John Land, the longest-serving mayor in Florida, was on the losing end of a mayoral run-off election last week. Voters in the City of Apopka elected challenger Joe Kilsheimer by a 54 to 46 percent margin. Land, at 93, was the oldest mayor in the Sunshine State and was also believed to be the oldest chief executive for a city in the nation. He held office for 61 years, including a streak of 46 straight years. He previously lost an election in 1967 only to be returned to office in 1971.
Kilsheimer challenged Land’s leadership based on voter dissatisfaction with numerous red light cameras in the city as well as an inability to attract retail and restaurant land uses consistent with other Orlando area communities. While a significant source of revenue for the city, many residents balked at the use of red light cameras, which are alleged to cause ticketing for drivers in “stop and go” type scenarios that an uniformed officer would likely let pass without citation. Drivers receiving citations could view the camera shots, and often protested that they did in fact stop, but not long enough to satisfy the camera. As to the land use issues, Kilsheimer and others point to the example of Winter Garden, a city on the south end of Lake Apopka about eight miles south. Winter Garden has an older, historical downtown area energized by the West Orange Trail running through the middle and a new retail area known as Winter Garden Village.
Land responded that the red light cameras assisted the city budget and promoted public safety. Statistics showed that ticketing was heaviest immediately after the cameras were first installed and decreased thereafter. As to land use matters, Land stated that the city could only zone the property for commercial use and the actual businesses which located in the city depended on the market. Highway 441 running through the middle of town is known for a proliferation of used car lots and auto repair shops. While Kilsheimer’s supporters may have a point, the volume of traffic on Highway 441 is not conducive to window shopping storefronts similar to downtown Winter Garden. The city would likely need a specific area off of the highway to become a new retail core. For the run-off election, the voters sided with Kilsheimer’s arguments such that Florida’s longest serving mayor lost his last election and was turned away from office.
During Land’s tenure, which began in 1949, the City of Apopka grew from approximately 2,200 residents to recent estimates of over 44,000. The city is traditionally known as the “Indoor Foliage Capital of the World.” Up until the 1980’s, significant citrus production occurred in the area. Three separate freezes, plus housing demand by an influx of new residents, caused much agricultural property to become housing subdivisions. Land oversaw all the changes to the city over his long tenure. The once sleepy agricultural town is now transformed into a large suburban community.
While many disagreed with John Land over the years, in the City of Apopka no question existed as to the identity of the man in charge. Although Florida’s longest serving mayor was uncharacteristically on the losing side of an election, he will remain an icon in the Central Florida region.
By William Costolo