It was a historic meeting in Fruitland Park on Sept. 11, 2013 when an overflow crowd came to the old Casino community center to learn about plans for The Villages to come to town.
The Casino, which was 99 years old at the time, has long been removed to make way for the new Fruitland Park Library that will open in July. But on that night in 2013, the building served as the venue for a meeting that would forever change the face of “The Friendly City.”
Long before then-Mayor Chris Bell called the meeting to order, about 200 local residents crammed into the facility. With more arriving and wanting to hear about the future of their city, the large windows in the sweltering building were opened and residents leaned in from the porch to hear what was being said.
The agenda for the meeting was an open discussion about the close to 2,000 homes The Villages hoped to build on the Pine Ridge Dairy property along the Sumter County line at the city’s western edge. If approved, the city would add an additional 4,000 residents in a two-year period, thereby doubling the number of residents who called Fruitland Park home.
Bell had called the meeting to explain the development and air resident concerns. The Villages sent two of its biggest guns – Gary Lester, vice president for community relations and a former resident of Fruitland Park, and Gary Moyer, vice president of development. Their mission was simple – help sell the project and answer any questions the commission or residents might have.
At one point Lester reminded residents that The Villages had been good neighbors to Fruitland Park for many years. He said the quality of the homes and the way the mega-retirement community was maintained spoke for itself. And despite a few snickers and off-handed comments about Florida’s Friendliest Hometown, both Villages representatives were well received.
City planner Greg Beliveau, a principal at LPG Urban & Regional Planning in Mount Dora, detailed a Project Impact Analysis study his company had completed two weeks earlier.
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 were expected gain approval in early 2014, Beliveau told the group.
Zoning restrictions on the entire Pine Ridge Dairy site limited commercial development to 173 acres and required that 72 acres be set aside for public uses such as a school, a well field and parks, and 34 acres for greenbelt.
As it turned out, the standing-room-only crowd applauded the presentations and showed their support for The Villages becoming a part of the city. And both the City Commission and Villages officials left the meeting ready to move forward.
As hundreds of details were worked out – golf cart access from the original part of Fruitland Park into Pine Ridge Dairy property was quickly nixed by The Villages as a deal-breaker – former Community Development Director Charlie Rector said The Villages would pay more than $13.5 million in impact fees, permit fees, inspection fees and the like over the two-year buildout period, which didn’t include the property taxes the new homeowners would contribute to the city’s coffers.
But city commissioners also learned that the devil is in the details. To serve almost 2,000 new homes, Fruitland Park would have to upgrade its wells and build a 500,000-gallon storage facility at an estimated cost of $3.35 million.
The police department would need to hire, train and equip nine officers and one civilian support staff at an initial cost of more than $1 million and an annual cost thereafter estimated at $750,000 – a significant jump in the city’s budget for law enforcement of just over $1 million.
On Sept. 26, Fruitland Park commissioners unanimously agreed to a memorandum of understanding with The Villages to move forward.
“I think the majority (is) in favor of us moving ahead. At least see where the path takes us,” Bell said at the time.
With that, the city and The Villages inked a letter of agreement that would allow the construction of 2,038 homes on the Pine Ridge Dairy property. Plans called for Premier class homes priced from $750,000, more than 1,700 Designer homes priced from $500,000, and 189 Villas priced from $220,000. It was estimated the homes would generate $1 billion in sales.
With the huge influx in population just months away, the city also agreed to explore the idea of revising its charter and changing the commission from at-large to district representation.
In October 2013, Fruitland Park hired a new city manager, Gary La Venia. The former Maple Shade, N.J. township manager brought experience in dealing with growth and was charged with leading the city into the future as it prepared for a multitude of changes.
At the end of November 2013, just days before The Villages of Lake Sumter Inc. closed the $8 million deal on the Pine Ridge Dairy property, the city voted unanimously to set up a committee to review the charter.
Five members were appointed to the group and longtime resident George “Mackie” McCabe, director of hospitality in The Villages, was selected to oversee the group, which eventually recommended that the city move from at-large to district representation. The committee also recommended that the mayor be chosen by the commission from one of the districts.
In November 2014, Fruitland Park voters overwhelmingly supported two amendments to the city’s charter:
- Voters in each district would elect one commissioner who must reside in that district. The five commissioners would then elect one of their own as mayor.
- Requiring a majority vote in four of the five city districts for residents to change city ordinances by initiative or referendum.
Rick Ranize and Ray Lewis were elected as commissioners in that election. But since neither lived in the districts in The Villages portion of the city they were elected to represent, they were effectively locked into one term apiece unless they decided to run against the commissioners representing the districts where they actually lived.
Four years later, history was made in the city once again when the first two commissioners from The Villages were elected. Patrick DeGrave ran unopposed for the District 1 seat held by Ranize and John Mobilian defeated fellow Villager Fred Collins to replace Lewis in District 2.
DeGrave, who lives in the Village of Pine Ridge and will always hold the distinction of being the first Fruitland Park commissioner from The Villages, touted his 39 years of government experience and said he believed his fellow Villagers deserved to have an experienced commissioner representing them.
Mobilian, a resident of the Village of Pine Hills, had vowed to bring his conservative values to the commission. The Air Force veteran and former FedEx airline captain said he wanted to see the city’s millage rate drop and an increase in funding for hiring more police officers and boosting benefits for city workers.
Prior to the two new commissioners taking office, a raucous crowd of Villagers attended two Fruitland Park Commission meetings that were held at the Community Methodist Church. The group came armed with questions about the city’s proposed $10.9 million budget, the costs for the new library and their property taxes. At the second meeting, after a man was tossed from the building following an outburst directed at Mayor Chris Cheshire, commissioners were applauded when they agreed to reduce the city’s millage rate.
Today, the five members of the commission – Mayor Cheshire, Vice Mayor John Gunter, Bell, DeGrave and Mobilian – are fighting to get funding to finish the widening of County Road 466A up to The Villages, where it’s already a four-lane roadway. Commissioners thought they had money coming from the state Legislature on a bill sponsored by junior District 33 Rep. Brett Hage, but that fell through in May when their request for $7.5 million was cut to just $450,000.
Cheshire expressed his disappointment and said the city would continue to work with Lake County and the state to find the funding to widen the roadway. And he called it integral part” of the future of Fruitland Park.
“That road is going to be a big commercial corridor,” he said. “That’s going to help our tax roll. It’s going to help our citizens.”
Mobilian didn’t pull any punches when expressing his frustrations with the state Legislature over the loss of funding for widening the roadway.
“I’m very, very angry with them,” he said. “I’m curious as to where that $7.5 million went, because the state was already going to give it to us. Where did they send it? This is just unacceptable on the part of Tallahassee.”
Mobilian added that the delay will surely hamper the city’s growth.
“We are trying to build up Fruitland Park and get businesses to come in here,” he said. “If you don’t have an easy way to get back and forth, i.e. 466A, they’re going to think twice before they come here.
“What is the matter with these guys? How can you run a business like this? I don’t get it.”