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The roller coaster ride continues for Rock Springs Ridge residents on golf course purchase

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By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor

The ongoing, and seemingly never-ending drama of the Rock Springs Ridge Golf Course took yet another unexpected turn this week as the RSR Homeowners Association Board entertained a new option for purchasing its closed golf course - the sale of 51 acres on Kelly Park Road owned by the HOA. The sale of the land would presumably allow the HOA to purchase the golf course property from the Golf Group.

That is in sharp contrast to where things stood at the last City Council meeting when RSR HOA President Gary McSweeney said this during public comments:

“We had a meeting today with the Golf Group developer and owner of the golf course lands,” said McSweeney. “The HOA and that group put together a declaration of intent. It’s a 7-point document that outlines our understanding of what our agreement is. Based upon your review, we will react to that and to give you confidence in the majority agreement of the residents… we’re prepared to rent out the Amphitheater, and in one evening have you speak, and have tables to sign up. It will be a hub of activity.”

“You won’t have to rent it,” said Nelson. “During the week, we’re fine. You tell me when. The sooner the better.”

“I think the residents will be very favorable to this agreement,” said McSweeney. “It is what it is. If there are any changes, we’re all here to work together. And I have to say that this has been a long-time issue with RSR and the City, and even with the developer. It’s a three-way partnership to make it work. And much of it, if not all of it, has to do with the mayor. He gave us an opportunity to voice ourselves… to voice even our opposition to what is being proposed in an effort to get to the bottom of every major aspect of this so that we are comfortable and the Golf Group is comfortable. And that’s a hard thing to do. It’s a real tribute to Apopka… to the leadership to let that happen.”

A declaration of intent, superlatives for Nelson and the City of Apopka, a meeting back at the Amphitheater... it all seemed to finally be falling into place. But then, Lucy pulled the football away just as Charlie Brown was about to kick that short field goal.

And it wasn't that long ago when Nelson too was speaking in superlatives to a large crowd of RSR residents at the Amphitheater in April.

“As you all know, I got elected three years ago,” Nelson said. “And ever since then, we’ve been trying to set up an arrangement to get Dello Russo out of Rock Springs Ridge.”

It was music to their ears, and they cheered wildly.

“But if you don’t have a willing buyer and a willing seller, you can’t make it work.”

Truer words were never spoken, only it turns out the unwilling party was the buyer and not the seller.

It all made for a frustrating backdrop for Nelson and the rest of the City Council at their August 4th meeting when Nelson announced RSR's intent to travel down this unexpected path, but also to open a dialog about a possible loan agreement with the City.

"It's an ever-moving target," said Nelson of his dealings with the Rock Springs Ridge HOA. "They're wanting to get us (the City) engaged in some kind of loan program... and I can say as mayor and under council from our attorney, we're not loaning anybody any money. They are a private entity... so that's up to the RSR residents. Whatever deal they want, that's for them to decide. If we can facilitate it, okay, but we're not going to be on the hook for any kind of loan or bond program."

Commissioner Diane Velazquez has been a skeptic of this deal from its outset, and the turn of events Nelson was reporting did nothing to change her mind.

"We've spent the last 3-4 months talking about this land swap, and then literally overnight there are signs all over RSR about selling a parcel of land to buy the golf course... and at the last Council meeting, I did ask the HOA president to send a letter to the residents... so now he's done sort of a switch... so are we still doing the land swap or are we not doing the land swap?"

"Commissioner, your guess is as good as mine," said Nelson. "I don't know. I wish I had a good answer for you. The ball keeps moving. I inform you when I know something... but every meeting I have with these folks, something changes. It's just the way it is."

Nelson was open to walking away from the deal with RSR, but also brought up the idea of selling the properties on Harmon Road that was going to be a part of the three-way land swap outright to the Golf Group (owners of the RSR Golf Course).

"If the Council is of the mind not to do it, that's completely fine with me," he said. "I would be completely comfortable if we take a vote and the will of the Council is to sell the property to the Golf Group if that's what you want to do."

"My concern is now the Golf Group can say 'we want to buy the two pieces of property now being assessed at $2.4 million', but not swap the property for the golf course," said Velazquez.

"None of this is set in stone," Nelson said. "Nothing has been determined."

"My concern is when we want to dispose of an asset, we have consistently put it out to bid," said Velazquez. "So what I want from us is consistency in how we dispose of our assets."

Commissioner Kyle Becker agreed with the consistency in selling properties that Velazquez referenced.

"I think it would have to follow the same model as the Sandpiper property," he said. "We declared Sandpiper as surplus. We did the bid process first. We didn't like it, because we didn't get the appraised value back, and then we put a for sale sign on the property, got offers above the appraised value, and then we got to pick and choose from the proposed buyers what their concept was for that property. We would have to do with this property - declare it surplus... and if we did the bid process, we would still have to put a for sale sign on that property too, because $2.4 million is the floor that we would accept. Not necessarily what the market will bear with multiple bids on that property. It could be more valuable than what the appraised value is."

"Whatever we do, we are going to do as a Council, as far as disposing of the land," said Nelson. "I am completely comfortable with whatever you want to do and however you want to do it. As the ever-changing saga of RSR moves along, I bring it to your attention. That's all I can do. So yes I'm negotiating as your mayor, but I'm not negotiating as the final arbiter of the decision."

But this was clearly a last-straw moment for Velazquez.

"Since the RSR Homeowners Association Board has said it was going in a different direction, we should officially step away from it and have no more dealings or meetings with them. Either we are in, or we are out... and I feel that the City should cease and desist. We are no longer negotiating. So for me, Harmon is off the table. Let's end the land swap option."

Commissioner Alexander Smith was also at a place to either end the relationship with RSR, or give them a deadline to decide.

"I just wonder how long are we going to kick the can down the road? I'm sure this is costing somebody money and time... so how long are we going to kick it down the road? Either we need to cease and desist or give them a timeframe to make a decision."

"I think the struggle is ever since the Amphitheater meeting [in April], people approach us nonstop," said Becker. "They think there's been some... and I'll make the point clear, we haven't taken any action. The only city-owned asset in the mix as it stands right now is the Harmon Road property, and that's a valuable piece of soil... so I want to make sure we get all that we can get for that property. How that all plays out with the residents in RSR... I guess that's a discussion for a different day. But if they are going into a private interest, all the better for us."

But Nelson pushed back on the idea that he originated the deal between the City, RSR, and the Golf Group.

"I'll go back... We're not here because I solicited this three-way land swap. It never was nor would it ever be my intention to do a three-way land swap with anybody. That's not what we do."

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