It was in April 2021 when Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson proposed a deal to swap City land on Harmon Road to facilitate a deal between the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association and The Golf Group, owners of the RSR golf course lands.
But now, a year removed from that workshop, is the City opening up a new dialogue with the RSR HOA and The Golf Group to assist in its ongoing efforts to trade a 51-acre Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area parcel for the golf course lands?
At the December 7th Apopka City Council meeting, Nelson was just seconds from gavelling to close a marathon 4.5-hour affair when Commissioner Nick Nesta asked a surprising question.
"There was a meeting here with Rock Springs Ridge?" Nesta asked.
"Oh, yeah," Nelson replied.
"Are you able to kind of detail that at all?" Nesta asked.
"Yeah, yeah," Nelson said. "We're trying to put it together. We are getting close to some kind of agreement where the developer, or excuse me, the golf course owner with the (RSR) HOA, putting together an agreement, and we should have something to look at... maybe by the end of the year. So basically, nothing's really changed. It's just how we do it. It's the 51 acres that they'll develop in a swap for the golf course land. I think there's some money to change hands going toward the HOA. What we're trying to do is come up with a conservation easement over some of the golf course lands to mitigate the turtles that are on the 51 acres."
Nelson is right. The RSR HOA and The Golf Group deal is essentially the same. Where he isn't right is the likelihood that the easement will be lifted with such ease.
To give you a little background on a conservation easement with the Florida Wildlife Commission, here is how the document begins:
INTENT OF PERPETUAL CONSERVATION EASEMENTS
"Acceptance of conservation easements by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is a transfer of property rights intended to protect and conserve habitat for wildlife in perpetuity. Perpetual easements are commonly provided for mitigation and conservation purposes to offset impacts. When a landowner grants FWC an easement, it is understood that the transfer of title interest is permanent and that both parties to the easement understand the intent is for permanent conservation. As stewards for wildlife, FWC accepts these permanent easements, understanding that the habitat will be permanently protected from development or as otherwise specified in the easement."
Perpetual, permanent, and forever are words usually not associated with change.
Commissioner Diane Velazquez, clearly unaware of the meeting, inquired about its timing to City Attorney Michael Rodriguez.
"Did you have this meeting yesterday here?"
"I was brought to a meeting," said Rodriguez. "So the HOA has proposed that a portion of the golf course area, which is not going to be used as for golf purposes in the future, will have a conservation easement placed on it, which will prohibit any type of construction any type of... anything. And that area that will be subject to the conservation easement will be the receiving area for the relocated gopher tortoises."
But Nesta's follow-up question unearthed a new revelation about the extent of the City's involvement.
"Isn't it like a three-to-one or something in reference to like acreage needed to relocate them?" He asked Rodriguez.
"There is also the possibility of a portion of City property can also be used for... we would be using some area that's ours to have a receiving area as well," said Rodriguez. "So the total acreage of receiving area would be consistent with what the state needs to be the receiving area for any gopher tortoises that are found and then relocated, pursuant to state regulations."
Commissioner Kyle Becker reminded Rodriguez of his stance on the City being involved in this deal from November.
"I thought, back when we were at the Amphitheater, we kind of put our fists down and said the City has no interest in this going forward," Becker said.
"Well, the City has no interest," said Rodriguez. "There is no interest in the City."
Offering 40-plus acres of city-owned land to assist RSR in achieving a three-to-one ratio in a gopher tortoise relocation plan seems like the City has a little skin in the game, but I guess it depends on the definition of "interest".
Becker also questioned why the City would weigh-in on a property that has an environmental easement attached to it.
"There's a conservation easement for gopher tortoises on that piece of property that's not a city thing or a county thing. That's a state thing. Why do we have this idea that it's going to be this easy to relocate tortoises, and this is like we're talking like this thing is done and dusted?"
"We don't have an opinion on that," Rodriguez said. "The golf course owner and the HOA have been in contact with the state. And that has been what was presented to them from the state. We were not involved in those discussions."
"I'm just floored... again," Becker said. "I know members of this council, and I've made many, many requests that anytime there's a conversation with Rock Springs Ridge... so that we're not blindsided i.e. tonight...that we are abreast of the situation. Clearly, that's not going to be respected. But I guess you get to suffer the reactions that we give. So it's unfortunate."
But Rodriguez pushed back on the idea that Nelson or the staff had done anything wrong.
"There is nothing untoward on the part of the City or any of the City's actions. The relocation of the tortoises is said that they have already been in negotiation discussions with the state. We were not part of those discussions, nor did we take any the lead in those discussions."
"I think saying that we're going to use City property as part of it is," said Nesta.
"It's an opportunity to be able to use certain areas of certain city properties that are already for the purposes of preservation of conservation, that can help facilitate the matter," Rodriguez said in response to Nesta. "And that's something that we can work with the state in accomplishing that matter. But there is no... the extent of the city's involvement is in review and approval of a future land use map amendment that will be brought to them, just as this Council would review any application brought by any developer, or is just like the ones that we reviewed today."
"But you had this meeting yesterday," Velazquez said. "There was a discussion and a conversation about this swap... but actually taking a piece of the conservation, if this is what I'm understanding, and then take, find the gophers, and relocate them onto City property."
"Not all of them," Rodriguez said. "The swap is between the golf course group and the HOA."
"Okay, so what was the meeting about yesterday," asked Velazquez.
"The meeting was mainly to receive direction on what it is that the City is going to review in order to bring the future land use map designations for the overall PD. And amending the PD in order to bring in the consistencies with the PD is going to have to be amended to accommodate the additional units that The Golf Group is going to develop on the property."
According to Rodriguez, members of the RSR HOA, The Golf Group, Nelson, Rodriguez, and Community Development Director Jim Hitt were in attendance at the meeting held at City Hall on Tuesday.
Becker wondered why the City would entertain a meeting with the RSR HOA and The Golf Group after it already backed away from this deal.
"I would just advise that it's a colossal waste of time, in my opinion, if you don't have assurances from the state that they would even entertain the lifting of that easement. I mean, it's a colossal waste of time."
But Nesta's question offered yet another revelation.
"Do we have a site plan?" Nesta asked Rodriguez. "Have they sent you any type of site plan?"
"No, we're still... we're not at that stage," Rodriguez said. "They're not at that yet."
But, as it turns out, they were at that level in another department of City Hall.
"Mr. Hitt? Have you been sent a site plan?" Nesta asked.
"I've got a rough draft of the 51 acres that they're looking to do," Hitt said.
Nesta went on to ask Hitt to circulate the draft of the site plan, which created yet another revelation.
"I sure can," Hitt said. "I had them send that. I believe it was last week. And I wanted to..."
Again shocked by the lack of transparency, Velazquez questioned Hitt about the site plan.
"Say that again? You had it from last week? There's a commission up here. And we represent not just the City but also the residents of Rock Springs Ridge... it just feels like there are agreements going on."
But Rodriguez again pushed back on commission members.
"Now, I want to clarify because there are no agreements, unless this council wants to see every pre-application submittal or suggestions from every single developer that's presented to the City will feel free to do so. But there are no written agreements, and there's nothing to be brought to this calendar. And if there's any agreement against..."
"Mr. Rodriguez, know your place," Becker shot back at the notion of the commissioners asking for every single developer's presentation. "We are an elected board, and we are to be respected. So let's talk about this in a respectful manner. She [Velazquez] had a concern... Mr. Hitt has voluntarily offered to provide updates whenever there's anything remotely close to action on the Rock Springs Ridge community. So maybe not from a legal perspective, but Mr. Hitt has offered that up to this council."
"I understand that...," Rodriguez said as Becker continued to talk.
"I'm going to finish my comments," Becker said. "Proper decorum in the city council is going to be that for you to respect this City Council. And I don't appreciate you raising your voice to us and talking down to us."
"I understood," Rodriguez said. "But I also want to respond to the insinuation that there is a pre-arranged agreement between staff and the golf course group, or the HOA, and to clarify that there is no agreement, that there isn't anything that's been done untoward... any formal actions on the part of the City have to be brought to this Council and will be brought to this Council and have always been brought to this Council in regards to this, this issue or any issue that is presented before the City."
"Well, we can just get a copy of that so that we're all on the same page. That would be greatly appreciated," Nesta added.
"Definitely," said Hitt. "When we were talking about the numbers, it was a process of how can this occur? So we're looking at the numbers as Mr. Rodriguez outlined regarding the densities and whether or not there's anything here, what it would take for them to apply to do a land use change and to amend the PD. One of the things that David Evans [an engineer for The Golf Group] brought up just yesterday. The gopher tortoise was my biggest concern, because I was not convinced that they could get that change over from the state to go anywhere else. What David Evans had mentioned is that they've been in conversation with the state. And until they get that, that opportunity to be able to have another receiving area for the gopher tortoise, they can't do really anything. So that's where that is."
"But the thing is that they're coming in here and having all these meetings," Velazquez said. "I mean..."
"We get developers that come in and have meetings every day," said Hitt. "And that's, that's the way I look at it until they actually have a plan...,"
"Do they meet with the mayor every time?" Nesta asked. "We're creating, I mean, implied or written or expressed, there are still agreements, handshakes going on. So you can say there isn't. And that's fine. There's something going on behind the scenes here that it's creating issues up here, that as long as we're all on one accord, and it's transparent, we could move forward on some things; but the fact that things are happening without being advised, and I know, we're not asking for [updates on] every single development... that is unrealistic. And that's not our expectation. It's a development that's happening in a neighborhood that has cried out for help. So it's reasonable for us to ask for updates should anything happen. We were about to give them a $4 million discount on a property... so it helps to have all of our brains come together to come to a resolution. I think that's the point."
"And also, just for the record, as I said before, there's nothing to preclude each one of you individually from meeting with any developers or any prospective applicants to discuss matters," Rodriguez said. "All of you met with the Clear Lake Division. They came into stress issues. So there's no..."
"I will tell you that the Rock Springs Ridge Golf group has not contacted us to sit down with us," said Velazquez. "And what makes Rock Springs Ridge a little bit unique is because of what's been going on for the past few years, you know, the swapping, and then it didn't swap. And it's just been very tumultuous. And there's not a lot of transparency. So, having a meeting with the entire group, as you did... our community director, yourself, engineers, that, for me, just say for me, you're showing that you're moving forward with this. That's what it seems to me right now. Perception is reality. That's what I... you know, that's what I feel is going on?"
But Nelson, like Rodriguez, stressed the idea that nothing has been decided and wouldn't without City Council consent.
"We haven't agreed on anything," said Nelson. "I don't meet with all of the developers. I mean, I'd say if it's not a couple hundred acres, I probably meet with 5% of the developers. Staff meets with them all the time. And now and then Michael is called in for something particular... so it's not... we're not trying to hide anything from anybody. And to your point about gopher turtles, I thought that was a non-starter, so I didn't think it would ever happen. And so they came back as well. They think they've got, you know, a tentative agreement with the governor's office. Well, wow, that's pretty impressive. I didn't think they could do it. So I don't know. Is it because I was involved? If you want me out of the discussions, that's fine. I can stay out of it. I'm trying to help the situation. I'm sure not trying to hurt it."
"It's not hurting feelings," Velazquez.
No it's not about hurt feelings. It's about transparency. It's about keeping the city commissioners in the loop. Oh, and it's also about protecting your community's environment and wildlife and not breaking a perpetual agreement.
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