“This project is going to change Fruitland Park forever”

John Gunter is the commission's longest-serving member.

John Gunter is the commission’s longest-serving member.

Fruitland Park — “This project is going to change Fruitland Park forever.”

That’s what commissioner John Gunter said on August 31—the first chance he had to respond publicly to a bid by The Villages to do just that—to change “The Friendly City” forever.

The city’s elected officials were convened to hear the first official pitch for Village Community Development District No. 11, with 1,972 new houses, three private community centers and about 18 miles of well-lit, well-maintained city streets, all within the city of Fruitland Park—and under the city’s taxing authority.

Villages planners have since announced new “target” numbers: 2,038 houses, including Premier class homes priced from $750,000, more than 1,700 Designer homes priced from $500,000, and 189 Villas priced from $220,000.
Altogether, The Village of Fruitland Park, as it is now called, is targeting housing sales that total more than $1 billion.

And The Villages says it can sell all those houses in one year. More than one seasoned developer has said that’s impossible.
Lake County’s most experienced community development guru is more circumspect. Greg Beliveau’s youthful demeanor and quick wit belie his more than 35 years of experience in large-scale planning and development projects in Lake County. As head of LPG Urban & Regional Planning in Mount Dora, Beliveau also serves as Fruitland Park’s city planner.

“The Villages does what it does more successfully than anyone else anywhere,” Beliveau said. “Since the recession began, The Villages has become the most successful community developer in the U.S. And they don’t set their targets lightly,” he said.

“Targets” change as new facts come to light. When an environmental survey deemed questionable areas on the square-mile-plus development site high and dry—and thus suitable for construction—planners “targeted” another 62 homes for more than $31 million in additional sales.

Fruitland Park boasts about 4,000 residents (4,078 in the 2010 Census). A city manager heads a day-to-day work force of about 35 paid employees and almost as many volunteers, including the city’s fire fighters.

A mayor and four commissioners—all elected at-large—devote two evenings each month to deciding water rates, property taxes, the police budget, paid holidays, even operating hours and admission prices at the city’s swimming pool.

And while most commission meetings tend to be rather dull affairs—you can usually count the number of locals in attendance on one hand—voter registration in Fruitland Park is astoundingly high.

According to Lake County’s Supervisor of Elections, Voting Precinct 25 is composed entirely of Fruitland Park’s 3,503 registered voters.

That’s approaching 100 percent of eligible adults (about one-fourth of the city’s population is too young to register).
Statewide, only about 60 percent of Floridians register to vote. Lake County does better, with about two-thirds of the population on the voter rolls.

Fruitland Park residents turn out on election day. Last November 72 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots. In a typical city contest, longtime election supervisor Emogene Stegall expects no more than a 20 percent turnout.

Fruitland Park voters tend to lean conservative. Last November the vote for President went almost two to one for Republican Mitt Romney. Almost half the city’s eligible voters cast ballots in the most hotly-contested city commission race.

And while each city commission meeting opens with a call for public comments, you can usually count the residents in the audience on one hand.

That wasn’t the case on September 19, when more than 200 people crowded into the Casino Community Center to hear about the Village of Fruitland Park.

The meeting was well-ordered. Generally, the mood was positive, bordering on supportive. The audience applauded politely as each of the principals spoke—Beliveau, Dr. Gary Lester, Vice President for Community Relations in the Villages, and finally Gary Moyer, vice president of development.

At a later post-mortem, commissioners praised Mayor Chris Bell for shepherding the crowd through its paces and few commissioners could recall serious objections to the plan.

When Channel Nine showed up later to do a standup, reporter Brendt Peterson had to search the city to find a resident who spoke out against the development—and refused to give his last name.

No one ever called Fruitland Park affluent. The total value of taxable property in the city declined this year and real estate taxes will only generate about $730,000 toward the city’s $5.5 million budget.

Police officers haven’t seen a raise in five years, and when tight-fisted commissioners argued last month whether to grant city workers two additional paid holidays next year, wages weren’t on the table. They weren’t even in the building.

Not much important happens in Fruitland Park, and that’s the way most residents like it.

But a lot happens. Weird stuff, according to Lake Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie.

Ritchie has chronicled most of the scandals and political scuffles the city has endured over the past five years or so: a police officer photographed in a Klan outfit (he resigned) a police chief accused of fudging his qualifications (he resigned) a city manager accused of sexually exploiting a custodian (he resigned too, and the city paid the custodian more than $100,000) a former commissioner who sued the city for harassment (he settled for $150,000 last month) and a curious policy that adds $8 in monthly charges to city water bills without informing customers that payment is entirely voluntary. At least one other law suit is pending—a failed candidate for city commission is suing over those “voluntary” charges.

The city has grown slowly for more than a century. The Casino community center will celebrate its centennial next year. Many homes are more than 50 years old, with lawns that run the gamut from sculptured landscapes to vegetable gardens to cattle pastures to overgrown thickets.

A hodgepodge of residential building styles ranges from mountain cabin to cracker shack and rusty trailer to elegant homes that showcase Georgian, Spanish Colonial, and even Tudor influences, along very modern designs and a few that can only be described as eclectic.

City building codes—at least the ones governing outside appearances—are quite a bit more laissez-faire than those in The Villages.

And that, many residents say, is a big part of the city’s small-town charm they don’t want to see “changed forever.”

Some things could maybe stand a little change.

Public facilities dominate the city’s barely discernable downtown district—the library, swimming pool, city hall, fire and police stations. Churches, a furniture consignment store, a hair styling salon, a golf cart dealership, a furniture reupholsterer, cabinet makers, and three convenience stores comprise the rest, and a Family Dollar store will open soon at the city’s northern gateway.

But change is coming—fast.

Last year Fruitland Park issued three residential building permits. Large swaths of the city are still forested and the largest swath—the 900+-acre Pine Ridge Dairy tract that forms the city’s western border with Sumter County—is planted in peanuts.

Picture Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show. And then throw in a huge pot of money.

That’s what the Villages of Fruitland Park will ultimately boil down to.

City manager Rick Conner analyzed costs and benefits of the development proposal.

After all is said and done—after the city’s upfront costs are covered, after long-term costs are amortized and revenues set aside to pay for them, after all the smoke clears, Conner said the city will see an inflow of $1.1 million to $1.4 million in “disposable” revenues—monies that could be spent as soon as proceeds are collected to benefit city residents.

Now picture Mayberry’s movers and shakers with a cool million dollars a year to spend on anything they want. Money changes things, goes the old adage. It’s what you do with it that’s important.

The Villages boasts 42,000 homes and 81,000 people. That’s an average household size of about 1.9 people—all adults.

Villages residents tend to be more affluent, better educated and arguably more worldly than the average Fruitland Park resident today.

And if the Village of Fruitland Park lives up to expectations, Villages residents will constitute almost half the city’s population and a sizeable majority of its voters. If Fruitland Park residents register and vote in near record numbers, Villagers break the mold altogether.

“The government of Fruitland Park is probably going to change,” Gunter warned his colleagues in August.

“This Board—there’s a good possibility it will be all people from the Villages. The Planning and Zoning Board. The Code Enforcement Board. All these boards are going to change. They’re going to have 4,000 residents and 90 percent of them vote,” Gunter said.

Gunter—the most senior member of the commission and widely respected for his sage perspective—isn’t afraid of change. He will likely vote in favor of the Village of Fruitland Park, and he would likely agree that many things in Fruitland Park need to change.

The big question is time. Gary Moyer, vice president of development at The Villages, said he expects to receive final approvals for the project by next summer. He expects to start building and selling homes by next fall. The Villages of Fruitland Park is coming fast. Lightning fast in development years.

Fruitland Park has no central instrument of communication—the role small newspapers played in times past. Despite the best efforts of The Daily Commercial, a long-distance effort by The Orlando Sentinel and the growing reach of Villages-News.com, most

Fruitland Park residents get their local news by word of mouth, often as not at the Fruitland Park Cafe.
Given a paucity of local media, suspicions can turn to suppositions and then to rumors that can rip through a small close-knit community quickly, picking up energy as they go.

Absent a consistent and accessible forum, city staffers are already bearing the brunt of resident concerns with daily telephone calls.
Community Development Director Charlie Rector fields as many as 12-15 calls a day that usually evolve into lengthy discussions that take up as much as half of his day. That’s a lot of talking.

On top of his routine duties, almost daily meetings with Villages officials and occasionally tense negotiating sessions, most days by late afternoon his voice is cracking and his face is a picture of fatigue. Commissioners are working just as hard to stay ahead of developments.

And this is just the preliminary planning stage. The real work—and big decisions about the future of the city—are yet to come. On October 16, The Villages is expected to push the “go” button. After that, turning back will be almost impossible.

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