Imagine, if you will, a bus on its way down Rock Springs Road in Apopka. It turns into the Rock Springs Ridge subdivision, drives a couple of miles past the upscale homes and land that formerly housed 27 holes of golf, and pulls up to the Tavern at Rock Springs Ridge.
That establishment is permanently closed.
It's 5 pm on a Monday. An unusual time and venue to have a special RSR Homeowners Association Board meeting, but if you watch closely, you will see unusual has become the norm for the RSR HOA Board.
After a scathing site visit report on the condition of the gopher tortoise conservation area from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC), followed by a letter from the FWC instructing the board to stop making efforts to develop the gopher tortoise lands, the RSR HOA Board called a special meeting to respond.
During the one-hour meeting, they explained the issues addressed by the FWC.
"Let me just make this a short meeting, and in eight short days, we're going to have our regular monthly meeting... it will be the 21st of March," said RSR Board President Burt Fairchild. Because in the interest of time, we would just like to proceed with the new business ...Now, we're going to go ahead and finalize it."
The board was under a small time crunch because the City of Apopka claimed there were code violations in the building but granted the board 60 minutes to conduct its business.
"Okay, so we received the site visit revision [from the FWC], I believe, on February 22nd," said Board member Michelle Chase. "And they came out on 11/1 of 2022. The board was not aware of the visit. We were aware that director [John] Drago was going out because the retaining wall back on Howie Park Hills... because we have three hurricanes... and water. That subdivision that backs up to us felt really high. So there's a retaining wall and all the water to the wall and the fence down. So John was authorized to contact for that. So when he did that, they also scheduled the site visit. So that happened obviously on 11/1. So we had no idea until the report came on February 22nd. So we're just trying to read it and digest it. I will tell you, there are a lot of needs that we're not going to have today. Because I have nobody to count on that visit. We haven't gotten any feedback from John on processes and suggestions... anything. So I've already reached out to fish and wildlife [FWC] myself. So I will be getting a long list of questions which probably are similar to what you have. So as soon as I get that information, I will share it."
You're probably wondering why I used a fictional bus to open this very real news story... and here's why. It was at this early stage in the meeting that board member John Drago got thrown under the proverbial bus. But don't worry; he won't be under there by himself for long.
Chase then addresses some of the issues on the property found by the FWC site visit.
"Basically, there are several compliance issues," Chase said. "Large amounts of household trash injuries are present within... our 51 acres. And a parcel that runs along Spinfisher that backs up to Kelly Park Hills. And next to that was a trailer park. Okay. This will always and has been an ongoing battle when you've got one - no HOA and three different communities. The trailer park doesn't have garages. So their trash is outside. When you look... the trash bags are torn off, and bears [are taking] the trash into the woods so that they can eat them. So that's the majority of the trash that we constantly have on that parcel. So that's an ongoing battle."
Mr. Drago, meet the Trailer Park bears, who are now also under the bus with him after taking the trash to the woods to eat one time too many.
Chase also talked about ATVs breaching the property and broken fences but then closed with an interesting observation about what the FWC said versus what they meant.
"I'm not going to go through the whole report.," she said. "When you read it, there are obviously statements from director Drago that maybe some of the accuracy is questionable."
I won't go through all of the site visit either, but here are the bullet points of the violations the FWC found:
Then Chase described the FWC letter as jumping the gun.
"And with that generated after that visit... the deputy director letter saying, 'Whoa, stop development, even the report says stop development. We haven't started."
Here is the first paragraph of the warning letter written to Fairchild by Jennifer Goff, the Deputy Director Division of Habitat and Species Conservation for the FWC:
"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."
Not only is the FWC telling the board not to develop the land, but also to cease discussions related to the development of the gopher tortoise conservation area. But apparently, it wasn't a clear enough directive from the FWC, as Chase defiantly laid out plans to swap the parcel for the golf course lands.
"So what we will tell you is, as we go into the next part, we are, as a board moving, we are still moving forward with the removal of the easement," she said.
Chase also wanted to clear up a statement she made at an HOA meeting on November 15th, 2022, about already having the gopher tortoise easement lifted.
"So we do have an update on the golf course," Chase said. "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."
According to Chase, it was The Golf Group's Chad Barton who told her the gopher tortoise easement had been moved.
"And I do want to say because it's on your notes. So yes, back in, I think it was October, November, I received a call from Chad Barton of the Golf Group," Chase said. "And he said that the due diligence was done. And he said, everything's done. Everything's good. We're good to go. Let's get the attorneys together. And I was like, 'really oh my gosh, and my turtles are done?' And he said yes. I'm like, 'Are you sure?' He said yes. I said, 'Can I share it?' And he said, Yes. So I called him back after I found out that the turtles aren't really done and asked him, you know, can you talk? And he explained the due diligence period, what their process is, and what they do. And so I'll leave it at that. But anyway, he felt good enough that they were going to be able to accomplish getting it removed. Anyway, so I'm just correcting myself on that. I should have asked him. Well, when did you file, you know, the eight months without any information? So I was just super happy to be able to share something. And so that was my fault. I do apologize for that."
Mr. Barton, meet Mr. Drago and the Trailer Park bears.
So just to put together a timeline:
Despite the timeline, it's always a great idea to clear up misinformation, but sometimes it feels as though you are either on the bus or under it with this board.
In an email (from Inframark) to RSR residents last week, the board outlined the actionable items from the meeting:
"The board is moving forward in pursuit of completing the swap of this 51 acre preserve parcel to obtain the 319 acres. The gopher tortoises will be moved back inside where they were before our homes were built. They will have a lot more open, much less treed space, more dry, sandy ground where they will be safer on more suitable land and better monitored.
The board voted and hired Evans Engineering to represent RSR through the amendment and rezoning process. (VOTE 5 YES).
The board felt safer in being the applicant to control the City of Apopka application (to protect the PD). The Board told homeowners present at this meeting that the HOA Board will most likely have to assess every home in RSR if we cannot complete the land swap transaction, and the HOA will have to clean up a forest of trees and replace all that fencing.
The mitigation proposal is steadily progressing (Evans/GG/HOA/ELSER GOLF have been pre-planning a workable design for FWC) and soon will be submitted to FWC for review. Evans is helping HOA in preparing all paperwork for the city and FWC. The current golf group is responsible for all the costs involving removal of the easement, re-location under FWC guidelines.
Along with the land trade, RSR will receive $1.4 million. Elser has designed an 18 hole golf course with a golf academy that will be addressed during the zoning to be prepared if we can come to terms with Elser in getting here to re-open the course."
The regular RSR HOA Board meeting is on March 21st.