To the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association Board:
Hello, board members. I'm writing this open letter to you in order to clear the air. Things have been rocky between us, but I want to make a few things clear.
I'm glad you called a special meeting to deal with the letter you received from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC). I hope you use this opportunity to change directions in your pursuit of the RSR golf course lands that don't involve swapping the gopher tortoise conservation area.
Those lands are protected under a conservation easement from the FWC, as they should be.
I'm sure you know it, but for the benefit of clarity, gopher tortoises are what's called a "keystone species". That means other animals depend on them. More than 350 other species rely on gopher tortoise burrows for survival.
Back in 2002, the RSR Board was a keystone group to gopher tortoises and to its homeowners. They agreed to this PERPETUAL environmental easement.
Another previous board, with keystone-like instincts, hired off-duty officers from the Apopka Police Department to patrol the gopher tortoise lands on 4x4 vehicles with an unannounced schedule. They addressed trespassers and identified fence breaches, litter, etc., for the board to correct. The annual cost of that service was approximately $35,000.
That may sound costly, but contrast it with the spending spree of approximately $375,000 in attorneys fees and $20,000 on a public relations campaign to influence homeowners to endorse your ill-advised plan to purchase the golf course lands, and it sounds like a well-advised bargain.
When you protect the lands you are stewards over, you also don't receive site visits from the FWC that turn up multiple violations like this:
A lot has been cleared within easement ORA-036, where fencing, a swimming pool, and a pool cage have been constructed. Cleared habitat has been sodded with nonnative turfgrass
Large amounts of household trash and debris are present
Concept plans to develop 273 additional housing units within ORA-085 have been presented to the city of Apopka. Perpetual conservation easement ORA-085 prohibits development.
Public access and off-highway vehicle (OHV) use within easements ORA-036 and ORA-085.
Subdivision of 6 lots within easements ORA-036 and ORA-085 apparent along Sand Wedge Loop.
An entrance to a potentially occupied gopher tortoise burrow was obstructed by a survey marker within ORA-085. Numerous other burrows within this easement were also marked with orange flagging tape.
Lack of habitat management within (420) Other Hardwood and (421) Xeric Oak has resulted in unsuitable habitats through most of the easements. The introduction of invasive species within ORA-085 has caused significant habitat degradation.
But let's move on from the past. This meeting today could start a new, more positive trend. Let's talk about the common ground we share.
This may come as a surprise to this board, but I, too, want RSR to possess the golf course lands and ultimately make RSR the thriving golf course community it once was.
I just don't believe that it can be at ANY cost.
Your new plan should have honesty, integrity and be in the best interest of the community. It cannot include false, misleading statements or scare tactics. It should also be realistic. You have to abandon this misleading deal you are currently pushing. The FWC letter makes it pretty clear they aren't going to give up this easement easily.
"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.
I know you want to focus on the one sentence that says, "Upon receipt of a mitigation proposal, the FWC will consider an easement release request for ORA- 085." You should be reading the other 329 words from the FWC that read like a cease and desist letter.
Oh, and even though the letter is written specifically to your board president, the FWC knew it was public record once they mailed it and knew it would probably be published by any news site currently covering this issue or posted on social media by any concerned citizen who might make the request. If you don't see this letter as a shot across your bow, then you need to change the prescription on your glasses.
Although it's been an unfortunate series of misleading statements by your board to your homeowners, that trend can still change with this important special meeting.
In 2021, your board president would not acknowledge that a gopher tortoise conservation area existed - making this statement to The Apopka Voice:
"This Kelly Park vacant land is not a gopher-tortoise sanctuary nor part of any conservation area that requires special consideration under local, state, or federal laws and borders only 12 of the 1,320 homes built in RSR," he said. "The HOA's intentions are to protect those homes with the addition of a 200-feet deep vegetated buffer strip attached to the north side of Sand Wedge Loop in RSR and extending 200 feet into the Kelly Park land area. This land would be heavily vegetated and deeded to the 12 Loop Residents which would likely result in establishing some of the largest lots available in RSR while significantly adding to their sound and visual privacy. Again, a Win-Win solution for everyone, especially when the HOA can produce these results without any financial debt to the RSR community."
In 2022, a member of your board told your homeowners the FWC environmental easement was already approved, and a deal was imminent.
"So we do have an update on the golf course. 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."
In 2023, why not play it straight with your homeowners? Yes, there is a gopher tortoise conservation area. Yes, there is an environmental easement on it that the FWC seems determined to keep in place. Yes, everyone wants to get back the RSR golf course lands. But in 2023, we are going to pursue them with a pragmatic, realistic, and honest approach.
In September 2021, I wrote these words:
"Let's stop playing games. Call the 51 acres whatever you like, but clearly, there are gopher tortoises on that land, and you took on the role of stewards of those creatures by setting that land aside years ago. You decided to protect them... not just until you find a buyer.
I'm sorry you don't see what I see. I guess your desire to possess those golf course lands has clouded your perspective. It's too bad you don't hear what the City Council is saying. It's time to get past the perception that the Golf Group is holding aces when all they have are rags.
I wish you weren't willing to harm nature and wildlife for a deal that's quickly heading for a brick wall, but before you escalate this into an environmental catastrophe, you should reconsider your actions and stop.
The golf course lands are an annoyance, but they aren't going anywhere, and they aren't going to become new houses anytime soon. Live to fight another day and come back to the bargaining table when the Golf Group realizes that it has no leverage to ask such ridiculous prices for vacant land and that the City is not going to save them with prime real estate."
It's been 18 months, but that statement is more true today than it was then. If the Golf Group were going to sue the City and build hundreds of homes in RSR, it would have done it by now. To date, there is little more than hollow threats by the Golf Group to do so.
Come on, board members. You are not naive. You are a savvy group, skilled at persuasion and negotiation. Surely you can see through this scare tactic by the Golf Group. Surely you can call their bluff and begin a more realistic negotiation that doesn't start at a place of weakness.
Be pragmatic. Do what is best for your community. Formulate another plan that has a chance of working. You've been working on this plan for over two years and are just now learning you need to present an application to the FWC in order to move the easement, even though they wrote to you with those details in September 2021.
Be a keystone board to the homeowners you serve, like the gopher tortoises are to their environment