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Rock Springs Ridge

Developing Story: FWC rejects Rock Springs Ridge's alternative Gopher Tortoise Conservation property

Easement waiver on 51-acre Kelly Park Road property still in doubt


At the September 6th Apopka City Council meeting, Gary McSweeney, the director of the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association, announced an update on its progress with The Golf Group - owners of the RSR golf course lands.

"The HOA Board presented a unique and compelling Land Exchange Agreement to our membership last week that was both informative and well received before it was unanimously approved by the Board," Mc Sweeney told the Council during the public comments section of the meeting. "This Agreement allows for a 51-acre Kelly Park Road parcel owned by the HOA to be exchanged for a 319-Acre Golf Course Tract owned by the RSR Golf Club. This debt-free exchange of lands will help restore our integrity and benefits lost over the 25-year development of our community."

Part of that agreement hinged on getting a waiver for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's environmental easement that is currently attached perpetually to the 51-acre parcel known as the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area.

The RSR HOA's plan was to offer up an 82-acre parcel, formerly a piece of the RSR Golf Course, as a better alternative.

In September, he sent the following statement to The Apopka Voice:

"Gopher-Tortoise Conservation Area: Proposed development for a new 82-acre, FFWC-compliant Conservation Habitat located and accessible only from within the boundaries of RSR. The 1,320 RSR Homeowners can then provide for a safe and protected Tortoise environment that is free from adverse outside influences. The existing Kelly Park Road Habitat, however, provides only uncontrolled access and neither safety nor protection for Tortoises resident in that conservation area. They must rely on the voice of others (RSR) to advocate for a relocation effort on their behalf."

But just weeks after that statement, the FWC disagreed with McSweeney's assessment. Through a public records request, The Apopka Voice has learned that the FWC rejected its proposal for an alternative property.. 

According to the 57-page FWC Site Visit Report, multiple issues made it unsuitable for transferring gopher tortoises to that property.

"The site was assessed for gopher tortoise suitability by comparing the minimum site suitability criteria (i.e., permitting potential) included in the Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines (April 2023) for gopher tortoise recipient sites to the existing conditions of the proposed replacement lands." The FWC wrote. "It was determined during the site visit that there is not permitting potential at this time for the Rock Springs Ridge Golf Course in its current state. It was also determined that the proposed replacement lands are not the same habitat type or habitat that supports the species for which the easement was originally given, are not contiguous to the affected parcel, and do not include habitat in the same condition as the easement habitat, or better."

The report did not offer any promising remedies either.

"Due to past fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, and other chemical use, it is unclear how well the site will respond to the below recommendations. The Golf Course will need to revert back to a natural habitat to serve as compensation to the FWC for easement release that offers a net conservation benefit. To do this, the landowner will have to remove the invasives, plant shrubs to provide shade and protection from predators, and the ground cover needs to be restored to a native seed bank."

The roads around the property were also of concern to the FWC:

"While the road is in a residential area with a speed limit of 25 mph and is only 2 lanes, there is a curb that would make it difficult and dangerous for a tortoise to cross. This creates 2 separate sections, one of 43.7 acres and one of 11.97 acres. The 11.97-acre area does not constitute enough acreage to provide significant habitat for gopher tortoises, considering translocated gopher tortoise populations are generally stocked at 2 tortoises per acre, and natural populations are often found in lower densities than translocated populations."

The FWC highlighted several other issues that made the property unsuited for a gopher tortoise conservation refuge.

"There are multiple disturbance concerns on the property. There are structures that remain from when the golf course was open. There is trash on the property from the surrounding residents, a section of hog rooting, invasive plants, and monocultures of non-native grasses. The structures were found throughout the site (Figure 20) and consisted of an old bathroom, a sidewalk, the drainage features previously mentioned (manholes, grates, and culverts), golf course signs with the hole information, and what appeared to be a couple of pump houses. The visible structures were clipped from the suitable habitat for the proposed replacement lands, but it is suspected that the bathroom, pump houses, and drainage features have underground components that could be detrimental to a burrowing animal as well."

The property's close proximity to housing also concerned the FWC.

"The land is surrounded by houses with no barriers between the land and the houses to the extent that site visit attendees took caution to make sure they were not trespassing in multiple landowner’s yards while conducting the evaluation. Trespassing was evident by trash on the property. Building a fence would help to a degree to prevent trespassers, but because of the proximity to so many houses, this would not be completely preventable. In addition, the fence must allow for tortoises to move on and off-site."

They conclude by stating that the property would not be of equal or greater value to the FWC and would not be suitable to release the current easement.

"The site visit was conducted to consider proposed replacement lands associated with the requested easement release of 51.2 acres of the existing ORA-085 (gopher tortoise easement). Based on the site visit, the “Golf Course” property in its current state would not be considered a suitable replacement property for the existing ORA-085 conservation easement. The proposed replacement lands are not the same habitat type or habitat that supports the species for which easement ORA-085 was originally granted and are not fully contiguous to the affected parcel. The proposed replacement habitat is also not currently in the same condition or better as the easement property and fragments existing land under an easement."

Although the FWC report is a blow to the proposed agreement between the RSR HOA and The Golf Group (owners of the RSR Golf Course lands), to swap the golf course for the gopher tortoise lands, the FWC stopped short of denying the RSR HOA its proposed easement waiver.

"FWC staff do not have a timeframe on this decision," said Audrey Browning, a Gopher Tortoise Assistant Biologist for the FWC. "There are a number of internal and external factors to consider, and we are unable to estimate when the agency will reach a decision."

According to McSweeney's presentation in September, the proposed contract is scheduled to close on March 1st, 2024.

This developing story will be updated in future editions of The Apopka Voice.

Rock Springs Ridge, RSR Homeowners Association, The Golf Group, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Gopher Tortoise, Environmental Easement