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Large Lake County development plan appears stalled

A proposed large development in Lake County is outlined in red.
A proposed large development in Lake County is outlined in red.

It's been more than a year since developers dropped off the plans for a mixed-use project that could more than double Groveland's current population by 2035 and not much has happened since the initial bout of excitement.

When GrowthSpotter asked at Groveland's City Hall for a copy of the proposed Development of Regional Impact, city planner Kenneth Comia brought out the city's one barely dog-eared public copy of the Villa City development of regional impact. When asked if there was anything new with the plan, he just shrugged.

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There is no update beyond the first submission on the East Central Florida Regional Planning website either, and the first phase of four was set to start in 2016. The development is in the name of Floribra- Villa City IA LLC, which the Orlando Sentinel previously reported is a group of Saudi Arabian investors who  assembled the land more than a dozen years ago.

The project's engineer, Littlejohn Company, did not return GrowthSpotter's call about information on the property. Neither did the Shutts & Bowen attorney whose name is on the submission.

When the plan for the 2,467–acre parcel was announced early last year there was much ado about the development that is slated for 12,275 homes, including a 55-plus community, a golf course, shopping center and office. The plan calls for annexing the development into Groveland's city limits.

The development, northeast of Groveland's city limits, is named after a community that once existed near the development from 1886 to 1901, sits in a rural location south of the Florida Turnpike, west of County Road 19, east of County Road 33, and northeast of Groveland. U.S. 27 curves through the middle of the project. It is south of Royal Highlands, a master-planned golf community.

Plans call for 1,610 single-family lots, 900 multi-family apartments, and a 3,054-lot 55-plus community. A golf course is in the plans, and so is 245,000 square feet of retail clustered at U.S. 27, 204,000 square feet of office space, and 60,000 square feet labeled industrial.

The land has been dedicated to agriculture over time, yet it still has a few protected species including scrub jays and sand skinks, according to the plan.

As the Villa City plan apparently sat on a shelf, another bigger development has moved closer to fruition in Lake County: Wellness Way in Southeast Lake County, south of Clermont and on the border with Orange County.  At 16,200 acres, that plan is bigger and more eminent since it was recently approved by Lake County and faces only one more trip to the state for comment. Dirt could be moving there in 18 months.

If built, Villa City will be near another settlement that was considered a significant settlement in the area in the past 129 years. In 1884 a Colgate Co. sales executive named George T. King from Massachusetts, looking for a kinder climate for his rheumatism, bought 900 acres for $29. He named the area's lakes for family members and invited other wealthy northerners to move down, build houses, and plant orange groves on land that was thought to be immune to freeze damage.

He also hoped to mine some high quality kaolin, a soft white clay used to make porcelain, in the bed of the Palatkalaha River and ocher on its shores.

By 1895 Villa City had a hotel, photo studio, dispensary, a church, and 35 homes, including King's mansion. All was well until the winter of 1894-1895 when a devastating freeze hit followed by a warm spell that filled the trees with sap. On Feb. 7, 1895, another freeze came dropping the temperature to 12 degrees and bringing snow. By the next day the temperature hit 81 and the sap-filled trees literally cracked open, according to historical records.

It all proved to be too much for the town's settlers, who, historical accounts said, were more interested in investments than living in the community, and moved out within a year. They abandoned their homes, leaving them for the county to repossess for back taxes and others to salvage for wood and windows.

tburney@growthspotter.com or 407-420 6261

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