Villages of Fruitland Park project starts in earnest today

Image of Pine Ridge Dairy site.

The broad flat slope of the Pine Ridge Dairy tract rises to dramatic vistas and falls off into a pocket of low-lying wetland and a grotto-like sink.

Fruitland Park — The not-so-long-awaited Villages of Fruitland Park project will get under way in earnest later today now that The Villages of Lake-Sumter Inc. has closed its deal to acquire 750 acres of the Pine Ridge Dairy tract. The complex transaction, which involves eight separate land parcels, is not entirely completed, one of the interested parties said, but The Villages has finalized its end of the deal.

Image of Villages development area map

The Villages of Fruitland Park will develop about three-fourths of the 987-acre Pine Ridge Dairy site with about one mile of frontage on C.R. 466A

The city’s westernmost district, annexed in 2009, totals 987 acres. The Villages site, planted in peanuts this past summer, includes a mile of frontage on the south side of C.R. 466A from the Sumter County line—and the city’s western edge—to Timbertop Lane. The former dairy pasture is a broad flat slope that rises to dramatic vistas and fall off into a pocket of low-lying wetland and a grotto-like sink.

The development proposal, announced only last August, will double the size of this city with a projected 2,038 new homes, some of them priced at more than $1 million. And developers say they can do it in less than a year.

Closing the deal—at a price rumored to be in the $8 million range, a bargain—marks an historic turning point for the city. Villages planners target three community centers and 140 “Premier” class homes priced from $750,000 to more than $1 million, 1,709 “Designer” class homes priced from $500,000 and up and more than 189 “Villas” priced from $220,000 and up.

Last year, Fruitland Park granted three building permits for homes that averaged less than $170,000.

Gary Moyer, vice president of development at The Villages, told city officials earlier that he expects to secure all regulatory approvals and start construction late next summer. Moyer told city commissioners he expects to sell all 2,038 new homes in less than one year.

Next Christmas, Fruitland Park’s population will start to grow at the rate of 10 new people a day, including Christmas Day, Easter Sunday, all the Sabbath days and even Black Thursday-Friday. That’s the target, anyway.

The city’s new residents will be substantially wealthier—1,800 of the new homes are projected to sell for more than double the median house value in “old” Fruitland Park.

They will be grayer. About one-third of the population in Old Fruitland Park is too young to vote. One of the community’s most cherished assets—Fruitland Park Elementary School—has nothing to offer residents in the city’s new age-restricted Villages districts.

And they will vote. Villages People go to the polls on election day at astounding rates—well into the high 90s. Statewide, it’s more like 50 percent.

So far, the city has fared well in negotiations to set the terms of a Developer’s Agreement that is necessary to commence construction.

Image of Charlie Rector

Community Development Director Charlie Rector

Image of city manager Rick Conner

Interim City Manager Rick Conner

Interim City Manager Rick Conner, who’ll deliver his last report to city commissioners on Thursday night, and Community Development Director Charlie Rector, a lifelong resident, former city commissioner and career commercial builder, spearheaded the city’s efforts to carve out a fair deal for residents.

The Villages will share more than its burden of costs to improve the city’s water system, expand C.R. 466A and provide utilities to open the north side of C.R. 466A for substantial commercial development as shopping centers, restaurants, medical facilities and professional offices.

Construction will generate revenues of about $13 million from impact fees and fees for building permits, inspections and approvals during the year-long construction period. The city’s entire annual budget is only $5.5 million.

And new residents will generate a tidal wave of new property tax revenues.

Conner analyzed costs and projected benefits of the development proposal three months ago. After the city’s upfront costs are covered, long-term costs 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 what Conner termed “disposable” revenues.

“Those are monies that could be spent as soon as proceeds are collected to benefit city residents,” Conner said.

This year the city will collect approximately $750,000 in property taxes.

All that growth will come at a price.

“The government of Fruitland Park is probably going to change.”

That’s what Commissioner John Gunter said last August when commissioners got their first opportunity to address the Villages proposal publicly. Gunter, the board’s longest-serving and most respected member, is no Chicken Little. But he can put two and two together.

“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.

Last month, commissioners voted to form a Charter Review Committee to study the city’s governing document—much like a constitution—and recommend appropriate changes.

Most commissioners expect that one committee recommendation—if approved by a majority of city voters—could change the way the mayor and commissioners are elected. By dividing the city into single-member districts, the electoral power of the city’s largest unified voting ‘bloc’—its age-restricted Villages districts—might be spread over a larger area to create a more level playing field.

In the past, single-member districts have been created to provide minority communities a better chance at electing more familiar representatives to voice their concerns and represent their interests.

Old Fruitland Park will need some of that.

The next election—November, 2014—will be the last one current residents can call their own. By 2016, the influx of new residents will tip the scale toward the city’s westernmost districts and The Villages.

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