The owners of Sweetwater Homes of Citrus are back to square one in its hopes of the county rezoning nearly 50 acres in Sugarmill Woods’ Oak Village. The current and unchanged zoning there limits development to a maximum of 95 single-family homes.
For the more than 100 Sugarmill Woods residents in the county commission chambers Thursday, the commission’s unanimous decision to deny the developer’s request to allow as many as 250 rental units in the area was a home run.
The developer, Sweetwater Homes of Citrus, nor its engineer, returned the Chronicle’s telephone call, as to their future plans.
Nearly 40 residents addressed the county commission on the issue of whether to allow the rezoning. The developers, during the 3 1/2 hour meeting, were almost friendless in the standing-room only chambers. Almost all the speakers were in opposition to the change, and many peppered the developer and his few supporters, with shouted insults, personal attacks, and accusations of greed and a willingness to ruin their community with rental units.
The county commissioners were little better off and often a target of speakers accusing them of already having their minds made up in support of the developer and the hearing merely a formality.
Some in the audience during public input time warned commissioners that Sugarmill Woods typically had a high voter turnout and the county’s five elected officials on the dais would do well to remember it.
Ocala attorney Lauren Merriam, representing many of the residents, said the trend over the decades from the original Sugarmill Woods design was for density to decline and the trend needed to continue rather than reverse.
“We need to reduce, reduce, reduce,” he said to a cheering audience.
He warned the design that developer and CEO of Sweetwater, Steve Ponticos, was showing the commission was not binding and could change.
Under the proposal, all the units would be rentals and owned by the developer or sold to another investor.
He called Ponticos’ presentation a sales job.
“It’s salesmanship. Good salesmanship, but it’s salesmanship,” he said.
Sugarmill Woods resident Patrick Goodman lives near where the developer wanted to build.
Goodman said he bought in the community, in part, because it attracted people in an income bracket who could afford the properties, have finance management skills, and an ability to financially maintain their properties.
If the developer had his way, Goodman said, he and his neighbors would have nothing in common with the new development of rentals or the people who lived there.
Resident Thomas Sholar said Ponticos’ presentation was misleading because the 250 units, a mixture of duplexes, townhomes, and villas, would be built on just over 30 acres. That’s because some of the near 50 acres would be earmarked for retention ponds and other infrastructure.
“That’s not compatible with Oak Village,” he said. “It’s too many structures on an acre of land, OK.”
Part of Ponticos’ pitch was that as seniors approached their 80s and 90s, they wanted to downsize, and many can’t afford to maintain their larger homes anymore.
His project would help solve that because it allowed those “super seniors” to stay in their neighborhoods, close to friends, and their religious communities.
Resident Dan Donoghue said the proposed area wasn’t designed for that many units, that many people, or the traffic they would generate.
He asked the commissioners if the county would allow such a development in Black Diamond or Pine Ridge.
Ron Rewald, a former real estate developer, reminded the commissioners that state law allowed the commission to keep the zoning as it was.
He also asked whether the developers had submitted traffic and flood studies.
He also warned that while much of the proposed development was also meant for young working people, in addition to seniors, the younger lifestyle brought with it a louder lifestyle, and music, and motorcycles.
“That’s what’s going to happen here,” he told commissioners.
“That’s what’s going to rest on your shoulders.”
He warned he was considering a recall petition of the commissioners.
A few speakers, however, were in favor of the rentals and told stories about how they, or their children, needed a temporary place to live before they could afford a home of their own. Those kinds of comments were not well received by the audience.
Commissioners said they understood that the county needed workforce housing, but agreed it wasn’t fair to residents to put it in Sugarmill Woods and among single-family homeowners.
Commissioner Holly Davis said that while she’s supported workforce and affordable housing in the past, Sugarmill Woods was not the place for it.
But she also said she took offense when audience members accused commissioners of already having made up their minds before public input and they were working hand-in-glove with developers.
Davis said she offers communities every opportunity to meet with her and to invite her to be a speaker where they live.
To those who described commissioners as corrupt, she said, “I feel sorry for you. You have every opportunity to know my heart.”
Davis said the “anger and vitriol” between neighbors, residents, and toward local elected officials, needed to stop.
Fred Hiers is a reporter at the Citrus Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.