BARTOW — In a nearly unanimous decision, Polk County commissioners rejected plans to rezone portions of the Imperial Lakes Golf Course for higher densities.
On Tuesday, commissioners considered two proposals from applicant Sarah Case with Next Level Planning and Permitting.
The first was to amend the future land use designation from residential low to residential high for 41.24 acres of the Mulberry golf course. The second was for a future land use change from residential low and development of regional impact to residential medium on an additional 21 acres.
Both proposals were approved in May by the Planning Commission on a 6-0 vote, with one member abstaining.
Commissioners rejected the first proposal on a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner George Lindsey voting to approve the project. Commissioners unanimously rejected the second proposal; Lindsey had to abstain because he has a business relationship with a developer tied to a portion of the site neighboring the 21-acre parcel.
Case said the team representing the developer has not yet decided how to move forward after the denials.
"We have some decisions to make," Case told The Ledger in a phone call after the hearing. "I feel like we made a very compelling argument about compatibility because multifamily ... adjacent to multifamily is the epitome, the definition of compatible."
Case had originally submitted two planned unit development proposals to the county that showed plans for 888 apartments across 76.14 acres on the northern portion of the golf course and 150 single-family homes on 115 acres. Case said she's now pulled both proposals.
'How to fix' problems like flooding
The golf course, which encompasses 188 acres, was rezoned to residential low last year. While multifamily isn't allowed under that zoning, there are processes by which a developer could boost the maximum density from one unit per acre to five. Not including 16 acres of wetlands, a developer could reach 876 homes on the full 188 acres.
During her presentation to commissioners, Comprehensive Planning Administrator Chanda Bennett showed that had commissioners approved the requested land use changes, a developer could have gotten 722 multifamily units on the 61.24 acres in question with a binding site plan approved by the Planning Commission after a public hearing. If a developer chose to just go through a staff review and bypass a public hearing, that number would have dropped to 488 units.
Commissioner Neil Combee introduced both motions to reject the rezoning proposals. He said that last year, commissioners were told by staff that they had an "obligation" to assign a land use to the golf course because its DRI had expired. But he didn't see how the proposal in front of him benefitted residents or existing traffic and drainage issues.
Combee said that he heard during the public hearing from Case that "putting hundreds of units on this rather small parcel will improve drainage for the area."
"I have a hard time accepting that," Combee said. "My opinion is that we should probably come up with an idea about how to fix that before we figure out how to maximize development on this piece of property."
Commissioner Bill Braswell agreed.
"To Sarah's point about not making the drainage issue any worse, if it just stayed the same, it's terrible right now," Braswell said. "I lived out there 30 years ago; it has not gotten any better in the 30 years since I lived there. So this kind of density on this particular piece of property is not compatible with the best interests of the citizens of Polk County."
The commissioners’ comments echoed concerns raised by neighbors who spoke against the proposal. In addition to issues with compatibility, residents said a neighborhood of the proposed density would exacerbate existing issues with traffic, safety and drainage, which can lead to portions of Imperial Lakes flooding.
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'There's a lot of NIMBYs'
Most of the residents who spoke live in condos surrounding the development. Bennett's presentation showed that the land in question is surrounded by five residential developments, with densities ranging from 5.85 units per acre to 22.9 units per acre. The most dense neighborhood, Fairwoods, contains 203 units.
The residential high portion of the development would have been sandwiched in between densities of 10 units per acre and 22 units per acre; residential high permits up to 15 units per acre. Both Case and Lindsey stated they thought 15 units per acre would be a good transitional density between those two neighborhoods.
"I do think it’s interesting that the higher density multifamily developments were so adamantly opposed to what we were proposing on a portion of the site," Case said. "There's a lot of NIMBYs — not in my backyard — but you know, they moved there, they wanted a condo, they don't want anyone else to have a condo next to them."
But residents cited issues with the structure of the proposed development. They said while their homes are all two stories, the plans the developer submitted called for 14 four-story apartment buildings.
Sue Bizerra said that plan is "ludicrous."
"The entire Imperial Lakes residential area is majority one-story homes. There are some two-story homes and condos. But there's nothing beyond that," Bizerra said. "There's no compatibility whatsoever with the existing neighborhood area."
Residents said the buildings would block their current views and called for recreational land to be carved out of the development and maintained, imitating the golf course.
"The golf course is no longer. That ship sailed last year when we assigned it RL land use," Case said. "There’s been no involvement on the residents’ part to try to support the golf course, so the golf course failed."
According to the land use-change applications, the 41-acre parcel is owned by ImperiaLakes Land Corp. and the 21-acre parcel is owned by ImperiaLakes Land Corp, Kenneth Warren and Harold Baxter.
ImperiaLakes Land Corp. is registered to John Lennon, who did not respond to a request for comment on the future of the golf course.
After the first proposal was rejected, Lindsey asked his fellow commissioners if they would consider rezoning 41 acres to residential medium. Braswell said no.
"As a board, we routinely deal with these issues that were bad decisions made by previous boards year after year after year," Braswell said. "Approving this today would just be another bad decision some board would have to deal with five years from now, 10 yeas from now."
Maya Lora can be reached with tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mayaklora.