By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

Commissioners nearly approved major changes this week to standard park sizes in Osceola County and only tabled the item after comments from a St. Cloud resident raised doubt over data and figures used for the proposal.

As a community’s population grows, so should its parks. That was the logic behind standards put in place by prior Osceola officials – to create a park-to-person ratio to provide enough green space and recreational facilities for the county’s future.

The proposal before commissioners Monday afternoon would cut the relative size of community parks – which typically include facilities like sports fields, walking paths and green space – by more than half, from four acres per 1,000 residents to 1.5 acres.

It would also reduce the size of regional parks – which tend to be larger and showcase natural resources like lakefront shorelines or conservation areas – from six acres to five acres per 1,000 residents.

These and other changes are so significantly different from current Parks and Recreation Department practices, Community Development officials needed commissioners to adopt a large-scale Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA) to implement them.

The amendment did not sit well with St. Cloud resident Valerie Anderson, who served as the sole public commentator on the item.

“This means you’re allowing the population to grow while shrinking the requirement for parks,” said Anderson, who has given public comment previously on a range of Osceola County environmental issues. “This essentially lets existing parks absorb more and more use.”

Community Development Project Planner Photenie Burnett said the reductions were being made to align with data analysis of “national standards,” which she claimed averaged 1.88 acre per 1,000 residents for community parks.

“The level of service was adjusted to reflect a more accurate understanding of the acreage needed to be added for community-based parks in order to meet facility needs,” Burnett said.

But, as County Commissioner Viviana Janer pointed out, the proposed 1.5-acre adjustment didn’t even satisfy Burnett’s 1.88 national standard.

“I don’t know if I misunderstood, but you lost me there,” Janer said. “That makes a big difference. If the national average was 1.8, and you’re recommending 1.5, then you’re saying we’re not sufficient as a whole.”

Burnett then admitted she may have misspoken or gotten the numbers wrong.

“It may have been 1.2,” Burnett said. “I would have to look at the report data…I don’t have that number in front of me, I apologize.”

Once the figures were thrown into question, Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr. asked why the four-acre standard was even adopted in the first place a few years ago if the national average was so much lower.

County Manager Don Fisher described the decision by previous administration as “remarkably ambitious” and “not logical.”

“I think we’re trying to become more reasonable and more standard with the industry, and not have requirements that can’t be maintained,” Fisher said.

Hawkins seemed unsatisfied with the response, and thanked Anderson for speaking about the proposal.

“Valerie, I’m going to give you credit,” he said. “You got my head going here on this four to 1.5.”

County commissioners asked Burnett to return with clear data and figures to support the reduction and tabled the item for the June 11 meeting.

“I’m sorry Photenie, I know that you have a lot of information in front of you, and you most likely mixed up that number,” Janer said. “But we would all feel better if we understood that our people are not being shortchanged in terms of parks and our recreational facilities.”