Lake County Developments

Legislator files bill to create rural protection areas in Lake County

The Yalaha-Lake Apopka Rural Protection Area (blue) contains land that could be annexed by Leesburg, Howey-in-the-Hills, Groveland and Astatula.

A local bill filed by freshman State Rep. Taylor Yarkosky would give Lake County the upper hand in its often contentious debates with cities over annexation and densities on rural lands.

The proposed House Bill 1171 would codify the boundaries of the county’s three Rural Protection Areas and limit development to a maximum of one house per acre even if the property is annexed into a city. The only way for cities to exempt future annexations would be to enter into a Joint Planning Agreement with Lake County. Today only four cities — Clermont, Eustis, Fruitland Park and Mount Dora — have JPAs with Lake County.


Commissioner Sean Parks said the county asked all of the municipalities to submit draft JPAs in February. “We said now’s the time get your joint planning agreement draft to us so that we can have a starting point.”

Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks says the bill would not apply to property that has already been annexed into cities.

But if the cities and county don’t reach agreements on the JPA densities, the bill could essentially stall annexations across a wide swath of the county because the cities could not apply their own zoning classifications.


“If the bill passes, the only way that those densities can be modified is if the County and subject municipality enter into a joint planning agreement,” Lowndes shareholder Tara Tedrow told GrowthSpotter. “These JPAs can take a significant amount of time to work out and are completely voluntary for the local governments, so there is no requirement that either approve any such density modification.”

Parks said the bill would not apply to projects like the 1,088-acre Whispering Hills project, which was annexed into Leesburg last year over the objections of county commissioners. The city approved a Planned Unit Development that entitles developer Jean Marsan to build a golf and equestrian community with nearly 3,000 homes, a community pool, a town center, medical offices, a 250-bed assisted living facility/nursing home and a hotel.

“If they’re within the city already, I’m not sure there’s much legally that we can do,” Parks said. “To be honest, the intent is to stop that from happening in the future.”

Lake County and the City of Eustis sparred for two years over annexations in the Thrill Hill Road area, which is both the JPA and Wekiva-Ocala Rural Protection Area (blue).

The bill would cap the densities at the current level set by the county’s comprehensive plan - one unit per five acres. The density could be increased to one dwelling unit per three net buildable acres with a minimum of 35% open space or one dwelling unit per net buildable acres with a minimum of 50% open space. Tedrow said the definition of “open space” differs from some of the municipal land development codes.

“Open space is defined rather restrictively, as it cannot include water bodies, wetlands, residential lots, street rights-of-way, parking lots, impervious surfaces, and active recreation areas,” she said. “Golf courses are also generally excluded from the open space definition.”

The way Parks sees it, everyone benefits if the cities and county engage in joint planning instead of fighting over future annexations. “The city versus county adversarial relationship is just not constructive anymore,” he said.

Groveland’s Community Development Director Tim Maslow said the city already has approved entitlements for 25,000 new homes across various annexations and planned communities. He doesn’t see the legislation negatively impacting the city — just the opposite.

“It helps us in a way,” Maslow said. “We want the agricultural and conservation properties that have not annexed into the city yet, we’re perfectly fine with those staying as conservation and agriculture.”


But to some city officials, this bill is an example of the county putting its thumb on the scale.

“There is a difference between coordination and concurrency and direct influence in a municipal corporation and land development regulations,” Leesburg City Manager Al Minner said. “There’s a delineated line there.”

The City of Leesburg has already annexed thousands of acres west of the ISBA boundary (yellow dotted line) and approved new mixed-use and residential communities.

Leesburg currently has two Interlocal Service Boundary Agreements with Lake County but does not have a JPA. A significant area within the ISBA area is located in the Yalaha-Lake Apopka RPA and would be impacted by the legislation. Minner said there is a 3-square-mile area ISBA that is within the U.S. 27 corridor and should be excluded from the bill because it is “ripe for development.”

“If you look at the county’s map, the Lake Apopka-Yalaha RPA basically comes from U.S. 27 to Lake Apopka — so it’s humongous,” he told GrowthSpotter. It also encompasses a half-dozen approved PUDs that will add thousands of new homes to the region.

Minner said the three square miles in question are mostly non-functioning groves. “That’s developable property. In the past, it was agricultural property, but really since the late 80s, and the citrus industry crashed north of I-4 in Florida, the properties remained kind of abandoned.”

Leesburg officials often complained that the county’s opposition to Whispering Hills and other nearby annexations was hypocritical since there are communities in unincorporated Lake County — like The Plantation at Leesburg — that have densities approaching three units per acre.


Parks admitted the county is also guilty of poor growth management. “The fault lies on both sides,” Parks said. “By the way, I’m not going to tell you as a commissioner that it’s all the cities. We the county have done things as well, and have not managed growth properly in a lot of ways.”

That’s why the JPA component of the bill is so critical, he said.

But having a JPA doesn’t necessarily ensure that a city and county will always agree on annexations within the rural protection area. The City of Eustis and Lake County sparred for two years over proposed annexations in the Thrill Hill/Lake Eldorado area that falls within the Lake Eustis JPA boundaries and the Wekiva-Ocala RPA.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2022 upheld the county’s decision to donate a portion of the Lake May Preserve to a non-profit environmental group in order to prevent the city from annexing 164 acres of land for residential subdivisions.

In December, the Eustis City Council voted 3-2 against a proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendment that would have created a new Rural Residential Transition land use allowing up to three dwelling units per acre after Commissioner Leslie Campione said it conflicted with the county’s Rural Transition area. She wanted the city to commit to a maximum density of two units per acre, rather than three, in the Thrill Hill area.

Minner said he expects a lot of discussion at future City Council meetings on the bill. “Our next meeting is March 13. So I am sure that we will have this conversation,” he said. “I’m hopeful that in the legislative process, there’ll be some reasonable modifications to the bill. And then if there’s a reasonable modification, then it’s a win-win.”


Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at or (407) 420-6261, or tweet me at @byLauraKinsler. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.