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'Curiouser and Curiouser': Is the Rock Springs Ridge deal plummeting down the gopher tortoise hole?

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By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

I've described the three-way deal between the City of Apopka, Rock Springs Ridge, and the Golf Group in many ways these past several months. I've used Mark Twain, Shakespeare, and JRR Tolkien to describe the plot twists, turns, and cliffhangers associated with this potential transaction. And although I am looking for an escape hatch from these comparisons to novels, one more jumps to mind.

Welcome to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Yes, we have gone down the rabbit hole; or more appropriately, in this case, the gopher tortoise hole.

During the Apopka City Council's September 15th meeting, comments were made and questions asked about the deal with RSR. The Council answered the questions, and it looked like the meeting would commence - sans an RSR discussion.

But alas, it was not to be.

"I've got other concerns," said Commissioner Doug Bankson, largely quiet during the RSR discussions. "My big issue is the tower and the cost. We would end up taking the very profits we have from the sale... but then time keeps moving on and the value now is probably not the value then. I'm a steward of that 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."

Bankson may not be the most vocal commissioner on this deal, but his summary is spot-on. It's a three-way deal that has changed so many times it rivals a runway model during Paris Fashion Week.

Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson called on IT Director Robert Hippler to shed light on the subject of the tower. But before he could reach the podium, Nelson had some thoughts of his own.

"I'm not saying we do or we don't need to sell the land, but there is a life expectancy on the tower," Nelson said. "It's not unlimited."

The cost of replacing a 30-year-old tower

"The initial plan I was pushing for was to get the tower rebuilt in that location," Hippler said. "The idea was to put a self-support tower right next to it, utilize the existing building we have to keep the cost down... that would have been the cheaper route to do it at the time. That's before any of the current talks were happening."

Hippler said the earlier plan (before COVID) would have cost between $1-1.2 million. Because of the increases after COVID, Hippler's estimate to re-construct at the other location is $2.7 million. He also said the tower is 30-32 years old and has met its life expectancy.

"The property was meant to be athletic fields," said Nelson. "We would have left the tower there... we could still leave the tower there. That's to be determined by the Council. But we need a tower somewhere in the next two or three years."

Commissioner Diane Velazquez, a resident of RSR, has been far more vocal on the deal and seems to be getting more skeptical every meeting.

"So we shouldn't sell then, because if we need it in two or three years, why would we sell Harmon?" Velazquez said. "What would happen to our tower? I remember saying that when Harmon was first proposed in the swap, that what are we doing with the property housing the tower? I had concerns with that because we should own the property and we shouldn't sell that part."

What is the consensus of RSR residents?

Velazquez also expressed frustration at RSR Homeowners Association President Gary McSweeney for not following through on a survey she requested months ago.

"At the July 21st meeting, I asked Gary McSweeney for a consensus from the residents if they want to buy the land," she said. "Now, it's September 15th and they still have not asked the residents if they want to buy into this purchase, and they still have not provided any numbers on the cost, the maintenance, what it will cost the residents, and for how long."

Velazquez also said that on the social media site NextDoor for the RSR community, that comments posted say Nelson has guaranteed the deal would pass. City Attorney Michael Rodriguez responded to Velazquez that no deal exists as it stands today.

"There is no guaranteed deal," Rodriquez said. "Any land swap, purchase, or bid has to be brought before this Council for approval. I can tell you I have not been asked to draft a land swap document... nor has there been any land swap between any party and city contemplated or prepared to be brought forth before this Council."

Nelson denied guaranteeing a deal with RSR or the Golf Group - owners of the defunct golf course.

"I've never brought anything to the Golf Group," he said. "You keep saying I'm the one. I've said it numerous times it was never my intention to make a three-way-swap. 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."

It's certainly true that no written documents or even a verbal commitment made in public are tying Nelson to a guarantee. But his comments at the RSR Meeting at the Apopka Amphitheater in April certainly sounded as if he was not only rooting for its success but also taking charge of the outcome.

“As you all know, I got elected three years ago,” Nelson said to a raucous crowd of RSR residents at the April Amphitheater meeting. “And ever since then, we’ve been trying to set up an arrangement to get Dello Russo out of Rock Springs Ridge.”

He also said this to McSweeney at the July 21st City Council meeting:

“I think we need to distinguish between what’s best for the City and what’s best for the RSR people. I think our decision will be to let RSR have the ability to do what they want to do. I’m not here to mandate what RSR does – period. That’s for the RSR residents to do. I want to give RSR the opportunity to buy the golf course, and that’s all I want to give them.”

It's not a guaranteed deal as alleged, but it's also not a person who is against a three-way deal since day one.

A public hearing on the RSR Golf Course

Like Bankson, Commissioner Kyle Becker would like to get all of the details on the table before arriving at a decision.

"At the end of the day, we need to have a public hearing," Becker said. "There's too much 'game of telephone' going on. It's got to be part of a public noticed forum that people from RSR can come to, weigh their opinions, and know that we're going to be talking on this matter. Because either through public comments or the mayor's report it really doesn't afford that opportunity."

He also expressed surprise that a three-way deal was not always the proposal on the table since April.

"Maybe this was my own confusion, but when the material was passed out at the initial amphitheater meeting, the Golf Group was to receive the Harmon property, we would acquire the golf course for a period of time at which the HOA would lease it from us. We would make the appropriate PUD adjustments and then the HOA would purchase it from us once they got their financing in order. For me, that screams tri-party agreement because three parties are at the table - but maybe that's my own confusion."

Commissioner Alexander Smith, also a homeowner in RSR, declined to comment on the discussion.

"The attorney said there wasn't a proposal so I don't have anything to discuss."

"Well there is a reason to discuss it because the residents in RSR feel that we're holding back," Velazquez said.

"We can't do anything until we have something to show you," said Nelson. "We don't have anything from the HOA - anything. We have all these discussions, but nothing to offer. It's a moot point."

Bankson, like Becker, would like to see all of the details to make an informed decision.

"I love the idea of finding a solution," said Bankson. "I think that people are open to that and just kind of waiting. I am content to let the process work out in the HOA, but initially, it wasn't about the tower. As Commissioner Becker said, I would like to know the logistics of that. We are stewards of the people's property. 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."

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