Photo from the Gopher Tortoise Council

Opinion

By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

Craig Pittman is probably the best nature writer in Florida. He is the voice of wildlife and the environment in our state. 

In 2020, he wrote an alarming story about the plight of gopher tortoises and how a loophole in the current laws is causing gopher tortoises to be smothered in their burrows. The article infuriated me, but I did nothing about it. 

After all, it wasn’t in Apopka.

And this month, Pittman wrote about Pulte Homes, a major real estate developer in Florida, destroying 22 gopher tortoise burrows, and paying a fine of approximately $13,700 on a multi-million dollar deal.

That story infuriated me as well, but I did nothing about it. Although Pulte Homes builds houses in Apopka, this was a Marion County subdivision where they buried gopher tortoises.

My passive activism

In general, I am an environmentalist and an animal lover. I’m not going to chain myself to a tree or crash my boat into a whaling ship off the coast of Japan, but I want a clean environment, and I don’t want to see wildlife or pets mistreated.

It’s been a history of passive activism.

I’m also in support of capitalism and want businesses to prosper within the guidelines of regulated free commerce. I want businesses to play by the rules, be community-minded, employ workers at fair wages, and make a zillion dollars. I don’t see why a person can’t be an environmentalist, animal lover, and capitalist all at the same time.

I’ve heard developers lament over lost deals that involved a lone scrub-jay or spotted owl setting up a nest on a property they wanted to develop and killing a deal that would bring affordable housing to a community in need. 

I’m not in support of that kind of overcorrection in environmental laws, but sometimes laws to protect nature make perfect sense, sometimes they don’t go far enough to protect wildlife or the environment, and sometimes they happen in your backyard.

About the Gopher Tortoise

Before reading Pittman’s articles, when I thought of a gopher tortoise scenes from the movie Caddyshack came to mind… 

Remember Bill Murray trying to kill that pesky gopher that plagued his golf course? He went as far as dropping dynamite down the gopher hole only to be foiled by the durable and crafty creature. But what’s happening to gopher tortoises in Florida isn’t funny, and what could potentially happen to them in Apopka would be tragic, but it’s still avoidable.

The gopher tortoise earned its name because it digs deep burrows—like a gopher. It is the only land tortoise native to the area. It became the official state tortoise of Florida in 2008. The gopher tortoise is called a keystone species, meaning that it’s very important to the health of the ecosystem it inhabits because its burrows provide shelter for hundreds of other species.

In a way, it provides affordable housing to other animals in its community.

The gopher tortoise is classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Scientists estimate their population has decreased by 66% over the last century. The main threat the species faces is habitat loss. At the current rate of development, the gopher tortoise could lose 20% of its habitat within the next 40 years.

Laws to protect gopher tortoises are lacking

In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as “threatened” – not endangered. This is a lesser listing of protection. Under current law, gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) before capturing and relocating tortoises.

But environmentalists have protested that process almost since its inception. Developers can simply choose a section of the property with fewer (or no) gopher tortoises, and use it as their assessment. And the extra costs of smothering tortoises, and whatever other animals are in their burrows, are minimal in comparison to the overall profit of most developments.

Earlier this year, the Orlando Sentinel published an article about the gopher tortoise mitigation law and its loopholes. According to the report, inspections by FWC officials have found mass deaths of tortoises and extensive evidence of improper care.

Incredibly, this is a better law than what existed previously. Before then, the state allowed developers to pay a mitigation fee and bury tortoises alive, a policy denounced by animal rights activists.

They called it “pay to pave”.

The upside? Within 14 years, the state brought in $47 million in permit fees and purchased 22,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat. The downside? At least 74,000 tortoises were killed in the process. 

The drama of the Rocks Springs Ridge Golf Course

For months now, I’ve covered the story of the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association, the Apopka City Council, and the Golf Group playing “Let’s Make a Deal”.

Understandably, the HOA has been trying to get control of the golf course lands at RSR, owned by the Golf Group. And for years, the Golf Group has threatened to sell it to developers and asked outrageous prices for the land.

But in 2021, a creative deal emerged. 

In this proposal, the City of Apopka would trade its land on Harmon Road (appraised at $2.4 million) to the Golf Group in exchange for the golf course lands. The City would then sell the golf course back to the RSR Homeowners Association (at the same price) once their financing was in place. 

To say there have been twists and turns, ebbs, and flows in this potential deal would be an understatement. For months they’ve gone back and forth, but nothing seemed to solidify.

Then another piece of land entered into the bargain.

The gopher tortoise connection to RSR

There is a 51-acre parcel that connects to the Rock Springs Ridge community called the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area… or at least that used to be its name. The HOA owns that land, and for years it sat untouched as a gopher tortoise conservation area, bordering only 12 homes in RSR.

But as the months dragged on and the three-way deal seemed less likely to close, the HOA made a surprising move and put the 51-acre property up for sale. 

And quickly they found a buyer willing to pay $5.5 million.

According to the documents sent to RSR homeowners by the HOA, the prospective buyer is Eloise Holdings LLC of Davenport, FL – owned by Dr. Wade Foster. I do not know Dr. Foster. I don’t know what Dr. Foster will do with that land if purchased, but I doubt he is willing to spend $5.5 million to keep a gopher tortoise conservation area up and running. 

But this isn’t about Dr. Foster.

624 West Kelly Park Road: Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area or land just waiting to be developed?

In his interview with The Apopka Voice in July, RSR Homeowners Association President Gary McSweeney emailed me a response to a question I asked about that property.

“Are you still moving forward with selling land to purchase the golf course from The Golf Group?” I asked.

“The HOA would receive significant financial compensation if the vacant, HOA-owned 624 West Kelly Park Road property were sold to a third party,” McSweeney said. “Instead of securing a bond through the City for long term financing of the golf lands, RSR would earn enough money to purchase the golf lands outright, invest $1.5-million in renovating the clubhouse building and lands, improve roads, walks, and parking surrounding the clubhouse and have enough money left over to adequately fund the HOA treasury.”

It’s hard to argue that $5.5 million wouldn’t come in handy, but at what cost? And when did this property stop being a gopher tortoise conservation area? According to McSweeney it never was.

“This Kelly Park vacant land is not a gopher-tortoise sanctuary nor part of any conservation area that requires special consideration under local, state, or federal laws and borders only 12 of the 1,320 homes built in RSR,” he said. “The HOA’s intentions are to protect those homes with the addition of a 200-feet deep vegetated buffer strip attached to the north side of Sand Wedge Loop in RSR and extending 200-feet into the Kelly Park land area. This land would be heavily vegetated and deeded to the 12 Loop Residents which would likely result in establishing some of the largest lots available in RSR, while significantly adding to their sound and visual privacy. Again, a Win-Win solution for everyone especially when the HOA can produce these results without any financial debt to the RSR community.”

Saying the 51 acres on Kelly Park Road is not a gopher tortoise conservation area runs counter to a lot of evidence.

In an attachment McSweeney emailed to The Apopka Voice, there is a historical narrative of RSR updated in December 2019 that describes the property as “Gopher Tortoise Conservation Land”. 

On the RSR Homeowners Association website, which reads like a campaign ad for purchasing the golf course, and selling the gopher tortoise conservation area, there is a brochure with a list of “benefits” – one of them stating that ‘gopher tortoises will be relocated according to Florida Fish and Wildlife guidelines by the developer of the outparcel after the sale.’ 

You read about those guidelines earlier.

And finally, if you take a drive along Kelly Park Road where the north side of the property is fenced-in, there are multiple signs on the fencing that state:

RSR

No Trespassing

Environmentally Sensitive Area

Violators subject to fines and imprisonment

Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area / Protected Habitat

There is also a picture of a gopher tortoise and a logo from The Gopher Tortoise Council (GTC).

The no trespassing sign hanging on the fenced-in area of  the gopher tortoise conservation area on Kelly Park Road

In response to questions asked by The Apopka Voice about the gopher tortoise conservation area, McSweeney responded with this statement:

“The HOA has been communicating with the State Fish and Wildlife who acknowledges any owner of land can apply for mitigation measures to address modification of tortoise type habitats located on any parcel. Once proposed site plans are created during the due diligence phase of the review and approval process. Application to the State will be necessary should any proposed development/tortoise conflicts be discovered. At that time, solutions will be evaluated and addressed between the State and developer. If development on this parcel interferes with any existing gopher habitats, such application will be required.”
McSweeney also said that the entire RSR development went through this process in 2002.

“The 51-Acres of land includes a Deed of Conservation Easement dated April 22, 2002 which can be reviewed and altered by application to the State,” he said. “Tortoises were found all over the RSR community and mitigation measures were taken in the past to safely relocate tortoise habitats as approved by the State through their application process.”

That application process, however, didn’t start until 2007. Before that developers wanting to build on gopher tortoise habitats could apply for an “incidental take” permit, paying a fee that allowed tortoises to be entombed in their burrows to die a slow death. Because of their slow metabolism, gopher tortoises can survive in their burrows for up to 12 months before dying.

The outcome of this deal

It has been stated on social media by many that the City Council fears electoral reprisal if they do not vote for this three-way swap. But I’ll tell you as someone who has covered Apopka politics closely for over five years now, I don’t see the political fear in their eyes. I’ve interviewed every one of the five City Council members, and there are two things I can tell you… 

First – they are already laying the groundwork for a “no” vote on selling the Harmon property. Take a look at these quotes and observations from the City Council in the last few weeks:

“I’m hesitant because there are too many unknowns,” said Commissioner Alexander Smith – a homeowner in RSR. “Residents call me, they see me walking, or at Publix… and they stop and ask ‘how much is this going to cost me?’ And I can’t answer that question. Because of the unknowns, I would not vote for this as a resident.”

“I’ve got other concerns,” said Commissioner Doug Bankson. “My big issue is the tower and the cost. I’m a steward of that land on behalf of the people… and I really have an issue with the money that’s made having to move a tower that really doesn’t have to be moved except that we’re doing this deal. My head is not wrapped all the way around this. We just can’t make a decision that’s not in the best interest of the people… and I think everyone is in agreement with that.”

“I remember saying that when Harmon was first proposed in the swap, that what are we doing with the property housing the tower?” Commissioner Diane Velazquez said – also a homeowner in RSR. “I had concerns with that because we should own that property.”

“The last City Council meeting we had intelligence that maybe was not correct,” said Commissioner Kyle Becker. “We heard that the HOA was trying to go on their own, to do their own transaction, and it would leave Harmon out of it… but then we found out afterward that wasn’t necessarily the case. So I guess knowing that shows Harmon is a piece of real estate that is desirable to multiple interests…”

“I’ve said it numerous times it was never my intention to make a three-way-swap,” said Mayor Bryan Nelson. “From day one I’m not for a three-way-swap and never have been. They brought the proposal in some form… not in written form but in private meetings with the Golf Group.”

Does that strike you as a Council primed to pull the trigger on this deal?

The second point… 

All five council members are adept at taking the pulse of the community. Some of them call it ‘the will of the people’, others call it ‘reading the tea leaves’, but none of them fear a ‘no’ vote because they see an RSR community split on this issue, and it’s becoming clear over months of digging deeper into this three-way swap that it’s a bad deal for Apopka.

Essentially, the City gives up a parcel of land appraised at $2.4 million that is probably worth more than that on the open market. Also, if it sells or swaps the property, it’s forced to move a communications tower at a higher cost than if it simply upgraded the tower that has stood there for the last 30 years. 

So not a great incentive to sell or trade.

In exchange, the City gets the defunct golf course lands to sell back to the HOA for the break-even price of $2.4 million – only that land is almost certainly not worth that amount. 

Somehow, the Golf Group has created the perception of leverage over the City and the HOA to make them feel as though they finally have a shot to make a deal. Previous asking prices for the golf course lands by the Golf Group were blatantly overpriced… now, they are just moderately overpriced.

Keep in mind the golf lands are essentially recreational/greenspace since the City would have to approve any plan to add more houses, which gives the Golf Group even less leverage.

And just to add another element of heartburn to the proposition, the HOA is trying to sell the gopher tortoise conservation area to secure cash to fund its purchase of the land rather than securing a bond.

It’s not exactly the win/win proposition that McSweeney referenced. It’s more of a huge win for the Golf Group, lose/lose for the City and RSR, and get suffocated in your habitat kind of outcome for the gopher tortoises.

Live to fight another day RSR

Let’s stop playing games. Call the 51 acres whatever you like, but clearly, there are gopher tortoises on that land and you took on the role of stewards of those creatures by setting that land aside years ago. You decided to protect them… not just until you find a buyer.

I’m sorry you don’t see what I see. I guess your desire to possess those golf course lands has clouded your perspective. It’s too bad you don’t hear what the City Council is saying. It’s time to get past the perception that the Golf Group is holding aces when all they have are rags.

I wish you weren’t willing to harm nature and wildlife for a deal that’s quickly heading for a brick wall, but before you escalate this bad deal into an environmental catastrophe, you should reconsider your actions and stop.

The golf course lands are an annoyance, but they aren’t going anywhere, and they aren’t going to become new houses anytime soon. Live to fight another day and come back to the bargaining table when the Golf Group realizes that it has no leverage to ask such ridiculous prices for vacant land and that the City is not going to save them with prime real estate.

I have never owned a home that was a part of a homeowners association, but if I did and something like this happened, I would want the board to approach this crisis like a task force and give its residents all the information on the subject it needs to make an informed decision, and then stay out of the voting process.

I would not want them to become a political body, hire a PR firm to craft its message, and put up signs about how to vote. In my opinion, that’s not the role an HOA should play. Oh, and one other thing… don’t fence-in 51 acres, designate it a gopher tortoise conservation area, and then change your mind and try to make a profit from it when the scenario suits. 

That’s just bad form.

11 COMMENTS

  1. What a great article! Thank you so very much for putting together all the hypocrisy that a few of our HOA board members are trying to force the residents into voting yes for.

    The land has been gopher tortoise mitigation area for decades. The city has it labeled that way. The Mayor refers to it that way. The HOA has it listed as gopher tortoise mitigation area on their map and has the signs posted around the land as such. Now three of the HOA board members pushing this deal down our throats refer to it as a “51 acre outparcel” in hopes that it seems like the land isn’t significant. They don’t want to call it what it really is, gopher tortoise mitigation area.

    All Apopka residents, not just Rock Springs Ridge residents, need to speak up to let the city know that you do not want this land to be developed. So many longtime Apopka residents are concerned about all the building going on in our city. Now is the time to contact your city council and let them know that the destruction of natural habitats have to stop! This area is set aside as conservation area. We need to keep it that way.

    Rock Springs Ridge residents who ask question on this land swap deal are met with deflection, bullying and name calling by those pushing this “deal”. We have been asking for important information for five months. If our questions can’t be answered by now, the vote should be a resounding NO!

    Please contact your city council and let them know you do not want the 51 acres of gopher tortoise mitigation land to be sacrificed because some people are pushing a scare tactics that RSR needs to buy the defunct golf course! Your voice can make a difference. Call them. Email them.

  2. Much of the information is incorrect. The City will not own and swap the golf course. RSR is paying appraisal value and would then trade Harmon for the Course.

    The 51 acres has an Tortoise easement and is not a preserve. That parcel was never put up for sale. The golf course is zoned Residential with recreational use that is pretty easy for an owner to change.
    The communications tower is 32 years old. Before RSR was even involved 2 years ago, the city was getting estimates to put a bandage on a tower that no longer meets code. 190 over load capacity and is an ugly eye-soar in a new beautiful and growing area of Apopka.

    Maybe its a blessing that what RSR s paying for Harmon nearly pays for a new communications tower that be be in a less visible part of Apopka?

    The 51 acre parcel off of Kelly park is constantly broke into, costing residents substantial fees in fence repairs, bush hogging, tree maintenance, furniture removal. There are constantly kids 4 wheeling, trucks driving through, people hunting. A substantial cost to the residents for a parcel they have no access too. The turtles are not living in peace and could benefit from a relocation.
    Can you guarantee the course will never be developed? How many turtles do you think have migrated to the course over the last 20 years?
    The banners in the community are informational banners, they do not tell the residents how to vote?
    Did you know our PUD requires 20% of the entire tract size for resident open space to gather? That required resident space was co-located on the golf course as an exception by the city of Apopka, then allowed a private owner to buy the course. Every community bigger and smaller has resident green space except RSR. 1320 homes have nothing. So maybe residents want to the land to protect it from development threats. The 319 acres is an abandoned overgrown eye-soar within the community. RSR ownership can improve the condition, residents would have use of greenspace to actually have socials and events. So in my opinion, this is the best way for residents to own the land to control our future and not have to go picket every year when a application is submitted, the PUD would be in compliance with greenspace requirements that we are paying for that the city gave away. We have a great HOA that is working hard to protect the values of RSR.

    • You are incorrect. The HOA board members do not have an appraisal on the defunct “golf course”. RSR residents are not paying appraisal value. We are paying for what the city wants for the two Harmon properties. Who does that? Did you pay the appraised value of a house miles away for your house when you bought it?

      Stop calling the RSR gopher tortoise mitigation area as something different in order to make it seem as if it isn’t a part of our community. It is referred to as RSR gopher tortoise mitigation area by everyone, including the city and HOA. Deflecting doesn’t look good.

      The “banners”, what “banners”? You mean the huge, ugly bulletin boards for the “Rock the Vote” PR stunt that is costing our residents $25,000 or so? They are obviously a one-sided campaign trying to sway voters. They are in no way unbiased.

      Does everyone realize that the HOA had one of the board members sons (who works for the HOA management company, by the way) take down the “Vote No” signs? Not only that, the signs have been stolen from RSR residents property. The signs are legal and allowed to be posted.

      Any RSR resident who is following what is going on should definitely vote no. There is not enough information given to the residents, even though we have been asking for months.

      So many people are against this “deal”. It isn’t a deal for RSR residents and it isn’t a deal for Apopka city taxpayers. It is only a deal for The Golf Group.

      If the financial details aren’t shared and we can’t see the contract, the vote is a NO!

    • Joan B,

      You have no idea what you are talking about regarding the gopher tortoise mitigation conservation area. But, keep passing along misinformation and lies to try to achieve the goal of obtaining the golf course.

  3. Wonderful article Reggie!

    Hopefully Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners will read, ask questions and weigh the facts in their decision.

    The Board majority is asking Homeowners to sign a proxy that would entrust them to sell assets, purchase assets and/or spend any profits without further Homeowner input.

    Let us look at the FACTS:
    • Board majority states that Gopher Tortoise Conservation Land (“GTCL”) sale and the three-party land swap deal will occur simultaneously. The proxy before Homeowners to vote on by 10/4/21 empowers them to be able to sell the GTCL at any price at any time, purchase the golf land at any price at any time and/or they can use the assets from the sale for any purpose without any further Homeowner input. Nothing in the proxy states simultaneous action.
    • Fail to use the competitive bid process to meet State Statutes and their fiduciary responsibility.
    • Committed Homeowners to a $390,000 3-year Brightview contract without attorney review.
    • Failed to implement the Brightview contract language changes recommended by General Counsel John DiMasi in February 2021 to better protect Homeowners, after the 2 Board minority members requested DiMasi to review.
    • Have not approved the over $200,000 in Fishback Dominick legal invoices at Board meetings.
    • Removed monthly financials from the website.
    • Don’t timely post Board meeting minutes. The last post was April 12, 2021.
    • Have not provided Homeowners the facts PRIOR TO ANY VOTE promised to Apopka City Council by RSR Board president on July 21, 2021.
    • Have not provided Homeowners Independent Phase I and Phase II Environmental Assessments, current Appraisals, competitive bids for work that needs to be done and competitive bids for ongoing maintenance so that they can make an informed decision.
    • Want Homeowners to pay $2.485M or more for the RSR weed patch when operating golf courses recently sold for $1.5M or appraised for $2.3M.
    • Appear more concerned with the Golf Group profiting from this transaction than the potential cost to Homeowners.
    • The Board majority talks transparency and facts yet fail to deliver on both.

    The best way for Homeowners to control the RSR golf land is to OWN it. At what price? At what liability? At what future costs? What about the protected Gopher Tortoises? Homeowners need the FACTS to make an informed decision.

    Can the Board majority be trusted managing Homeowner assets?

    We do not have the FACTS.

    VOTE NO!

  4. FYI, I do not believe you’ve talked to all 5 HOA board members because my husband is one and he hasn’t talked to you. Also, we own one of the “only 12 homes” to be affected by this deal and we see the other multitudes of wildlife living on this “vacant land” and all of that wildlife will be displaced along with our gopher tortoises. So we are most definitely against this deal.

  5. The HOA members are making all the decisions on their own, without any input from those 12 homes when it comes to selling the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area. They are acting on their own and not representing the entire neighborhood. They are bullying the residents, not allowing VOTE NO signs on the premises, threatening, and most of the residents are following them blindly.

    Agree with the previous poster that the vote should be a resounding NO! This deal should not come to fruition unless we have all the information in front of us. The HOA is willing to sell anyone out because it’s their desire to acquire the golf course. They are only looking at profit and obtaining the land at any cost. They will be the ones to make a decision as to what happens with Taverna and the land use for their wants, not for what is in the best interest of ALL homeowners.

    It is a shame they were voted into the HOA by the majority and now their opinion is the only one that matters. They act as Judge, Jury, and Executioners and the blind sheep following behind them without a backbone and intelligence to open their eyes and look at what is in front of them. RSR is doomed and financial surprises will fall upon all the residents whether they agree to this horrific deal or not.

  6. Please folks don’t be distracted. There’s a small group of negative, just plain mean and dirty residents trying to cloud the facts. I have been to every single meeting, every zoom.
    Rod your on an ego trip. Your feelings are hurt so you work from the outside with Jerry and John. Just creating damage. Will you personally guarantee there will never be development? What about the green space stolen for us. When you were president, you did nothing to get our space back, bet you didn’t even know.
    What about when you were president of the board and changing the minutes with your authority after the minutes were accepted?
    I have read all the “Land Use” minutes on the RSR website that you oversaw. Hire an attorney, how do we purchase the land? How do we sell it to the residents? Last resort, let the owner build townhomes so we can get some of the land. All written in black and white Rod. What changed? Oh, You don’t get credit. I also discovered that its not the 3 run away board members. You have set that image with John, Jerry and yourself. You are the 3 not looking out for the entire community.
    The board has an environmental study. I’m glad they aren’t spending more money until the vote is completed.
    Rod, you have disgraced your community which by the way, all should know Rod lives on such a small portion of golf course he would never see a house. Your flyer you circulated was full of bs.
    I have been in RSR since 2001. I voted for the current board and they are doing exactly what I knew they could do.

  7. Reggie, I really enjoyed your above opinion article. Reggie, you mean you wouldn’t chain yourself to a tree to protest something? Ahh, come on now Reggie….One of my most admired people on the planet is Julia Butterfly Hill, who climbed one of those ancient California trees, and stayed up in the treetop for months and months on end to protest logging in those ancient forests. Through rain, cold, intense heat, lightning storms, high winds, etc. I want so much to be just like JBH! I just don’t think my husband would be too thrilled to be left home alone with the dogs to fend for himself, due to my dedication and activism. I also know I could never climb one of those trees either….Lol….I hope they don’t vote to sell off the gopher land. I have witnessed the bulldozers, where land was being developed, where gopher turtles were present, and saw firsthand the destruction of gophers crawling all around with split opened shells. It was hideous to see! So very cruel….I am hearing news that there are people wanting to bring back the wooly mammoths from the dead, yet here we are with animals not yet extinct, and really, what kind of a sane plan is this to save them from extinction??? Florida has got to do better!

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