Windermere High to get on-campus stadium after years of fights

Charles King/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

After a decade-long battle, Windermere High School will get a stadium on its campus, allowing the school of more than 3,100 students to host home football games and other events onsite like most other public high schools.

The Orange County Commission approved the plan Tuesday, reversing a decision it made in 2015 when it allowed Orange County Public Schools to build the school in a “rural settlement” but only if the stadium was located at a public park nearly two miles away. That decision was a compromise after the commission in 2013 rejected the school district’s plans for the new school, agreeing with nearby residents who feared a high school would bring too much noise, lights and traffic to their rural community.

The new stadium — to be built on an existing practice field on campus — will seat up to about 1,850 people and should be ready for games in August. OCPS expects it will cost about $3 million to add the stadium to the school on Winter Garden Vineland Road.

“It’s been 10 years coming,” said Commissioner Christine Moore, who previously served on the Orange County School Board. “This is a happy day for me.”

Windermere High opened in 2017 in west Orange and has been playing football and other games at the Deputy Scott Pine Community Park. But that setup has created logistical hardships for the school, traffic woes near the park and a safety hazard for students and visitors due to limited parking, sidewalks and shelter, school officials said.

Students, staff and parents also said that not hosting Friday night football games on campus undermined Windermere High’s sense of pride and community. All but one of the other 22 traditional OCPS high schools have stadiums on campus, and so will a new high school slated to open next year to relieve crowding at Lake Nona High School.

“We deserve this stadium, future generations deserve this stadium,” said Maggie Caprise, a senior at Windermere High and one of several members of its student government association who spoke at the commission meeting in favor an on-campus stadium. “Windermere deserves these memories and traditions.”

This summer, school and county officials began working on a plan to alter the 2015 agreement and allow OCPS to build a stadium on campus. Both county and school staff agreed that rapid residential growth in the community had dimmed opposition and filled a once more rural part of the county with more houses, condominiums, restaurants and grocery stores.

Commissioner Nicole Wilson said she appreciated that the school district worked with worried residents and agreed to do its best to limit noise and lights from the stadium.

OCPS, for example, will plant new trees like crape myrtle to dampen sound. “It will become the most landscaped school in the county,” said Jad Brewer, an OCPS attorney who made the district’s case before the commission.

OCPS will also install stadium lights that reduce glare off the field and limit speakers. “This is not the Swamp. This is not Doak Campbell,” Brewer said, referring to football stadiums at the University of Florida and Florida State University.

Brewer said using the park, which has only about 200 parking spots, for Windermere’s football games created safety problems as “people just stop in the middle of the road and drop off children and other spectators.” The high school, by contrast, has more than 860 parking spots and is designed to quickly and safely move traffic in and off its campus, he said.

Mayor Jerry Demings agreed with that assessment. “The parking, the traffic is a nightmare,” he said of Friday night games at the park. “This probably is a better solution.”

A few residents spoke against the project, with one woman playing on her cellphone the sound of a Friday night game and telling the commission that it was too much noise.

But a public meeting about building the stadium on campus this summer drew about 300 people, most “overwhelmingly” in support, school officials said. The county’s board of zoning adjustment, which in September recommended the commission approve the stadium plan, received about 80 written comments in favor of the on-site stadium and 22 in opposition.

Students, parents and Windermere High’s principal spoke in favor of the on-campus stadium at Tuesday’s meeting.

Principal Andy Leftakis said he lives near another OCPS high school and “I love hearing the game and I love hearing kids be kids.”

He wants that for Windermere’s campus but mostly, he said, he wants to be done with the anxiety that hosting games at the too-small park creates. “In an emergency, I would never be able to safely evacuate the stadium,” he said.

The school district agreed in 2015 to build Windermere High’s stadium offsite because it was desperate to get the school built and open to relieve crowding at West Orange High School, which then packed more than 4,200 students on a campus meant for 3,000.

But OCPS constructed Windermere High’s campus with room for a stadium, in case it would ever be able to renegotiate its agreement with the county.

And it tried to make the stadium at the park work, said Pam Gould, the school board member who represents that area.

“We came up with an agreement that we thought would work,” Gould said. “But it does not work.”

The new on-campus stadium will enhance the school, which should be viewed as a “community asset,” she added.

Patricia Barra, the school’s dance director, said an on-campus stadium will mean the football team, other athletic squads, the band, the ROTC program, the cheerleaders and her dancers, among others, will have a place to showcase their work.

“If a community needs a school, then a community needs a stadium,” she said, “a place for the community to create memories.”