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Developing Story: Rock Springs Ridge

Florida Wildlife Commission's letter to Rock Springs Ridge HOA President warns against developing gopher tortoise conservation area

FWC: "Modifying perpetual conservation easements to reduce the encumbered acreage is contrary to the goals set for conservation and mitigation programs"


The Rocks Springs Ridge Homeowners Association continues to pursue a land swap deal that involves trading the 51-acre gopher tortoise conservation area on Kelly Park Road in exchange for the RSR Golf Course lands owned by The Golf Group.

But a major road block in closing the deal is the conservation easement placed on the gopher tortoise lands by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) over 20 years ago. That point was made clear by the FWC in recent correspondence to RSR Board Chairman Burt Fairchild.

On February 3rd, the FWC sent the following letter to Fairchild:

"Mr. Burt Fairchild:

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staff received notice that the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association is involved in discussions related to the development of ORA-085 (the gopher tortoise conservation area). Lands for ORA-085 were acquired with funds received through the FWC Mitigation Park Program and granted a perpetual conservation easement to the FWC with the intent of permanent conservation. As such, the FWC intends to maintain its interest in the permanent conservation of ORA-085.
Perpetual conservation easements are an important tool for conservation, and release of a perpetual easement requires a thorough evaluation of the mitigation being proposed in exchange."

Any such mitigation must not only offset the original mitigation, but also substantially offset the loss of future use of the property for conservation. Modifying perpetual conservation easements to reduce the encumbered acreage is contrary to the goals set for conservation and mitigation programs. As the grantee of conservation easements, the FWC nevertheless receives and must respond to easement release requests following a consistently applied procedure. This procedure is detailed in the Guidelines for Accepting or Releasing Perpetual Conservation Easements, which establish criteria for the FWC to consider when evaluating requests for release of conservation easements. The FWC evaluates the appropriateness of release upon receipt of a mitigation proposal from the requestor, which must ensure net conservation benefit and provide important details (e.g., the location and amount of mitigation and potential permitting needs for gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus, State Threatened)). On September 16th, 2021, FWC staff shared these guidelines with Michelle Chase, Title Secretary, in response to her inquiry about how to rescind an easement. To date, the FWC has yet to receive a mitigation proposal as required by the guidelines from the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association, Inc. Upon receipt of a mitigation proposal, the FWC will consider an easement release request for ORA- 085.
We appreciate your attention to the terms and conditions of ORA-085 and welcome further discussion between FWC staff and Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association, Inc staff regarding the future of the FWC easements encumbering ORA-085.
Jennifer Goff
Deputy Director
Division of Habitat and Species Conservation Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The Apopka Voice reached out to the RSR HOA Board for a response to the letter. John Drago was the first to email back.

"I can’t comment on the FWC letter because I never saw it—can you send me a copy?"

Fairchild responded to the FWC letter with this statement:

"Thank you for including our Rock Springs Ridge Board in your article.  You have asked for a comment regarding a February 3rd, 2023 letter addressed to me from Jennifer Goff, Deputy Director with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Ms. Goff states "upon receipt of a mitigation proposal, the FWC will consider an easement release request for ORA-085."

On Tuesday, February 21st, 2023, Rock Springs Ridge HOA held our regularly scheduled monthly Board meeting attended by Rock Springs Ridge homeowners.  At this meeting, several announcements were made regarding our RSR community (subjects of which Rock Springs Ridge homeowners have a vested interest in).  Since you have asked, you may share the following RSR homeowner information with your readers based on the following announcement made at our last HOA Board meeting: "Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) will work with the Rock Springs Ridge HOA, Esler Golf Designs, LLC and the Golf Group to review and approve creation of a new and significantly improved Gopher-Tortoise Conservation Area from that currently located on the 51.13-acre Kelly Park Road property (i.e., the land area known to FWC as ORA-085 referenced in Ms. Goff's letter).  If the proposed solution is acceptable to the State (FWC), a new Gopher-Tortoise Conservation Area will be submitted to the FWC for review and approval.  Once State Approval has been secured, an Application to the City for Project approval will follow."

So as you can see, Rock Springs Ridge HOA will soon be sending a mitigation proposal to FWC and FWC will then have to decide if the easement release request we submit for ORA-085 will be approved.

If you have any other questions, please feel free to email me directly .  I will go to great lengths to be sure that you have all of the truthful facts before you publish this article and any future articles relative to the actions of Rock Springs Ridge HOA that you would consider of interest to your Apopka Voice readership."

After receiving his statement, The Apopka Voice asked several followup questions to Fairchild.

1. Have you spoken to any representatives of the FWC since they sent the February 3rd letter? If so, who was it you spoke to, and were they optimistic about your relocation plan?
2. When you say the FWC "is working with you", does that extend beyond reviewing your application for relocation? What are they doing to work with you?
3. At your November 15th HOA meeting, RSR Board member Michelle Chase said the easement was already approved for removal, a contract from the Golf Group was coming soon, and she estimated closing on the property in February or March. 
  • Do you have a contract from the Golf Group? 
  • What did Ms. Chase mean when she said the easement was already approved?
4. Has Esler Golf Designs, LLC given you an estimate on the cost to redevelop the golf course, when they could begin the redevelopment, and how long it would take to complete?
5. Is a city-owned property still a possibility for the new gopher tortoise conservation area?
6. Did you inform all the members of the HOA board about the FWC's letter? Did you announce or reference the letter at your February 25th HOA meeting?
After a series of emails back and forth, Fairchild declined to answer the followup questions.
"Mr. Connell: I have decided not to give you any additional information for your article," Fairchild wrote.

At a November 15th HOA meeting, RSR Board member Michelle Chase said the land swap was near closing, and that the easement had already been approved for removal, which is contradicted by the FWC's February 3rd letter.

"So we do have an update on the golf course," Chase said. "So currently, the attorneys are working on the contract, so they are officially moving forward. From here, my understanding is it's going to move very quickly. The turtle easement has already been approved for removal. So that part is done. So it's just a matter of getting the offer contract from the Golf Group. Hopefully, it's very similar to the LOI, but they did all the due diligence. So we don't know yet, but I do know that that much as far as the easement is already approved to be removed very quickly. So once we get the sales contract and it's signed, the next step will be they will submit their development plan to the city of Apopka. And if the terms are the same as the LOI, as soon as the preliminary site approval is given, we will close in 30 days -  February, March, I don't know."

Chase also responded to The Apopka Voice's request for comment.

"May I suggest that you include in your article the success rate of developers building on 3rd party golf courses whether they had zero development rights or 17," Chase said. "It will take some additional research on your part to find those courses that were developed that had no development rights but there are many out there. Also, no city owned property is involved."
Chase was also asked the followup questions, but declined to respond, except to confirm that a City property is no longer being considered as the alternative gopher tortoise mitigation area.
At its February 21st meeting and in an email to RSR residents, the RSR Board released the following notes about the FWC and the Board's attempt to move the gopher tortoise conservation area:
  • FFW: Will work with RSR, EGD and GG to review and approve creation of a new and significantly improved Gopher-Tortoise Conservation Area from that currently located on the

51.13-acre Kelly Park Road property. If the proposed solution is acceptable to the State, a new Gopher-Tortoise Conservation Area will be submitted to FFW for review and approval. Once State Approval has been secured, an Application to the City for Project approval will follow."

The Board declined to answer who at the FWC it was "working with", and did not release the FWC's letter to the RSR homeowners in attendance or in the email sent to them.

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

Rock Springs Ridge, RSR Homeowners Association, The Golf Group, Rock Springs Ridge Golf Course, Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area, Environmental Easement


4 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • MamaMia

    On the surface, it would seem like that FWC letter carries the ultimate power, but when I have read so many articles about Governor Ron DeSantis' backdoor dealing to cater to developers on environmentally sensitive properties, I don't know what will go. It is not a good property for development, regardless of the tortoise conservation easement. It is too close to a known sinkhole area, too close to the blue sink, and has major natural gas lines going through it. The developers don't care though, as long as they make their almighty $$$$. I would hate to see that conservation easement changed. I think even if the tortoises we're dug out and moved, many would die. I don't see anyway that they could locate them all. I have seen the results of tortoises caught under the bulldozers. I saw tortoises ran over and they managed to walk away with their shells cracked wide open and were walking down Vick Road. This was at the development at the end of Welch Road and Vick Road. The one with wall around it there at the red light, years ago, when it was developed. It was distressing to me to see it. I called FWC, an agent came out, by the roadside as I waited for them, and told me that they had a permit, and there was nothing that could be done. They were allowed by state law back then, to bury them alive with a permit issued by the state. Those tortoises I saw were huge. They loved that area there because it was very high ground, not prone to flooding. The very same reason the developers liked the property, and it was close to Errol Estate, was a plus

    Monday, February 27 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Did I mention we city residents need to switch over to " districting" instead of being represented by our city commissioners "at large", as is now? We have 3 city commissioners who reside in Rock Springs Ridge. The rest of us COA residents need to be represented fairly and equally. Too much focus on that area, rather than the entire city area, by our commission. So if a charter change is to be, change the "at large" commissioner representation to " districting" while you all are at it. It's only fair.

    Monday, February 27 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Also in the conservation easement area, huge big power lines. I had forgot those.

    Monday, February 27 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Ocoee has their city elections in March. I see complaining about Apopka elections in March, like there is something fishy about having city elections in March, but Ocoee has theirs then. Also, I noticed that although Ocoee is a smaller city, they have districting of their city commissioners, where each different area has their own representative, which is one of the city commissioners. So let's see how our commissioners stand on this issue. I request one you commissioners make a motion at the March 1st, 2023 council meeting to change to districting, instead of being at large representatives. Do it. We will see how you all are! It is only fair.

    Tuesday, February 28 Report this