Villages hopes to push button to start Fruitland Park project in 3 weeks

Members of the crowd who could not fit inside at the Casino building in Fruitland Park, peer in through the windows.
Members of the crowd who could not fit inside at the Casino building in Fruitland Park, peer in through the windows.

About 200 local residents filled the 99-year old Casino community center beyond capacity Thursday night to hear developers, city staff and city commissioners discuss plans to develop 1,972 new homes in the Villages of Fruitland Park, located on the Pine Ridge Dairy property along the Sumter County line at the city’s western edge.

If approved, the development will accommodate almost 4,000 new residents, nearly doubling the city’s population in the span of two years and ranking Fruitland Park as the nation’s fastest-growing city.

Fruitland Park mayor Chris Bell called the meeting to explain the development and air resident concerns. The Villages sent two of its biggest guns—Dr. Gary Lester, Vice President for Community Relations, and Gary Moyer, Vice President of Development—to help sell the project.

None of the speakers had to work hard, and the standing room only crowd  applauded each presentation.

City planner Greg Beliveau, a principal at LPG Urban & Regional Planning in Mount Dora, detailed a Project Impact Analysis study his company completed two weeks ago.

The 980-acre Pine Ridge Dairy site was annexed into the city in 2006 with zoning restrictions that allowed development of 3,233 residential units on 705 acres of the site at a gross rate of 3.3 units per acre.

Changes in the county’s comprehensive growth management plan to allow such density are expected gain approval early next year, Beliveau told the group.

Current zoning restrictions on the entire Pine Ridge Dairy site limit commercial development to 173 acres and require that 72 acres be set aside for public uses such as a school, a well field and parks, and 34 acres for greenbelt.

The Villages currently plans to acquire 760 acres to build 1,972 new homes—or approximately 2.6 units per acre gross, along with three community centers, a golf course, and city administrative offices.

Beliveau’s study estimates that the Villages will pay more than $13 million in impact fees and inspection fees, building permits and the like, while the city will need to add and equip an estimated nine police officers at a cost of more than $1 million the first year and $750,000 per year annually. Improvements to the city’s water system will cost more than $3.5 million.

At project buildout—which the Villages estimates will take two years—the city will more than double its property tax revenues.

Dr. Lester, a longtime local resident who built North Lake Presbyterian Church into one of the fastest-growing Presbyterian churches in the U.S. before joining The Villages in 1999, urged the audience to trust their senses when judging the proposed project.

“A lot of developers come in from out of town with artists renderings and all kinds of promises,” Lester said. “This is a different situation. We all know each other here. My kids attended Fruitland Park Elementary School. We bump into each other in grocery stores. Villagers attend many of the churches here in Fruitland Park, and a lot of Fruitland Park children attend the Villages Charter School,” he said.

“You also know what we do,” Lester said. “We’re a known quantity. You know what our neighborhoods look like. You know how we plan things, how we maintain things, you know what our neighborhoods look like. So you know what you can expect from us,” he told the group.

Moyer, who has helped to develop more than 250 communities and is widely regarded as an expert on sustainable communities, told the group First Baptist Church approached the Villages five months ago to offer the Pine Ridge Dairy site for sale. Dr. Charles L. Roesel, who headed the First Baptist Church of Leesburg for more than 30 years, is president of Pine Ridge Dairy, Inc., which owns the site.

Moyer said city residents will have several more opportunities to air any concerns that may arise.

“If we decide to proceed with our acquisition, the city will have to amend its comp plan in public meetings, alter the zoning on the property in public meetings, and adopt a development order so that we can undertake a DRI review,” Moyer said.

“If everything goes smoothly, we should complete those processes by next summer,” Moyer said. After site-specific planning, design, engineering, and platting, The Villages of Fruitland Park could break ground—and start selling new homes—about a year from now.

But the wait—even at such an accelerated pace—will be worth it, Moyer explained.

“This project will not only pay for itself in ad valorem taxes but will generate surpluses that the city can use for the betterment of the Fruitland Park community,” Moyer said.

“There will also be additional commercial development near the project that will generate additional tax revenues as well as retail opportunities for residents,” Moyer added, “and you’ll see other developers who want to build more communities nearby.”

The Villages is expected to push the button to start the project—by closing on its acquisition of the site—in about three weeks.