Leesburg planning board chair steps down after helping pave way for The Villages

James Argento

James Argento resigned Tuesday as chairman of the Leesburg Planning and Zoning Board.

His decision to step down comes after the Lake County Commission appointed him to the county’s Board of Adjustment on Tuesday. In that role, he will serve as part of a panel that has the final say on behalf of the county for variances.

Legally, Argento wrote in his letter of resignation, that would conflict with his being a member of the planning commission, as he will be dealing with selected matters at effect the City of Leesburg.

“I have enjoyed my time getting to help the city and am forever grateful that the city commission put trust in me to serve the constituents,” he wrote in his letter, addressed to the City Commission and City Manager Al Minner.

Argento offered to attend and start the next planning commission meeting “for the sake of continuity” so a new chairman can be selected. A Lake County prosecutor since 2007, his term on the planning commission was set to expire in September.

Leesburg Planning and Zoning Board Chairman James Argento points to a map in January 2018 that showed the planned development of The Villages.

The 37-year-old Argento, who was appointed president of the Lake County Bar Association this past June, oversaw Leesburg’s planning commission during a crucial time of growth for the city. He was at the helm in January 2018 when planners cleared the way for the city to close on the historic land deal with The Villages, which at the time was believed to be worth around $12 million.

“I am glad to have played a part in The Villages coming to our city and hope its development benefits our community by creating revenue and added interest,” Argento said. “Other parts of Lake County are really thriving and The Villages can help regenerate our awesome city of Leesburg.”

Argento also was chairing a contentious planning commission meeting in September when planners found out that the deal with The Villages, once envisioned to include 4,000 to 5,000 homes, was down about 3,000 units – that reduced the purchase price to $7.54 million – because a portion of the land had to remain with the city as a spray field. That left some planning commissioners miffed and upset, with one even going so far as to suggest that The Villages Developer was “cherry picking” the land.

Argento, however, reminded his fellow planners that they were there to decide on a comprehensive plan amendment on a portion of The Villages property and that the entire deal was far from being completed and wasn’t in their scope of responsibility.

“We are the first step of the democratic process,” he said. “The final decision is with the city commission.”

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 meeting last September.

Argento, a graduate of the University of Florida and Florida State University’s Law School, has lived in Leesburg since 2009 with his wife, Jeanette, and two children, Aiden and Emory. He said being able to help clear the way for The Villages was quite special because of family history with the retirement community. And he called the vote on supporting the community’s expansion into Leesburg as the most important one had ever taken as an appointed public officer.

“I had my first date with Jeanette in The Villages’ Outback restaurant,” he said. “We often return to enjoy the music in the squares.”

Argento was first appointed to the planning commission in 2010 and has served as chairman since 2012. He also serves as chair of the Golden Triangle YMCA Board of Directors and Be Free, Lake County’s drug prevention coalition. He is a board member of the local legal aid initiative, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida and a trustee of the Leesburg Missionary Baptist Church.