Villages 101: Founder Harold Schwartz once pushed for community to split from Lady Lake

Many Villagers probably aren’t aware of it but Founder Harold Schwartz once tried to break Florida’s Friendliest Hometown away from Lady Lake.

It happened in late 1993 when Schwartz stayed busy publicly pushing the idea of splitting Lady Lake into two towns. It was an emotionally charged issue at the time and voters were being asked to weigh in in a November straw poll ballot.

Harold Schwartz

Schwartz was making the argument that The Villages should be its own town with its own government. He was using his Developer-owned Sun newspaper to push his message and VNN’s general manager, Bob Thurgaland, was blasting the airwaves with editorials espousing his boss’ platform.

Schwartz’s push to divide the town had gotten the attention of residents both inside and outside The Villages. His community had more residents than the other part of the city and his argument was that The Villages could have a much more effective government for a lot less money than the $1.7 million in tax money that was going to Lady Lake on an annual basis.

Prior to Schwartz writing editorials and spouting opinions through the Developer-owned media, a Villages-hired economist, Hank Fishkind, had been setting the stage through interviews about his study, which indicated that splitting the town was economically feasible – a viewpoint not shared by many in Lady Lake who didn’t call The Villages home.

Villages lore has it that Schwartz’s son, H. Gary Morse – the architect behind highly planned growth of the community before it sprawled across State Road 44 after his death in October 2014 – put it succinctly when asked about the reason for splitting the town, saying Villagers and other Lady Lake residents were two different kinds of people.

Those against the split stayed busy complaining about gates on Villages roadways and activities that were paid for and limited to residents only. And Schwartz continued to fume about the way town funds were distributed, saying The Villages was the population center of the town that paid 72 percent of the taxes.

H. Gary Morse

Villages lore has it that Schwartz was upset because despite the amount of taxes Villagers paid, Lady Lake was the government center and his community couldn’t get the police protection it needed.

Schwartz even went so far as to offer Villages land for Lady Lake’s Town Hall. But landowners in the section between The Villages and the old portion of Lady Lake also were offering land, which town leaders apparently saw as a way to unite area residents – an idea Schwartz vehemently disagreed with.

At the time of the great debate about the split, The Villages had a little more than 9,000 residents as compared to the estimated 3,900 in the old portion of Lady Lake. That prospect scared many town residents – both inside and outside of Florida’s Friendliest Hometown – who thought Schwartz might have the votes and such a split could devastate the older portion of Lady Lake.

In addition, The Villages had plans for close to 13,000 new houses in Sumter County and was preparing to develop 1,500 acres in Marion County. So it was unclear how Schwartz or Morse envisioned The Villages being successful in splitting from three different government agencies that would lose huge chunks of taxes paid in by residents of the retirement community.

When Nov. 2 finally rolled around, voters from both parts of Lady Lake flocked to the polls. In fact, they were in line before the polls opened at 7 a.m. And in one two-hour window, poll workers handled close to 600 voters.

Schwartz continued his quest throughout the day, both before and after casting his vote. He continued to tell everyone who would listen that The Villages wasn’t getting its fair share. But his argument didn’t hold water with many who lives outside the community and feared the “divorce” would force them to pay a much greater amount in taxes.

In the end, the measure failed miserably, with 77 percent voting against the split. The Villages remained a part of Lady Lake and it’s still that way today, with the community being a part of three counties and four cities and functioning under various forms of government, including Community Development Districts.