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Death of Dello Russo leaves Rock Springs Ridge GC deal in question

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"Because of the unknowns, I would not vote for this as a resident." - Commissioner Alexander H. Smith

By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

There are a lot of directions a commercial property deal can take on its way to closing. It can sail along without a hitch. It can experience a few wrinkles along the way but then at the last minute - come together.

Or, in Apopka's case, it can take on a Shakespearean plot twist.

The shocking, tragic, and untimely death of Robert Dello Russo, the owner of the Rock Springs Ridge Golf Course, has added a lot of question marks to an already complex tri-party land swap involving the RSR Golf Course, Homeowners Association, and the City of Apopka. It brings back memories of an attempted purchase of the Errol Estate Golf Course back in 2018 that fell apart after Errol GC owner Larry Klein passed away, leaving skeptical family members who ultimately unraveled a deal with the Signature H Property Group.

And while the sale of the RSR Golf Course seemed to be on a glide path just a few weeks ago, unexpected headwinds are emerging after the death of the owner, pointed questions by three city commissioners, and a quiet group of RSR residents who are allegedly not sold on this deal.

City Council weighs in

At the June 2nd meeting of the Apopka City Council, Mayor Bryan Nelson detailed the progress that had been made towards securing an ordinance to create a recreational district and a buy/sell agreement for the tri-party land swap. Both documents, according to Nelson, are a work in progress that he hopes will be ready by the June 16th City Council meeting.

"If we get an agreement we are comfortable with, we'll have a meeting at the amphitheater for the residents. I was hoping to put some dates on it, but we're not there yet."

City Commissioner Diane Velazquez, however, didn't want to rush the issue.

"You're planning on bringing this back for the NEXT City Council meeting?" Velazquez asked Nelson.

"Yeah," said Nelson.

"When are you planning on having the community meeting? Velazquez asked. "Are the residents going to have enough time to look this over?"

"Yeah," said Nelson.

"Okay...," Velazquez said.

City Commissioner Kyle Becker also had questions about the understanding the RSR residents had regarding what was being transacted, and if they are in favor of the land swap.

"To that end, how will it be communicated back to this board [on] what the RSR sentiment is? Becker asked. "I would need some sort of information or confidence in that."

"Well, we can wait as long as you all want to wait," said Nelson.

"But when we go to pass this ordinance, how do we feel confident that the majority of residents support it?" Becker asked.

"Well, we'd have that community meeting out at the amphitheater," Nelson said. "We would have it on the RSR Facebook page, and our website so that the community could take a look at that ordinance and the buy/sell agreement... and give them a couple of days to go over it before we have that community meeting."

"The way I interpret this playing out is we have the draft ordinance," Becker said. "We either vote for it or we don’t vote for it. If it does pass, it goes to the people to vote on. And if that passes, then the recreational district is created."

"Correct," said Apopka City Attorney Michael Rodriguez.

"Where I want to have confidence is that the details the RSR residents have in hand, that they’re making a good decision... an educated decision, not with hyperbole, and great emotions," said Becker.

"That’s really up to the residents of Rock Springs to weigh the impacts of what a recreational district will do... and then whether or not," said Rodriguez. "There can be polls... the residents can poll themselves - but the ultimate poll is an actual election."

"My big thing is in educating the people in RSR..." Becker said. "I know what we said... that it’s not the responsibility of the City. But with all the community meetings I believe the residents might be leaning on the City for some sort of guidance and feedback as to what those costs might look like - because we're maybe a little more in tune with what those costs might be."

"Well at the end of the day how they’re going to operate is a determination for the residents, whether through the HOA or through the recreational district," said Rodriguez. "The City doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to state that if it’s going to cost X to run a golf course, Y to have a passive park, it’s going to cost you Z if you keep it as wild conservation lands. That is actually what the purpose of the recreational district is for - to do those cost evaluations and then determine the intent they're going to use the property for."

Velazquez, however, is not convinced that a majority of RSR residents are in favor of the land swap moving forward.

"My concern is we really haven’t gotten feedback from all the residents. I mean, we have groups... we have a strong group. Then we have a very quiet group that’s not really coming out, but they are of course contacting me and there’s another community leader in RSR that this particular group has been contacting and saying 'we don’t understand what we’re getting into'. So before we even get back to this ordinance, I’d like to get real feedback from the community and the majority to say this is what you’re buying into. I’m not seeing that, not as a resident. I’m seeing the land swap and we’re going to create this recreational district, but I’m a resident myself and I still don’t understand what we’re buying into. So if I don’t understand it, I can’t convince another resident what we’re buying into."

"I think in regards to the City's obligations, the use is going to be up to the residents and not for the City to make," Rodriguez said.

"I guess at this point it would be that I have to refer to the HOA... for them to go out into the community and get some kind of consensus," said Velazquez.

"It’s our understanding that we’ve been waiting for the HOA to come back to us and ask what is the consensus?" Rodriguez said. "And I would advise the City not to get involved in any type of inter-political debate between the residents. That’s not a role for the city... to take sides or get involved in."

"The first question is do you want it?" Nelson said.

"That’s the big question, do they want it?" said Velazquez. "We don’t have that at all."

Nelson pushed back on that assertion by referencing the first RSR meeting at the Apopka Amphitheater in April.

"Well, I think only four people said they were against it at the last meeting, " said Nelson.

"But that was probably only one-third of the RSR residents," said Velazquez.

"I’m only saying, of all the people there, only four people raised their hands against it," Nelson said.

"The rest of them were afraid to," said City Commissioner Alexander Smith. "They didn’t want to be assassinated."

Smith talks to The Apopka Voice

Smith has been relatively quiet on the subject of the Rock Springs Golf Course in City Council meetings, but in an interview with The Apopka Voice, he expressed significant concerns.

"I'm in favor of Rock Springs Ridge owning the golf course," he said. "I'm not sure yet about the method we are going about, because when we talk to the residents, their bottom line is 'how much is this going to cost us?'... and as of yet, nobody has been able to give us any figures about how much it's going to cost."

It's the additional costs beyond the $2.4 million outlay that are the primary issue for Smith.

"I'm hesitant because there are too many unknowns... because when we talk about the land swap, and the land is worth $2.4 million... so we know we have to pay the City $2.4 million. But then when you're talking about rehabilitating the golf course, what is that going to cost? There's a clubhouse that needs renovation. Who is going to pay for that? What's that going to cost? If we decide to put the golf course back, the sprinkler system is gone. The whole golf course needs to be re-irrigated. That's a cost. Who is going to pay for that? What is it going to cost to maintain the golf course? Nobody is giving any numbers."

Smith also believes that some residents are using their negative sentiment for the current RSR Golf Course scenario to formulate opinions that may not be based on facts or data.

"A lot of people are moving on emotion. They want to get rid of the threat of development... in building homes. They're not looking at the whole picture. Others are on fixed incomes, and they need to know what that dollar figure is going to be. And if we're not going to redevelop the golf course, then why are we buying the land? Just let it sit like it is. That's what it's doing now."

As it stands, and as an RSR resident, Smith confirmed that he would vote against the deal moving forward.

"Residents call me, they see me walking, or at Publix... they stop and ask 'how much is this really going to cost me?' And I can't answer that question. We're going to have to borrow more than $2.4 million. We need to borrow more like $8 million to renovate, get the golf course back in shape. To get the recreational district started. So now that $130 is up to $400-500 per year. Because of the unknowns, I would not vote for this as a resident."

Velazquez, an RSR resident like Smith, wants to make certain this is something the residents want to do.

"I just don’t want this rushed, not before we have a true consensus," she said. "It’s not fair for the city to go through the expense to have this done."

She is also dealing with misinformation in the community.

"I’ve met some residents who say 'oh I’m so glad the city is buying the golf course for us'. They are so wrong, and so I have to correct that."

Nelson too would like to be in a different position but still thinks the City can be of service to RSR.

"Obviously, it would be much simpler if we were out of the middle of this but we’ve got the property that the developer will swap for his property. We’re in the middle where we shouldn’t be. But we’re bringing a solution to a problem."

"I understand that and even the property that we are swapping... it has the tower... so I have concerns about that for the City," said Velazquez. "But I’ll cross that bridge when we get there... but right now the bridge I want to cross is to get a general consensus of the Rock Springs Ridge residents."

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