Ok, Dan I work in a city that is roughly 6 square miles, and has one major divided 4 lane road through the City, Old Route 66. The City has 3 major arterials besides 66, the City is close to being built out and we have run into very similar problems you are now facing. For starters the City in the past 20-30-40-50 years ago has been anti business and to some degree anti-growth. The citizens wanted the City to be a bedroom community with large lots and very little business oriented land uses and along with this decided not to extend or plan for the future with their sewer and water. Today the city has one of the highest densities in the state, has undersized water & sewer capacity, and has a major problem generating sales tax revenues, which is crucial. The reason I addressed your post is now the city is desperately trying to attract businesses that will generate sales tax. A big chunk of PRIME land is being used for New and mostly Used Auto sales... The City has limited the use to one zoning category, but now the damage has been done. It will take time, along with some work to give a facelift to the downtown area and remove or relocate the existing auto sales location. I personally believe, most auto sales locations are a great example of how to WASTE LAND. I could go on and on with the paving of the lots, no sales revenues, etc. etc.

Your idea or possible solution sounds like a great start...


I have to agree with Lee

I have to agree with Lee on protecting the ground water. All the chemicals from the mechanics, gas stations and other mechanical commercial developments contribute significantly to non-point source pollution. Once that ground water is contaminated, either another water source has to be found or big bucks has to be spent to clean it up; all when it can be prevented. And as you probably already know, a large contributor to non-point source pollution is automobiles with their chemical and exhaust-oriented deposits on impermeable surfaces, waiting to be washed off by the rain. So that would be a good place to look.