2013: Good Riddance, 2014 will be better

One year ago Fruitland Park’s “new” city commission—first-timer Chris Chesshire with returning veterans Chris Bell, John Gunter, Sharon Kelly and Bob Goldberg—readied itself for its first public meeting without its most contentious member—Jim Richardson, whom Chesshire defeated a month before in a runoff.

Thanks largely to Richardson’s absence, the mood was upbeat, almost ebullient. As its first official act, the city’s governing board convened as one of its biggest spenders—the Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA.

The CRA board—four commissioners plus the mayor—okayed  funds for the city’s planned community center complex next to City Hall and agreed—”by consensus,” according to the minutes—to ask its chief planner to update the city’s CRA Plan that governs how the almost $1.5 million projected for the city’s CRA Trust Fund can be spent.

The meeting took all of nine minutes, and that includes a Pledge of Allegiance and Commissioner Chesshire’s invocation. City Attorney Scott Gerken advised the board—optimistically, it turned out— that the CRA Plan could wait until a new city manager was appointed.

That was about the last thing that went as planned—or as smoothly—in 2013. Next week, the long-awaited city manager—Gary LaVenia, a career public service administrator from Maple Shade, New Jersey just outside Philadelphia—will start his new job. One of his first tasks will be to update the CRA plan.

But LaVenia will have many tasks, almost all of them critical, with timelines to match.

For Fruitland Park, 2013 was a rollercoaster year that will be remembered as an historic turning point. At almost every twist and dip, Richardson—rejected by the city’s voters, roundly assailed in private conversations around city hall but a determined and tenacious adversary—made his presence felt.

Over 12 short months the city burned through a city clerk, a city treasurer and five interim city managers, paid out almost $300,000 to settle lawsuits filed by Richardson and former city employees, including one who was involved in a sex scandal, and defended itself against another suit—again spurred by Richardson—that could cost the city more than $400,000.

On the plus side, the city received a $250,000 county grant to expand the library—a project that gets under way next month—and a more than $300,000 settlement from a former city engineering consultant over problems with city’s sewer system.

But nothing the city did compares with the announcement in July that The Villages of Fruitland Park plans to build 2,038 new homes—most priced at more than double the city’s average—and bring about 4,000 new residents into the city, all in the course of one year.

The city is currently under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement—thanks to another complaint filed by Richardson. An earlier, inconclusive investigation of the same charges by Lake County Sheriff’s investigators was forwarded to FDLE. Mayor Bell has said he welcomes the state inquiry and hopes it will bring to a close—finally—one of the city’s most troublesome eras.

For Lavinia, a seasoned pro, Fruitland Park could mark the crowning achievement of his career.

For city commissioners, 2014 will be a year of anticipation.

Besides the CRA plan overhaul, a Charter Review Committee will look over the city’s governing document and suggest amendments that will likely include a change in the way voters elect their commissioners. The changes may go before voters as early as November.

The Villages of Fruitland Park plans to start site development by the summer and sell its first new homes by the fall. And that—by everyone’s reckoning—will forever change the city.

New “disposable revenues” resulting from the Villages of Fruitland Park development are projected to total between $1.1 million and $1.4 million. This year the city collected about $700,000 from property taxes.

“This project is going to change Fruitland Park forever,” warned veteran Commissioner John Gunter last August. “The government of Fruitland Park is probably going to change. 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,” said Gunter, the commission’s longest-serving and most respected veteran.

That change is already under way. Community Development Director Charlie Rector recently identified eight “hot” projects that could add up to 525 new homes and apartments in the city over the next 12 months and grow the city by more than 30 percent—before the first home in the Villages of Fruitland Park starts construction. Also under consideration: a commercial development boom on C.R. 466A—the front door to the Villages of Fruitland Park and site of a long-awaited road widening project that set to start in 2014.

By any measure, the story of Fruitland Park is a work in progress. And if history holds, it will be an eventful one.

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