Over the concerns of Lake County officials and the sometimes-vehement objections of residents from nearby communities and rural areas, the Leesburg City Council has given the go-ahead to the 1,088-acre Whispering Hills development along with the adjacent Hodges Reserve by unanimously agreeing to annex the rural areas from Lake County.
The council unanimously approved measures that would allow Whispering Hills developers and Hodges Reserve developers to move ahead with the projects. Hodges Reserve is a 147-acre, 449-unit residential development located near the north side of Dewey Robbins and east of U.S. 27.
Jean Marsan, of Marsan Real Estate Group, Orlando, had originally applied for annexation 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.
However, after extensive meetings with neighboring property owners and area residents, several significant changes were made to the plan.
Tara Tedrow, attorney for Marsan, said several concessions have been made to accommodate concerns of area residents, even enhancing “dark sky standards” to protect against light pollution.
“We agreed to dramatic increases in lot sizes,” Tedrow said. “We removed our original main access point from the project, which was onto No. 2 Road and instead designed for two main access points onto US Hwy 27. We volunteered to donate 15 acres of land to the Lake County School Board and agreed to seek certification for top environmental best management practices for our golf course.”
Tedrow added that Whispering Hills will have a community garden, petting zoo, pickleball court, second equestrian facility, more recreational facilities and a farmers market.
All of the commercial uses in the original plan are still permitted, but the developer agreed to increase vegetative buffers significantly next to specific adjacent properties and agreed to a minimum of 75-ft. perimeter buffers around the entire project.
Whispering Hills will have 642 net developable acres, 203 acres of wetlands and more than 330 acres open space and recreation.
The mixed-use development will have a maximum of 2,942 residential units — 2,302 single-family homes/townhomes and 640 multifamily units — along with a maximum of 451,000 square feet of commercial, hotel, medical and office uses.
Meanwhile, Leesburg planning staff, along with the Planning and Zoning Commission, had initially opposed the annexation of Hodges Reserve. The developer, Hanover Capital Partners, revised the PUD standards to increase the minimum lot size for a detached home from 40 feet to 50 feet and the minimum house size from 1,300 square feet to 1,600 square feet. Once the adjacent Whispering Hills project was approved, planners dropped their objection.
But growth in rural areas of the county has reached a point where Lake County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Sean Parks has asked representatives of all 14 municipalities in the county to meet on February 7 to discuss what is an often-chaotic and fast-moving development situation, particularly as cities annex county land.
Parks sent a letter to Leesburg Mayor John Christian expressing concerns about the annexation of Whispering Hills and the contiguous Hodges Reserve development.
The letter said that the roadway network bordering the properties (excluding U.S. 27) are rural, two-lane highways that “cannot reasonably accommodate the anticipated traffic to be generated by developments of this size and nature. The funding sources available for construction of new collector roads and maintenance of existing roads is insufficient to address all the needs of the County-owned road network.”
Parks’ letter also said that the developments are in the Yalaha-Lake Apopka Rural Protection Area (RPA), an overlay “with the goal of protecting environmentally sensitive land, protection of equestrian and agrarian lifestyles, and protection of wildlife.”
The letter stated that if Whispering Hills is annexed under terms of the Interlocal Service Boundary Agreement (ISBA), then the city must agree to provide services to the area.
Tedrow said it was understood that the County took an interest in Whispering Hills, but added that, “our entire development team worked diligently with the surrounding County residents to accommodate their concerns about our project’s design. While growth management and land use planning can differ between local governments, we appreciate that both the County and City wanted to see the best possible outcome for their residents.”
Lake County Commissioner Leslie Campione, who last week attended a meeting about the projects with county residents that was so contentious one public observer called attendees “hyenas,” said at Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting that she is concerned that municipalities and the county are not working in concert on development issues.
“We need to be doing more outreach not just with citizens but with our municipal counterparts,” Campione said. “We can help cities make better decisions as they see the whole picture.”
The goal, Campione said, is to “be a team, not that you’re the city and we’re the county. If we can be strategic about that we’re actually accomplishing something.”
Parks said at the commission meeting that the county needs to be “fierce and shrewd and smart” regarding development.
“There’s a bigger plan to come up with a better vision as a whole,” he said. “It’s not a binary situation.”
Ultimately, there was little the board could do about the Leesburg annexations since a formal objection would likely end in a lengthy and ultimately futile court case.
“I know I’m trying to do everything I can,” Parks said. “If it passes and moves forward, I understand there are going to be concerns. It’s not something that’s entirely our fault if it passes. We’re not trying to stop Leesburg from growing.”
Developer Jean Marsan said Whispering Hills “should break ground this September for the first phase of residential development. Phase 1 will likely include 700 single family homes and a concurrent buildout of our golf course amenity.”