By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor
Fresh off his victory at the ballot box, Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association President Gary McSweeney went before the Apopka City Council to update them on where they stood moving forward. After getting permission from the homeowners to sell the 51-acre gopher tortoise conservation area on Kelly Park Road, McSweeney gave his assessment of the outcome.
"We had the vote at the amphitheater and a quorum of 694 people in the community voted 571 'for' and 123 'no'," he said. "I think that exemplifies the community's opinion pretty accurately."
That seems like a reasonable assessment. 571-123 is over 82% in favor. But what are the RSR voters in favor of?
The vote that was put before them was to give permission to the HOA to sell the 51-acre parcel known as the gopher tortoise mitigation area. It did not address the second and more crucial part of the deal - the purchase of the city-owned property at Harmon Road. If you review the HOA's website, that part of the transaction is not mentioned.
After McSweeney concluded his remarks, RSR HOA attorney Kurt Ardman approached the Council to present the second part of the deal.
"Here's where we are today," he said. "The Golf Group (owners of the RSR golf course lands) and the HOA are finalizing an agreement between the HOA, the Golf Group, and the City for the City Commission's consideration. Our HOA would pay the City approximately $2.5 million for the Harmon Road property. The City would convey that property to the Golf Group simultaneously. The Golf Group would convey the 319-acre defunct golf course lands to the HOA. So that is the essence. We wanted to get this to you so you don't have misinformation."
Ardaman then added a new wrinkle to this old deal.
"The Golf Group is willing to allow the City continued use of the communication tower on our site for replacement of the existing tower."
Previously, the concern over the city's communication tower had been an issue in this proposed land swap, but it wasn't enough to move Commissioner Kyle Becker from a heavy dose of skepticism over this most recent offer.
"What you just presented doesn't necessarily reconcile with what Mr. McSweeney said," said Becker. "In your comments nowhere in there is Kelly Park Road part of the conversation. The scenario you laid out, which is conveniently the same as what was presented at the amphitheater back on April 27th. I'm confused here because we keep talking about this during public comments, during the mayor's reports... there are new deals being brought up in the conversation. And it's totally unfair to this Council for us to keep having these things presented in this manner."
Becker also referenced the content of a mailer/ballot sent to RSR residents that lacked details about the City's side of the deal in this attempt to buy the golf lands.
"I saw the Q&A sent out to Rock Springs Ridge by the HOA... there's zero mention of the Harmon Road property being the lynchpin of the deal going down. So I'm just curious how we are constantly getting to this phase and we have no information on it."
"That's exactly why the HOA president asked me to come - to firsthand tell you where we are," said Ardaman. "It does involve Harmon Road. It does involve the golf lands, and it does require the 51-acre parcel be sold."
"We've been going round and round with this three-way deal, and I'm going to defer to the mayor here," said Commissioner Diane Velazquez. "He has always said he was not in favor of a three-way deal with the HOA. And on April 27th the only person who actually offered Harmon Road was the mayor, and it has never been brought to a workshop. It has constantly come up on the mayor's report."
Velazquez was also taken aback by an email provided to the Council by Ardaman from Chad Barton, who Ardaman said is representing the Golf Group.
"This email... it actually says 'as the new owner of the Harmon Road property'. That statement alone tells me we haven't done a thing up here," said Velazquez. "He has already made himself the owner of the Harmon Road property. I don't want to continue this discussion. It just keeps blowing up and we're just lost. Where are we in this?"
Her question was addressed to City Attorney Michael Rodriguez, who returned to a familiar theme.
"It's the exact question," said Rodriguez. "There's no agenda item for the acceptance of Harmon Road. There is no official offer being brought before this Council. We've had discussions, and they were all hypothetical as to what could constitute an agreement. But the City has not been involved in this most recent draft agreement."
Velazquez then turned her comments to Mayor Bryan Nelson.
"You've let this conversation go on for months," she said to Nelson. "April, May, June, July... seven months they keep referring to this as a land swap the mayor has offered... 'the mayor has actually said yes.'
"Michael, have I said yes?" Nelson asked Rodriguez, but Velazquez interjected again.
"When we sell an asset, we put it out to bid," she said. "And once the bids come in it gets reviewed. But that's not happening with the Harmon property. Do you know what this has done to RSR Mayor Nelson? Do you know what this has done to our community? It has divided us. I get angry emails and so do other commissioners. Do you realize what this has done to us?"
"So what would you have done?" Nelson asked Velazquez.
"Not offer the Harmon property," Velazquez said.
"I didn't," said Nelson. "I've told you I don't know how many times, I didn't offer anything."
Becker, however, referred again to the April 27th meeting as the genesis of the entire three-way deal.
"But good, bad, or indifferent, when 500 people come to the amphitheater and the mayor of our City presents them with the facts of a transaction that involves three different parties, people are going to interpret that as the City leading an initiative to get that accomplished."
Ardaman then interjected what seems to be the only leverage point the Golf Group has - a potential lawsuit.
"The reason we're doing this is we've got strong support from the residents," he said. "If the City does not like the deal, you can say no. We are working diligently with the owner of the golf course lands who believe they have far more rights even if it has to file a suit. They think they can develop several hundred units on golf course property."
Earlier, Ardaman referenced a suggested workshop meeting by the RSR HOA to discuss the details of the proposed deal that so far hasn't happened. It was a meeting Becker wanted to have.
"I was willing and able to participate in a workshop both times I was asked," he said. "I'm hoping that you as an HOA board are going to put together a package, and it's very laid-out and data-driven and you can defend it. But that's certainly not the case here."
"We'd be happy to have a workshop," said Ardaman. "We're still willing to have a workshop if the commission would like, or whatever the commission needs. We're kind of frustrated too. We have some negative, a lot of positive, and it's a difficult process."
"But some of the negative dissenting views have valid points," said Becker. "Not to go down the gopher tortoise hole today... pun intended, but there are valid points that people have. We can't just say that people with dissenting voices are not steeped in fact."
"I don't doubt that," said Ardaman. "There are always facts on each side. But we think there are far more compelling positions to make a deal, and we are working as hard as we can to make that deal work."
Velazquez had another plan for RSR to buy the golf course lands that didn't involve the City's property.
"So on Monday the vote was to sell 51 acres and the price being thrown around was $5.5 million. So with $5.5 million why can't the HOA deal directly with the Golf Group?" asked Velazquez.
"That's a good suggestion," said Ardaman. "I have not had that discussion with the Golf Group."
"Well you did, because what you said when they asked you in public [at the Monday vote] was 'It's not what the Golf Group wants. What they want and will only accept is the Harmon property.' They want to make their money back from their bad investment. What I feel is that the HOA with $5.5 million... they have a good negotiating to deal with the Golf Group and leave the Harmon property out of it."
"That's what they told me," said Ardaman. "That's what was conveyed to me by Chad Barton."
"Yeah, he's already made himself the owner of the Harmon property," said Velazquez.
"He knows he does not own it," said Ardaman.
"Well Mr. Mayor, this is a mess," said Velazquez. "And I will tell you it has sadly divided our community. Seventeen years living in RSR I have not seen the contention, the anger, the insults. It has been very disturbing to me as a resident and as an elected official. I represent the City of Apopka. I am a resident of RSR. I have a home on the golf course. And this has been eating at me because the Harmon property has been the biggest misrepresentation in this entire deal."
"We've got a couple of things we can do," said Nelson. "We can have a workshop and try to solve it. We can bring up a motion at the next Council meeting that we're not going to sell the Harmon property to the Golf Group or the HOA. Whatever you would like to do, I'm fine with it."
"We can't make a yes or no decision on a property until we understand all the data on the tower," said Becker. "I want to see something formal that we can act on and it gives the chance for RSR residents and people that are not RSR residents to express their opinions on this matter."
The Council exited the discussion with Nelson suggesting a workshop about the details of the Harmon Road property after other details on the communications tower could be gathered.
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