Seminole residents agree to tax themselves for cleaner lakes

Article Courtesy of  The Orlando Sentinel

By Martin E. Comas

Published February 2, 2021


Bob Burke dropped his canoe into the lake behind his home near Lake Mary recently and tried paddling it across the water.

He didn’t have much success.

“I got tired of pushing it,” Burke said. “The hydrilla was all over the place. It was almost impossible…. When we first moved here [in 1993], we would go out on this lake, and we would have a ball. But now it’s in horrible condition because of the growth of the hydrilla. And it will be even worse if we don’t do something about it.”


At another nearby lake, Susan Gladman remembers visiting her grandfather’s home — where she now lives — as a girl and swimming in the clear waters and canoeing to nearby lakes via the streams.

“When I was growing up, it was clear all the way to the bottom,” said Gladman, 62, about Bel-Air Lake near Sanford before it became inundated with hydrilla and other invasive weeds.

Fed up, Burke, Gladman and their neighbors decided to join a growing number of Seminole residents that have asked the county in recent years to form special taxing districts — known as a municipal service benefit units or MSBU — that assess their properties several hundreds of dollars a year to clean their lakes and restore them to the crystal clear conditions of years ago.

The idea is that homeowners around lakes pay for the clean up projects, rather than all of Seminole’s taxpayers. And county officials say they are seeing a growing number of residents eagerly agreeing to higher taxes for the benefit of their environment. Something, they say, was almost unheard-of years ago.

An algae bloom in DeForest Lake in Sanford

“I think today there’s more of an awareness of doing the right thing for the community as a whole which is having clean water,” Commissioner Jay Zembower said. “People are more educated and more willing to see the benefit in having a clean environment. And they’re willing to pay for it.”

Zembower remembers in the mid-1990s as he tried establishing the MSBU for Lake Pickett, which straddles Seminole and Orange counties in a mostly rural area east of the University of Central Florida campus.

“I can’t tell you how many doors I had slammed in my face,” Zembower said. “But today, Lake Pickett is such a success and people are proud of it.”

Today, homeowners surrounding Lake Pickett are charged between $25 and $100 annually, depending on their access to the water body, said Zembower, calling it “a bargain for the people.”

Seminole commissioners agreed on Tuesday to form two more MSBUs to clean five lakes near Winter Springs, Lake Mary and Sanford at the requests of nearby homeowners.

The first MSBU is an estimated $254,500 plan by the county to tackle the hydrilla invasion at Little Lake Howell — also known as Tuskawilla Lake — north of East Lake Drive and west of Tuskawilla Road near Winter Springs, that will be done in two phases over five years beginning in February.

In the first phase, 48 lakefront homeowners will each be assessed $875, or $198 annually over five years. (The total amount for homeowners paying in installments over five years is higher than $875 to cover financing fees, county officials said.) The county will kick in $17,500.

In phase 2, which will start after Oct. 1, homeowners will be assessed an additional $445 for the first year. Amounts for future assessments over the next five years will be determined depending on varying costs of lake maintenance. County officials estimated that could tally up to $195,000 through 2026.

The second MSBU for the East Crystal Chain of Lakes — which includes Bel-Air Lake, Crystal Lake, Pine Lake and DeForest Lake west of State Road 417 and north of Old Lake Mary Road — will cost an estimated $333,500 for the initial clean up before Oct. 1. The county will add in $17,500 and the 456 homeowners will pay an estimated $316,000 for the first phase. After October, the ongoing lake maintenance will cost about $34,000 a year.

Homeowners around the lakes — about 168 properties — will be assessed an estimated $325 annually for both the initial clean up and the ongoing maintenance in the first year. And 288 surrounding properties with access to the lakes through their neighborhood associations’ lakefront property will be assessed between $3 and $42 a year, depending on their home’s proximity.

“I think it’s a hell of a bargain,” said Dan Gladman, husband of Susan Gladman. “It’s not a little money. But to have the beauty of a nice-looking lake behind your house and plus the advantage of being able to get to all the other lakes, I think it’s well worth it.”

The Gladmans and their neighbors decided to clean Bel-Air lake themselves a few years ago.

“We could see raccoons and possums walking across the lake [on top of the vegetation],” said Debra Boone, whose home is on the lake’s western shore. “We knew that pretty soon, there would no lake left.”

They pitched in some money and hired a private contractor. But $40,000 later the weeds returned.

Gloria Eby, principal environmental scientist for Seminole, said that as the county continues to growth with more residential subdivisions, leading to more invasive weeds, an increasing number of residential groups want to form MSBUs to clean their lakes. Besides the invasive hydrilla and hyacinth plants, lawn fertilizers and stormwater runoff also cause lake pollution, she said.

Since 2015, seven new lake management MSBUs have formed, a 30% jump since 1992.

“What we have been seeing is residents who cannot find a solution to manage their lakes and the financial resources to make that happen,” Eby said. “And when lakes are not managed, they become unruly with invasive weeds such as hydrilla. That impedes recreation — such as boating, fishing, canoeing — and leads to fish kills.”

Seminole in 2015 took over the management of the 391-acre Lake Howell near Casselberry, that for years was filled with hydrilla and other invasive plants. Its water quality was long labeled as “impaired” by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection lake vegetation index. Today the lake is classified as “healthy” after Seminole planted native vegetation along the shorelines and removed most of the hydrilla.

“I’ve noticed a huge difference,” said Susan Jernigan, a Seminole resident who has lived along the lake since the early 1990s.

Seminole Commission Chairman Lee Constantine said more residents “are willing to pony up the money” to clean up their lakes.

“I think that there’s a heightened awareness of the environmental concerns of a lake’s water quality,” he said. “These lakes are not as pristine as they once were because of growth and storm water runoff. And I think people understand that.”