Leesburg Planning Commission Chairman James Argento might have summed it up best last week when talking about The Villages building homes in the city when he said: “We are the first step of the democratic process.”
For Leesburg residents, a truer statement couldn’t be made. And it came during a somewhat heated meeting where Leesburg officials accused The Villages Developer of “cherry picking” land that’s being purchased from the city to expand the rapidly growing retirement community.
Officials from The Villages and Leesburg currently are going through a due diligence period on a 1,127-acre parcel – the Villages of West Lake – located north of County Road 470 and east of the Florida Turnpike. That purchase originally included another 531 acres south of CR 470 but Leesburg City Manager Al Minner said that area needed to be retained as a spray field until The Villages is ready to accept 6 million gallons per day of reuse water on a yearly basis. Currently, the community can only take the reuse water nine months of the year, excluding its peak snowbird season.
That caused a rub at the Planning Commission meeting and it was exacerbated when officials realized The Villages portion of Leesburg, once envisioned to include 4,000 to 5,000 homes, is now down to “3,000 units.”
Fewer homes means less money coming into the city in a variety of ways, mostly through ad valorem taxes. So it’s understandable why those officials were frustrated.
“They don’t want the swamp land,” Planning Commissioner Ted Bowersox said.
Commissioner Charles Townsend joined in the “cherry picking” bandwagon by accusing The Villages of deception.
“I am suspect of the pricing,” he said. “It wasn’t fully laid out for us. It was deceptive in the manner it was done, whether it was intentional or not.”
Bowersox described it as a “knuckleball” by The Villages.
“How come this didn’t come up in negotiations before?” he asked.
It’s understandable that planning commissioners and other Leesburg officials are upset with the reduced-in-size land deal. But let’s remember that 3,000 homes – if that turns out to be the real number – will generate a great deal of tax money that will allow the city to make improvements in a variety of areas. And let’s keep in mind that that even though The Villages builds homes at a rapid pace, we’re still a long way away from that first nail being driven into wood.
Frankly, that’s where Argento’s statement comes into play. Because before this deal is completed and Leesburg City commissioners say yea or nay, there’s lots of time for residents to get involved in the process. And if those residents don’t think they can make a difference in the government process, all they need to do is look to the north and take note of what’s happening in Fruitland Park.
Residents there initially took an interest in September 2013 when a crowd of about 200 people showed up at the old Casino community center to hear about The Villages’ plans to build homes in the city. But that interest largely died down after the home building started and commissioners eventually would be lucky to see eight people attend some of their meetings.
But that all changed after homes were built and sold in the Villages of Pine Ridge and Pine Hills. Those residents soon started asking questions. And they have turned out in such force that the past two commission meetings had to be held at the spacious Community Methodist Church.
Those meetings were scheduled at the church, a block away from Fruitland Park’s City Hall, after a crowd much too large for the commission chambers showed up at the Sept. 13 meeting.
At the first meeting at the church on Sept. 21, a slew of Villagers expressed their views and frustrations with the commission’s plan to adopt a 3.9863 millage rate. That prompted Commissioner Rick Ranize to say he would support the rollback rate of 3.9134 per $1,000 assessed valuation, which amounts to a tax cut for residents. Mayor Chris Cheshire agreed and the measure passed and was officially adopted this past Thursday night.
It was a simple but wonderful thing. Residents took an interest in their community. Their elected officials listened to them and something positive happened. And it was a move that drew heavy praise from the commission, with both Ranize and Cheshire going to great lengths to thank the Villagers for getting involved and being a part of the process to make Fruitland Park a better city.
Now, that same opportunity exists in Leesburg. The city is nearing the end of the due diligence process on The Villages land purchase but there will be many items coming before the city in the days and weeks ahead. And every time that happens, residents will be given the opportunity to make their views known.
So to those who live in Leesburg and have questions about The Villages becoming a part of your community, we suggest you look to the north and follow suit. Show up at meetings and ask questions until you get the answers you’re looking for. That’s what open government is all about. And if Leesburg commissioners continue to embrace that concept the way they have in the past and the way their counterparts in Fruitland Park have, the process of The Villages becoming part of the city will be one based on citizen input and transparency at all levels of local government.
That said, here’s the bottom line: It’s your government. Those officials work for you and you have the power to keep them in office or boot them out. So please don’t hesitate to get involved and exercise that wonderful right we call freedom of speech. It’s a right we often take for granted and one people in some countries can only dream about. But it’s an extremely powerful tool and one responsible for establishing many of the greatest things our country – the greatest nation in the world – offers all of us on a daily basis.