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Nelson lobbies against Southwick Commons project in Tallahassee

Writes letter to Florida Housing Finance Corporation to strip developer of its funding


Southwick Commons, a 192-unit apartment complex sitting on land earmarked for the Apopka City Center, was supposed to be part of what Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson described as the crowned jewel of Apopka. But after later learning that Southwick received funding as affordable housing, it's become a black eye that never seems to heal.

In 2022, the City Council voted 3-2 against allowing Southwick to make changes to the developer's agreement that would allow it to build the complex. Southwick sued the City, and the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Orange County ruled in its favor.

The matter seemed settled, but in April several new occurences took place both by Southwick's attorneys, and by Nelson.

Through a public records request, The Apopka Voice has learned that:

  • An attorney for Southwick is pushing the City of Apopka to approve all related permits by June 15th, or face paying mounting attorneys fees for Southwick, according to a letter sent to Apopka Community Development Director Jim Hitt.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has opened an investigation into the City's handling of the Southwick project, according to the attorney's letter.
  • Nelson wrote a letter urging the Florida Housing Finance Corporation to deny Southwick the funding it is expected to get from the agency.
  • The letter, while signed only by Nelson, was sent on letterhead with all four commissioners listed, despite them not being informed of its contents.
  • There were no discussions about Nelson's letter during previous city council meetings
In November 2021, the City of Apopka sold approximately 12 acres of land on the corner of East Sixth Street and South Alabama Avenue to Taurus Investment Holdings for $1.92 million. It was in accordance with Taurus' contract to create the Apopka City Center. Taurus sold the property a few days later to Wendover Housing Partners for $3.25 million. Wendover planned to build Southwick Commons, a 195-unit $52.8 million affordable housing project.
The plans for the City Center included luxury apartments, but not affordable housing. Taurus, Southwick, Orange County, and the City of Apopka were unable to get on the same page about the specific intent of this project, which triggered Wendover to request changes to the developer's agreement.
At its May 4th (2022) meeting, the City Council voted 3-2 against giving Southwick the changes to the developer's agreement it would need to complete the project. 
In November 2022, the court ruled in favor of Southwick in its lawsuit against the City of Apopka, finding that the City violated state statutes in the case of developing an affordable housing project on land that is part of the City Center project. But that ruling did not bring an end to the matter.

In a letter dated April 7th, Rebecca Wilson of the law firm Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed (representing Southwick), writes:

"On April 3rd, 2023, our team resubmitted the Major Development Plan (MDP) for its 4th review. The MDP complies with the City's LDC and the Amended and Restated Development Agreement dated July 15, 2020. In fact, all outstanding items have been addressed: we reduced to 192 units, the turn-lane issue has been resolved and we have provided balconies. Accordingly, the 4th review should be efficient and expediated. We request that the MDP be heard on April 19th DRC, May 9th Planning Commission and May 10th City Council

In order to meet our funding deadline, we need permits prior to June 15, 2023. As you are aware the 9th Judicial Circuit Court has ruled that the City engaged in a discriminatory housing practice in violation of the Florida Fair Housing Act. In addition, the City's insurance attorney has stipulated that Southwick is entitled to recover its attorneys' fees from the City under the Florida Fair Housing Act. These fees to be paid by the City of Apopka are hundreds of thousands of dollars and are continuing to accrue as the issue of whether Southwick is entitled to recover its actual damages based upon the City's discriminatory housing practice is still being litigated

If the City continues to delay and deny the MDP, we will have no choice but to add damages caused by delay as an additional claim in this litigation. In order to minimize the potential damages Southwick, we also request that the City simultaneously review the Site Construction Plans and the Building Construction Plans

The City's handling of this project has also gained the attention of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"). As you may be aware HUD has opened an investigation and has begun its interviews." 

Nelson, despite the outcome of the lawsuit, pushed back on Southwick and its attorney's demands by threatening its funding from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC).

In a letter to FHFC dated April 26th, Nelson writes:

"The City of Apopka objects to the Affordable Housing Project at 175 Southeast of the intersection of E 6th St. and Alabama Ave. Apopka. The City lost in Court on the issue of subsidized housing (attachment 1) but the rest of the Developer's agreement (attachment 2) which includes luxury amenities was left intact. We continue to be harassed by Wendover about damages for holding up their project but the timeline (attachment 3) does not prove their case. Wendover went under contract on the property November 18th, 2020 and didn't close on the property until November 2nd of 2021. In almost an entire year, Wendover had the opportunity to look at the Developer's Agreement and the luxury amenities that are required. They either failed to read the document or worse figured they could intimidate the City into caving on the luxury amenities that are spelled out in the Developer's Agreement. The City Center is our Crown Jewel of Apopka with restaurants, shopping and even an upscale supermarket in the planning stages for this 34-acre site (attachment 4). Wendover could flip the property to one of several luxury apartment builders eager to build on this site and pocket more than a million-dollar profit

We in Apopka fully support Affordable Housing and are working with Orange County to bring a 103-unit single family and duplex community to the Apopka community. We are just asking that you, the Florida Housing Authority, do the right thing and deny Wendover the funding for this project if they continue to whittle away at the design elements which could result in an inferior product in the City under the guise of affordable housing. With so many worthwhile projects that didn't make the cut, these funds could be reallocated to another important development

It is my understanding this item is on the consent agenda for your board meeting taking place on Friday, April 28, 2023. I respectfully request that this item be taken off consent in order to have a meaningful discussion about this item and how it impacts the City of Apopka. As a former legislator, I understand the challenges the State faces when it comes to the lack of affordable housing. As the Mayor of Apopka, I want to do my part to find other opportunities for affordable housing in our community."

According to its website, the FHFC was created by the Florida Legislature 40 years ago to assist in providing a range of affordable housing opportunities for residents that help make Florida communities great places in which to live, work and do business. Its vision is to be recognized as an outstanding provider of innovative, measurable, data-driven and fiscally sustainable solutions that respond to the affordable housing challenges of Florida. FHFC also assists affordable housing developers with financing.

The Apopka Voice contacted all five members of the City Council and Orange County Commissioner Christine Moore for their reactions to the letter, and for Nelson's comment on writing it. 

Commissioner Kyle Becker was concerned by Nelson's remarks to Florida Housing, and that it was not discussed by the Council.

“This is yet another example of the Mayor operating in a manner in which he feels he has unilateral authority," Becker said. "I find it concerning he would pen a letter to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation making the accusations he did of the applicant and perpetuating his own personal views on letterhead with the names of all Commissioners when we were never consulted on the contents of such a letter."

He also points out that Nelson was in favor of this project in 2020.

"I find it even more confusing he would take such an aggressive stance with the Florida Housing Finance Corporation on this project when it was his own administration that signed off on their initial attestation in 2020 to allow this very project to proceed down the path they have landed at today. I just hope the inflammatory language he used in the letter to describe the applicant as “harassing” the city hasn’t put us at any sort of additional legal risk. Clearly, the letter had no impact on the proceedings, as it was never pulled or even mentioned during their most recent board meeting.”

Commissioner Diane Velazquez, who confirmed she was not told of Nelson's letter beforehand, looks forward to discussing Nelson's actions at the next City Council meeting.

"On Thursday, April 27, 2023, I learned the Mayor would be appearing in Tallahassee on Friday, April 28, 2023, for the purpose of asking the Florida Housing  Finance Corporation Board of Directors to remove a consent agenda item re:  Affordable Housing Project at 175 Southeast of the Intersection of 6th Street known as the Wendover Project," Velazquez said. "In the content of the Mayor’s letter (dated  April 26, 2023) The Mayor was appealing to the Florida Housing Authority “to do  the right thing and deny Wendover the funding for the project….” When I  learned the Mayor would be traveling to Tallahassee, I researched work-related emails to see if any information was sent to the commissioners. I could not find any email or notification re: the action to ask to defund the allocated state money for the Wendover Project. The decision and action belongs solely to the Mayor without the knowledge and/or public discussion with the elected City Commissioners. When the council was notified the lawsuit was lost by the City at a public council meeting earlier in the year, the direction and discussion was that the project would move forward as planned. I will be guided by the discussion and/or action of this project when it is placed on the Agenda for the review/official Vote by the city council at the next public council meeting."

Moore, who was critical of the city council's vote in 2022 to deny Southwick its requested changes, believes there was a better path to take.

"I understand the desire to add more diversity in housing stock in downtown Apopka," she said. "This should have been facilitated with an effective and aggressive 30-year CRA. With the looming 2024 request for a 10-year extension to the CRA, Apopka can still complete infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks, way finding signage, on street parking, upgraded landscape medians, pocket parks, etc. The goal would be to use these improvements to attract additional private sector businesses, residents, and upscale apartments."

Apopka City Center, Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, Apopka City Council, Orange County Commissioner Christine Moore, Southwick Commons


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

  • Richard

    Once again another dysfunctional disaster that’s gonna cost taxpayers to pay Southwick over $300,000 in litigation damages. Fire Jim Hitt for screwing this all up, escort the city attorney out, he was fired weeks ago, and RECALL Nelson.

    Monday, May 1, 2023 Report this

  • SusanBeth

    This has the potential to be an incredibly costly nightmare spearheaded by a Mayor who apparently is governing by dictatorship. The Mayor has truly run amok. Recall Nelson and fire the City attorney!

    Monday, May 1, 2023 Report this

  • wheresthepopcorn

    it could cost 300k in legal fees but has it?! if the mayor got his own letterhead without the council they would be pissed. No matter what Nelson does he can’t win.

    Do you really think Rodricky has time to read all your 100’s of repetitive emails… if anything he is ignoring them because they all same the same thing. Happens in every county or city…

    Do you think DeSantis reads his own email?

    Monday, May 1, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Reply to Ms.Moore, who is the Orange County Commissioner, who is so critical of our city's administration......who states, "this should have been facilitated with an effective and aggressive 30 year CRA".....blah, blah, blah, about improvements, etc......Well, Ms. Moore, why don't you share with the readers here, who sits on the CRA board, it is the city commissioners along with some other people, so if you have a beef with the CRA board, SORRY! Blame some of your people, who you helped elect when you were their paid-for-hire campaign manager.

    Monday, May 1, 2023 Report this

  • wheresthepopcorn

    Attorneys can’t guarantee a result. They just render an opinion. This 300k number is BS. There is more to this store Apopka Voice. What does this letter say?

    Monday, May 1, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    Also it should be noted that Orange County Commissioner, Christine Moore, DID NOT SUPPORT rent control efforts, that were brought forth to the county, to control sky high rent, constantly increasing beyond citizen's means, resulting in many families being forced out into the streets, and left homeless, and meanwhile, Ms. Moore writes articles bragging about her own big backyard, her garden, and her pool.

    Monday, May 1, 2023 Report this

  • MamaMia

    The project attorney wants it to go before the city planning commission May 9th, and the city council May 10th? I don't see a city council meeting for May 10th???

    Tuesday, May 2, 2023 Report this

  • Richard

    Nelson begging the state to not fund this project was a joke. He didn’t even get to speak lol. Tallahassee knows all about his shenanigans.

    Tuesday, May 2, 2023 Report this

  • MelissaW

    This mayor is an embarrassment.

    Tuesday, May 2, 2023 Report this