"It's go time," boast the banners flapping in the breeze outside Star Mazda on South Orange Blossom Trail. But at this time — 7:45 p.m. on a Tuesday night — there apparently isn't much going on. New vehicles sit on the lot while not a soul pays them any mind.
But Star Mazda is the brightest spot on the block. Six light poles, each with three white lights atop it, line the OBT side of the car lot, and just as many more glare on bordering Lancaster Road. And while this may be the notorious southern stretch of the crime-ridden Trail, nothing here looks menacing or shady (save two fast-moving, hooded 10-speed bikers cruising past). In fact, it just looks like commercial Orlando.
But for Alan Starling, the owner of Star Mazda (as well as two dealerships in Osceola County), this is the scene of a crime. Not a crime of vandalism or violence — both of which he's witnessed here — but one against logic, perpetrated by the Orange County government. Why prevent business owners from lighting their property brightly enough to discourage criminal activity?
"I was born in Orlando, so I knew the area," Starling says of the property, which he took over at the end of 2005. "I was pretty sure that by putting more lighting in it, that would help; that's a natural thing for security. But it was just amazing for me to see how the people in government didn't think that was a big issue."
At issue for Starling is a 2003 county ordinance that limits the amount of lighting any building or project can employ. Citing light pollution — primarily at gas stations and car dealerships — the ordinance caps the permissible lumen output at a level of 24 foot-candles (or lumens per square foot). For Starling, whose Osceola dealerships operate at about 50 foot-candles, this is a problem. When the switch was flipped on at his OBT property, he suspected a power failure. What he saw was all the lighting the county would permit him to have.
Starling, who employs off-duty sheriff's deputies to monitor his property, says he isn't looking for a handout; he'll pay for all lighting improvements out of pocket. In his frustration, he's even brought the issue up to two senators and one congressman — he won't reveal which ones — but says he has not been able to get an audience with either Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty or his district's commissioner, Linda Stewart.
But Stewart is aware of Starling's complaints.
"There are two sides to every story, and you need to hear both sides," she says. "I'm sure he's like, ‘Oh, this is unfair, and I'm being ripped off and having this vandalism.' You know, I felt very sorry when he called us about that and we tried to do everything we could do to help him."
Stewart says she has not yet met with Starling because the county's suggestion that he display "no trespassing" signs on his property, so that cops can actually approach intruders and kick them off the premises, has been ignored. She also suggests that Starling just wants to "send the lights to the satellites" — illuminate the lot so brightly that it's visible from outer space — for business visibility.
"I can't intervene on a lighting ordinance that we put into effect for a good reason," she says. (The ordinance was overseen by a lighting expert from Tampa, and passed after a public hearing.) "Part of the reason was, when all of those lots started illuminating to the degree of impeding neighborhoods, and when you hear that you can see these dealerships from the satellites, that's pretty severe."
County staff concurs.
"He's a car salesman. He's not taking no for an answer," says John Smogor, the assistant manager in Orange County's planning division.
Smogor met with Starling following the latter's appearance before the county's Design Review Committee. He says the county was willing to compromise.
"What we told `Starling's contractor was` we'll live with 35 foot-candles. That would increase the amount of light he has. We told the lighting guy, you want 50, our code says 24, 35 is the compromise and this is a good deal."
But compromise isn't the issue for Starling, although he says he'll take what he can get. (He's slated to return to the DRC on Feb. 28; if he refuses the county's proposal, he can appeal to the Board of County Commissioners.) He says he's spent thousands of dollars repairing vandalism damage at his lot, and fears for the safety of his employees. Crime stats from the sheriff's office show there have been 211 police calls to the area in the last three months, including 23 commercial burglaries.
"I've got four children and a couple of them work there, which is a whole other issue," he says. "You don't want your children at risk. But what I told the review committee, they said, ‘Technically this isn't the right place,' and I said, ‘I don't care. You know, this where I was told to come, and what you guys need to understand is if you're passing and upholding laws that are not good, you need to take a time out and say, "How could we improve the quality of life for our taxpayers and make sure they're safer?"'"
For commissioner Stewart, who balks at Starling's insistence that there is no residential area nearby to be bothered by his lights (there is, right behind the lot, she says), there are other problems to contend with.
"I'm opposed to sending the lights to the satellite, but I'm certainly for safety," she says. "There's his lot, and if you go up just another block or so, there's another car lot. If we light up the sky with his, the guy up the street is going to light up the sky with his. This is a domino thing and we just can't do that; we can't disavow the lighting ordinance."
She adds, "There are safety measures. If he would do these safety measures, he would be protected."firstname.lastname@example.org