By DONNA BALANCIA, Contributor
LAKE HELEN — Attorney Lonnie Groot likes the balancing act.
Over the years as attorney for various Central Florida municipalities, Groot has always sought to keep the balance between big city growth and small town identity.
“There’s a special place in my heart for Seminole County and the surrounding towns,” he said. “The region has been very good to me.”
As he looks out over Lake Monroe from the sea wall at Sanford, Groot, who is Of Counsel with Strenstrom McIntosh Colbert Wigham & Partlow PA, can see more than water and a couple of people fishing by the harbor.
“It’s a hidden gem, don’t you think?” Groot says. “There is the desire here for Sanford to grow and there’s a lot of potential here.”
Groot has a knack to see beyond face value, colleagues, friends and family members say. He likes to get down to the foundation and build up. He is a supporter, an advocate and a teacher with a passion.
“My father had to earn everything he has and I think that’s why he respects people who work hard,” said Rebecca, one of his daughters. “He wants to believe.”
Groot represents Sanford, Lake Helen, Daytona Beach Shores and Oviedo and is on the charter review expert panel for Brevard County.
“There are some wonderful qualities about this area of Central Florida,” Groot said. “There is a commitment to good planning, good education, economic development and growth, but it’s high quality growth.”
The growth – smart growth — is something that Groot has had a hand in. And in some cases, it’s his history of helping to limit growth where it is undesirable that has earned Groot respect.
“Lake Helen is four square miles and has a population of 2900,” said Don Findell, city administrator for Lake Helen. “There is a strong sense that it doesn’t want to lose that small town feel. I’ve known Lonnie a long time and he has a real affection for the small towns and knows the issues that go with them.”
Findell said Groot wants to help the communities achieve their goals, whether it’s to keep the small town feel or to grow into a more modernized region.
Among the cases Groot has worked on were various lawsuits within the Wekiva River development series, where developers wanted to build thousands of units, commercial sites, and a wastewater plant on the pristine lands abutting the Wekiva River. After much back and forth, the result was various settlements and provisions added to the Seminole County Comprehensive Plan.
He has participated in litigation to keep Seminole County Expressway Authority as a legal entity, which then acquired the right of way and constructed an expressway facility.
He also has been involved in litigation involving Seminole County annexation disputes and litigation involving under-grounding of utilities along Lake Mary Boulevard.
In his spare time, Groot invests in teaching and in the young people.
He is active with the Boys and Girls Club of Volusia-Flagler Counties and he spends time in his daughter’s classroom.
“The kids always ask when is he coming back,” Rebecca said. “They love him.”
“I first met him in 1993 through his daughter, who was one of my volunteers,” said Joe Sullivan, chief operating officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Volusia-Flagler. “Turned out he was a neighbor of mine. You know, he has seven daughters. My wife calls him ‘Fiddler On The Roof.’
“Lonnie has given a lot of his time to the Boys and Girls Club,” he said. “Since then we’ve opened nine Boys and Girls Clubs in the area.
But Groot said it is not his work, but instead the inspiration he gets from helping people and government entities to attain their goals, that drives him.
“I like to see the people have a vision,” Groot said. “And once they attain all of that or elements towards their vision, it’s rewarding.”
Groot said he never expected that he would actually end up in law related to local government. He said that when he first went into law, he planned on being “the world’s best criminal lawyer.” But his plans changed, much to his liking.
“When you’re involved in land use planning and local government you get to see how democracy works at the different levels of government, at the level of government closest to the people.”
The issues he contends with in his region are not unlike the challenges that the state of Florida faces as a whole.
“Seminole County is a microcosm of Florida,” Groot said. “We try to balance and protect the beauty and natural resources, put our people to work and not rely on the home building industry.”
In addition to helping support the region, Groot has helped groom some of the area’s most well-regarded people as well.
“I owe Lonnie a great deal,” said Rob Gebaide, a partner with Baker Hostetler in Orlando, who worked with Groot in the Seminole County Attorney’s Office. “He hired me when no one else would take a chance. He’s always there for you when you need him. He finds the time no matter what and helps out.”
Groot’s ability to talk to anyone is what helps make him well-liked in the communities he serves.
“Lonnie is a smart, playful guy who really cares,” Gebaide said. “He is equally good talking to the person without a dollar as he is to any lawyer in any law firm. He can relate to any person and has the same compassion for each person.”
Groot’s advice for those young attorneys coming up?
“Find something you really want to do before you get pigeon-holed,” Groot said. “Try to experience a lot of things before you make a decision. The more you experience, the more you realize what engages your spirit. Many lawyers become very good, but their spirit isn’t in what they do.”
Findell said: “Lonnie’s longtime experience as a government attorney has been invaluable to the community. He’s provides outstanding services to us, he’s conscientious and very connected to the people of Central Florida.”
Donna Balancia is the publisher and editor of The Florida Law Journal, the top website for Florida lawyers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org