Leesburg Commission sends clear message to revamped planning board

With booming growth on the horizon in The Villages portion of the city and other areas as well, Leesburg commissioners decided to shake up the city’s Planning and Zoning Board on Monday night.

The commission jettisoned longtime board member Don Lukich, who had been on the panel for more than 15 years and had recently run against Commissioner Dan Robuck III in the November election. And commissioners also said goodbye to retired New York architect Stewart Kaplan, who told commissioners, “I need something to do with my time.”

Leesburg will tackle the addition of 2,800 homes in the Villages of West Lake, as well as other projected growth throughout the city, with a revamped Planning and Zoning Board.

The commission voted to retain Clell Coleman, Ted Bowersox and Frazier Marshall to the board. Coleman, who was a contractor in Lake County for more than 50 years, was appointed to a term that expires on Sept. 30, 2020. Bowersox, a former Leesburg commissioner, was appointed to serve until Sept. 30, 2021. And Marshall, administrator of the Roses of Sharon of Central Florida and a nine-year board, also will serve until Sept. 30, 2021.

Commissioners also added two new members and an alternate to the board. Terry W. Miller, owner of Pool Control Inc., was appointed to a term that expires on Sept. 30 of this year. Miller’s company works exclusively with The Villages to service the community’s commercial pools – a contract he’s held for more than 20 years.

Christopher B. Wood also was appointed to serve until Sept. 30, 2020. He is an administrator at Leesburg Regional Medical Center and a former Realtor with ERA Grizzard Real Estate. And Craig D. Brown, owner of Brown’s Auto Sales, was appointed as the alternate, with a term ending Sept. 30, 2021.

Leesburg Planning Commission Chairman James Argento is scheduled to serve until Sept. 30 of this year.

Those planning commissioners will join James Argento and Charles Townsend to make up the seven-member board. Argento and Townsend are slated to serve until Sept. 30 of this year.

Mayor John Christian

Mayor John Christian said the commission made the decision to reassess the Planning and Zoning board. He said he was looking for several things on the new board, including diversity and the ability to have members who will take a hard look at the issues while being excited about seeing the city continue to grow.

“It’s about responsibility and what’s best for Leesburg,” said Christian, a lifelong resident of the city.

Commissioner Jay Hurley said he’s been frustrated in the past when the two boards haven’t been on the “same page.” And he encouraged the planning commission board members to have an “open line of communication” with city commissioners.

Commissioner Jay Hurley

“If you guys vote no, it still has to come to us. And if we vote yes, then we look like a bunch of idiots to the public. One of the two of us doesn’t look smart,” Hurley said. “So I would like to see us work a little more harmoniously together to make sure that we are all going down the same path instead of two paths and it ends up here.”

Bowersox seemed to take issue with Hurley’s comments but agreed that communication between the two boards is important.

“We’re not a rubber stamp,” he said. “And I don’t think you would expect us to be a rubber stamp.”

One of those times when the two boards appeared to be on “different pages” came this past September when the Planning and Zoning Board was considering a comprehensive plan amendment changing the future land use on 11 of the 1,127 acres The Villages was purchasing from the city. Planners quickly got hung up on the issue of The Villages purchasing less land than originally was proposed, as 531 acres had to be removed from the equation and retained by the city as a spray field. That meant that the mega-retirement community could only build about 2,800 homes on the property instead of the 4,000 to 5,000 originally hoped for.

Planning Commission Chairman James Argento, standing at left, and City Manager Al Minner, standing at right, look at an aerial view of The Villages land purchase during a September 2018 meeting.

Planning commissioners quickly accused The Villages of “cherry picking” the property it was purchasing.

“They don’t want the swamp land,” Bowersox said.

Townsend joined in the “cherry picking” accusation by saying Leesburg would be picking up the tab for maintenance of the rejected land. And he went a step further 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.

Leesburg City Manager Al Minner shows where the Villages of West Lake would be in a meeting last February.

City Manager Al Minner was called into that meeting and had to explain to the planning commissioners that the 531 acres had to be retained as a spray field until The Villages was ready to accept 6 million gallons per day of reuse water on a yearly basis.

Minner also explained it again to commissioners in November when they signed off on the final deal to turn the land over to The Villages. He said there was never any kind of cherry picking of the land in the Villages of West Lake deal, which netted the city about $4.1 million. And he assured commissioners that the sale of the property north of County Roads 470 near the Florida Turnpike was a “game-changer” for the city and would be an “economic engine” for years to come.