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Rock Springs Ridge HOA announces contract with The Golf Group to swap gopher tortoise lands for golf course lands; but questions remain


"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

--Bon Jovi

It's been three years since the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association Board set its sights on reclaiming the RSR Golf Course lands for its community. And while there have been varying partners, attorneys, land swaps, and properties proposed in the deal, there has been one constant in this recurring, evolving attempt at a deal.

No matter what the bottom line is, there are always questions left unanswered.

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-A¢re 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."

The 51-acre Kelly Park Road parcel is also known as the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area, and while it is owned by the HOA, there is also an environmental easement attached to it that is perpetual and has not been released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

In fact, they wrote a letter to the RSR HOA warning them to stop trying to sell the parcel.

Mc Sweeney addressed the gopher tortoise lands in the statement, albeit with somewhat outdated facts.

"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."

It's disappointing for the HOA to confirm they cannot protect the gopher tortoises in their current location, given they have been there for over two decades... but if they move them to a nearby location and they, along with all of RSR, will become advocates for the gopher tortoises - who cannot speak for themselves.

Mc Sweeney then jumped the gun a bit on when the FWC would make a site visit and see for themselves the difference between their current location and the Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom environmental playground they envision for the gopher tortoises.

"Florida Fish and Wildlife will this week be completing their site investigation of our 82 acres. Once approved, our proposal for a new Habitat will be prepared compliant with FFWC Tortoise Habitat guidelines and will be completed at No Cost to either the City or State. RSR will donate the 82 acres of approved lands for this habitat, and the Golf Group will Fund, Prepare the site, Implement the improvements, and Relocate the Tortoises according to FFWC Relocation & Management procedures. The Tortoises will then thrive in this new environment."

However, according to the FWC, that site visit was postponed because of the potential threat of Hurricane Ibalia, which made landfall on August 30th, and any decision about releasing the easement has not been made.

"The easement compliance site visit and site visit to the proposed replacement lands are part of FWC's response to the easement release request," said Alex Kalfin, a Program Planning and monitoring Administrator for the FWC, in an email response dated August 28th. "The Guidelines for easement release require FWC to assess the existing easement for compliance with the easement conditions and the proposed replacement lands for suitability as potential replacement lands. FWC has not made any official decision nor accepted the request to replace the existing easement with the proposed replacement lands, as we are currently working through the process of evaluating the request. We have postponed the next site visit until our next available date in mid-September due to Idalia."

When asked by The Apopka Voice to clarify the timing of the FWC's site visit, Mc Sweeney confirmed it had been postponed over a week before his announcement.

"The State Fish and Wildlife was to visit the new conservation area site before our agreement was finalized, but the hurricane caused a delay in that visit to the following week. Once they have issued their decision about the suitability of the 82-acre parcel, the results will be disclosed. The Golf Group, at their costs, will be responsible for all conservation land activities performed in accordance with FWC requirements."

Mc Sweeney also referenced a new golf course for RSR in vivid detail.

"Benefit #1 - 18-Hole “Links” Golf Course: The proposed development of this new 18-hole, 7,000-yard, Par-72, Public Golf Course is currently under design by Illinois-based Esler Golf Designs, LLC. Design features also include an Instructional Golf Academy, a 9-hole Par-3 Executive Golf Course, a Driving Range, Practice greens, and multiple Tee Boxes for each fairway. Once completed, this reimagined Public Golf Course will be the ONLY operating Golf Course In Apopka."

Wow! A 7,000-yard 18-hole golf course, plus a nine-hole par three course, plus a golf academy, plus a driving range, plus practice greens, not to mention a new 82-acre gopher tortoise parcel, is going to take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money. But who is going to pay for a re-imagined golf facility of this scale?

"Esler Golf Designs has submitted schematic plans that are quite articulate, as we would expect from a quality national golf course designer and developer," said McSweeney. "These plans are currently under our internal review. Esler is responsible for their costs to get the course up and operational, and any cost we can provide will be discussed as their plans are formalized, and the lands are owned by RSR."

Because his statement makes it sound an awful lot like Esler will be developing a golf course at its own cost, I asked a follow-up question:

"Esler is not charging you anything to develop the golf course/facility, and in exchange, what do they get? Would they own the course/property? Are they developing it in order to get the revenues? Both?"

His clarifying answer seemed to add even more layers of complexity with just a dash of misdirection... like a Blue Darter running back taking a handoff on a sweep left and then suddenly pitching to a wide receiver going to the right on a double reverse. 

"Esler is helping RSR to develop concepts for the golf course lands at no cost to RSR. They will develop a master plan with costs to complete the design. This will be provided in return for Esler receiving 237 acres of our golf course lands to configure and develop these lands in the best interests of RSR. Nobody gets anything for free, they receive value for what they can contribute to advance our cause. Once the course is operational, they will add RSR as a financial participant in our value-sharing approach, and compensations will begin to flow as an alternate income source for RSR and complete our visionary plans." 

I'm not sure about compensation, but no doubt something will be flowing.

McSweeney also referenced a restaurant coming to RSR in the vaguest yet most hyperbolic of terms.

"Benefit-2: Fine Dining Restaurant: Proposed development of a new Restaurant will be located in the soon-to-be renovated Tavern Building & Grounds. This Restaurant will be owned and operated by a renowned local Restaurateur who has successfully established his restaurants as among the best in central Florida. Negotiations are continuing to provide for their long-term presence in RSR."

It's another "wow" statement, just with very few specifics to back up the claims. 

I asked Mc Sweeney for more specifics:

"Who is the restaurateur you announced in your statement, and when do you anticipate it being open? How far along are you in negotiations? Will they lease the property? What specific arrangements do you have with this restaurateur?"

"The Restaurant is under negotiations as we do not yet own the building or lands. We have patiently waited over three years to achieve this favorable agreement, and we will wait a few weeks more until it can be fully transacted. The owner of the restaurant will disclose their interest in their own timeline."

Then in a follow-up email, Mc Sweeney expanded his response.

"A similar plan (as the golf course) will be utilized with the Restaurant so they can operate efficiently and the re-construction of the building and lands is established. Once the Course or Restaurant achieves success, they will enter into an agreement with RSR to compensate our community for our land or building gifts to them, serving as the dedicated developer for their golf and restaurant interests."

McSweeney closed his statement with another unlikely projection.

"The Golf Club will make an application to the City of Apopka upon FFWC approval of the new conservation area, and we will then commence with the Comprehensive Plans and PL JD/Zoning Amendment submittals to the city at their next available meeting, hopefully on 09/20/2023."

But with the FWC not yet completing a site visit, it seems next to impossible to expect or even hope that any official business on this property would make its way to any City department.

He did, however, summarize his statement by announcing a targeted closing date that falls very close to another pertinent event in Apopka.

"In summary, our Development Team has navigated through many events & discussions over the past three years, and we have targeted March 1, 2024, as the Closing Date for this approved exchange. We all ask for City and State support in approving these Plans, which have been prepared around the best interests of our community. Approval will permit RSR to implement our vision for a significantly improved and sustained community for a long period of time and well into the future."

Municipal elections in Apopka for the City Commission Seats #3 and#4 are on March 19, 2024.

Editor's Note: Another obstacle standing in the way of this land swap is approximately $1.7 million in fines levied by the City of Apopka on the RSR Golf Course lands and on the clubhouse/restaurant - both owned by The Golf Group. Look for that article in a future edition of The Apopka Voice. 

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