By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor
Question: What does socialism, 9/11, flooding in Louisiana, and the pandemic have in common with Rock Springs Ridge, and when is $2.5 million worth more than $10 million? Are you thinking this may be the beginning of a distasteful joke or an impossible math riddle?
Well, read on for the answers.
I've seen a lot of Apopka City Council meetings in my time as managing editor of The Apopka Voice. And yes, very often public comments can be the most entertaining and newsworthy events of the entire meeting. Two such events come to mind - the public comments about the red light camera vote, and the medical marijuana debate.
In these discussions, red-light cameras were described as tyranny, Darth Vader, judge, jury, witness, and executioner by several public speakers. Medical Marijuana wasn't as colorful, but it did fill a room with would-be debaters on both sides of the issue - and one medical marijuana expert got this gem of a comment on the record:
"Someone drunk will run a stop sign," he said with a straight face. "Someone stoned will stop at a stop sign and wait for it to turn green."
It's hard to surpass public comment sessions like that, but last night's City Council may have moved the dial to an entirely new level.
Nine speakers graced the podium - all of them there to talk about the Rock Springs Ridge Homeowners Association's proposed three-way deal with the City of Apopka, and the owners of the RSR golf course lands - the Golf Group.
Sonia Newman, an RSR resident for 18-19 years, is in favor of the city selling its land on Harmon Road to RSR so that they can get their golf course lands back. She also thinks serving all of Apopka isn't a fair approach to RSR.
"I'd like to address something that was said 'you serve all the people, not just RSR'. You say it's not fair to the rest of the residents," she said. "To me, isn't this a socialist view? You try to level the playing field. Do you believe in capitalism? Capitalism meaning we worked hard to live the lifestyle that we live in RSR... and I'm sure some of you are enjoying it right now. Our home values have increased as a result. Now we pay a lot higher taxes than most people do [in RSR]. Anywhere from $3,000-$6,000. Our houses range from $500,000-$700,000-plus. RSR isn't even asking for money. We are paying our own way, and simply asking for your support. You should appreciate who we are and what we have achieved. We need to keep the community as the community was intended. We need to stop the development threats. We need our own lands. We need the city to serve this community."
Okay, if you are seriously comparing this to socialism, I would refer you to Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, and China where my guess is there aren't a lot of public comments from homeowners in $500,000-$700,000 houses concerned that a former golf course might be developed into more $500,000-$700,000 houses. And I'm not sure asking a municipal government for help in a real estate transaction of any sort is exactly a shining example of capitalism.
Michelle Chase is a resident of RSR, a realtor, and the vice president of the RSR Homeowners Association. And despite offers on the Harmon property coming in higher than their offer, she says what they offer is worth more in the future.
"Since I'm a realtor, I often get multiple offers on my listings, and when I review them with the owners sometimes I have to explain that the highest offer isn't always the best offer," she said. "The dollars are in the details. So the offer you have [referencing the $5 million offer for Harmon]... they can send you an offer for $10 million. It's still not going to be better than our offer [$2.5 million]. Our offer includes the development on Kelly Park."
The development on Kelly Park Road is in reference to the gopher tortoise conservation area, which is currently under a conservation easement and cannot be developed unless that easement is lifted.
"So now you've got two neighborhoods, and going through this process, I definitely know why it's developer-friendly. Basically, our $2.5 million offer with the development of Kelly Park is worth more than your $5 million offer... or worth more than a $10 million offer on the table."
Chase listed a series of figures that projected an additional $12 million in taxes for the City of Apopka in the course of 50 years as well as additional revenues in the millions for the county and local schools.
"Bringing in revenue is a big part of your duties," she told the City Council. "I ask you to look at the details. I understand you want to be good stewards of the City of Apopka... but our offer brings way more dollars than a $5 million offer that brings you nothing for the future."
Kind of "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" in reverse... only Chase's theory leaves out a lot of factors. First, the 51-acre Kelly Park parcel is nowhere near an imminent deal for the HOA to guarantee 50 years of tax revenues as she states. Second, if a new tax base was the only factor involved, wouldn't they want to see Harmon Road, Kelly Park Road, and the golf course lands become developments? That would be an even bigger new tax base.
Chase also referenced a new wrinkle in the deal - a new golf group to take over the lands.
"We have a golf group already that wants to develop an 18-hole golf course at no cost and with no mandatory fees," she said. "So we have an opportunity to open RSR as it was meant to be - with golf and green space."
Out of the frying pan...
As stunning as those comments were, RSR resident David Hoffman probably won the prize for jarring, offensive hyperbole with this rant.
"At a recent City Council meeting, one commissioner expressed disapproval at helping RSR to fend off any further residential development through a city-aided pathway for our community to own the golf course property," said Hoffman. "This commissioner claimed to represent all the residents of Apopka...not just RSR."
Hoffman went on to describe the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a hurricane in Louisiana, and the COVID-19 pandemic as instances where leaders helped specific regions (or didn't) rather than say they were leaders of all the people - not some.
"Is this what the commissioner claims? I'm a commissioner of all of Apopka, not RSR? I represent all of Apopka residents, and yet none of them. What does constituency service even mean in Apopka City Hall? RSR homeowners, taxpayers, and voters have been experiencing an existential threat to our community for 12 long years at least. Apopka city officials have been AWOL in fulfilling their obligation to help us. You may want to duck the responsibility, but we will hold you responsible... and we have our brooms ready for housecleaning."
I looked up existential threat on dictionary.com: An existential threat is a threat to something's very existence—when the continued being of something is at stake or in danger. A terrorist attack, hurricane, or pandemic might be described as an existential threat. A deal to secure golf course lands in a residential development is not.
Commissioner Kyle Becker took responsibility for the referenced quote by Hoffman and pushed back on his comparisons.
"I find it in poor taste and disgusting that you would compare me and my comments to the vicious and horrible attacks that happened on 9/11," he said. "It's in poor form. You can have your opinion about how my comments were interpreted in the last meeting, but I will double-down on those comments because I stand by them... because you have a prevailing document in RSR right now that limits the amount of houses that can be built in that neighborhood... and the green space was all a part of that PUD when approved."
Nick Nesta, also a realtor and RSR resident who announced his intention to run for the city commission earlier in the day, spoke before the Council about the proposals he brought to the city for the Harmon Road property.
"I provide things in black and white," he said. "There's nothing down the road. I've already given it to you."
Nesta, who sent a proposal for $4.964 million from Phillips Development & Realty to purchase the Harmon Road parcel last week, announced two more proposals for $5-million and $5.25 million.
"While is appraised at $2.5 million, the appraisal is clearly wrong," he said. "The market is dictating a much higher price. We definitely have opportunities... so I've come here today to speak about resolutions - fixing this. We actually have offers on the table... different than what has been presented, which is all hearsay. It's just funny to me that we're not for development unless we're going to be making a lot of money... so it's interesting that the RSR residents are all for development for the gopher tortoise lands, but not for a land that you guys own and can profit on."
After the public comments ended, Commissioner Diane Velazquez wanted to clear the air on certain comments made.
"I am a resident of RSR and I am one of the 490 homeowners that live on the golf course," she said. "So when I said I represent everyone, it's a fiduciary responsibility that I have to the Harmon property. My fiduciary concerns are to the taxpayers of Apopka when it concerns a city asset like the Harmon property. I never made a negative remark about the 51 acres that the HOA has successfully gotten 82% of the residents to agree to sell. That becomes a separate business transaction and so I wish them luck in getting the development rights for it. You have a lot of hurdles to cross. So in that sense, Mr. Hoffman kind of erred [in comparing] what's going on in RSR, which involves a defunct golf course, to 9/11, the Louisiana flooding, or the pandemic. I don't think we really have that kind of relevance."
In closing out the public comments/RSR section of the City Council meeting, Becker returned to a familiar theme.
"We're up here, and there's a lot of public comment in favor of the action the RSR HOA took," Becker said. "And that's fine. That's fair. It went through that process, I'm not advocating one way or the other. I've advocated since last April for having a public meeting that's open to everybody so they can share public comments for this specific piece of business. To date, we have not had that. So putting all the facts on the table... is there even a deal yet for the 51 acres? Have they gone through the process of changing the conservation easement? What's the cost of the communications tower moving away from Harmon? Should we sell Harmon for $2.5 million or $6 million? All of these things have to be discussed in an open forum."
Becker also responded to the assessment by multiple speakers that he wasn't representing RSR.
"I don't focus on all things 'City at Large'," he said. "I've advocated on many different topics as it relates to the best interests of RSR over the last six years. But if we're just isolating it to this one piece of business, I find fault in that argument. But at the end of the day, all of this needs to be discussed in a public open forum. Not during public comment. We're not going to make an official decision during public comments or during the mayor's report. Let's get a workshop together so the HOA board and this board can come together... lay out all the facts where everyone is in line, and knows all the facts."
At last report, a workshop on the Harmon Road property was tentatively in the works for early November.
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