For three months, Eustis City Manager Ronald Niebert has been meeting with Lake County planners to negotiate an agreement that would allow the city to complete the annexation of 164 acres along County Road 44 A at Thrill Hill Road for residential development. Now he’s accusing the county of acting in bad faith.
The city had approved the three proposed Thrill Hill annexations on first reading last Oct. 1. The public hearing and final approval was scheduled for Dec. 3.
The properties were only eligible for annexation because one parcel abuts the county-owned Lake May Preserve at East Eldorado Lake Drive. But the Board of County Commissioners called a special meeting Dec. 1 and voted to deed a 25-foot strip on the east boundary of the park to the nonprofit Scott and Elaine Taylor Foundation, which in effect broke the contiguity. The annexations have been in limbo ever since.
The commissioners took the action without getting approval from the Florida Communities Trust, which the trust now says violated the terms of a $1.5 million grant the county received in 2018 for the park.
“They clearly violated a grant agreement, which is governed by state statute, to rush this through, in my opinion,” Niebert said. “I think there was either a gross misunderstanding on staff’s part at the county level, or intentional misinformation.”
During that meeting, Sam Miller, a partner at Akerman who represents contiguous landowner Carol Harper, called the land transfer a sham transaction. Harper has filed a lawsuit against Lake County, and Miller has incorporated the same claims in the amended complaint.
“There is a legitimate process and procedure for Lake County to follow if it wishes to challenge the proposed annexation under the Florida Statutes,” he said during the meeting. “That is what should be done — following those procedures for a proper challenge, as opposed to this transaction, whereby a small swath of property is being transferred to a straw man to hold solely in order to block this annexation.”
At the meeting, Commissioner Sean Parks asked County Attorney Melanie Marsh for assurance that there were no FCT issues. She said there were none.
“I have had conversations with FCT,” she said. “I do not believe it’s going to be an issue to work with them. They are willing to work with us on any changes that we want to submit to them. I will actually be reaching out to them today, as well, to pull together the information that they requested we send to them to make a change.”
Lake County sent the formal request to the state on Dec. 1, about two hours after the deed had already been recorded. Rita Ventry, a planner for FCT wrote: “To respond to your email below, even though there is not improvements planned to be developed on the strip of land, the land was still purchased with FCT funds, so it cannot just be removed. There are restrictions attached to the land not the improvements.”
And earlier this month, FCT Program Manager Rebecca Wood informed the county that the Taylor Foundation is not eligible to receive the land transfer because there is nothing in its articles of incorporation that describes it as an environmental organization or one that owns conservation land.
“Based on the information currently available to the FCT staff, the county has violated the covenants and restrictions on the property by conveying a portion of the Preserve to a non-eligible recipient,” Wood wrote. While the letter named the Carol L. Harper Living Trust (the property owner) as the non-eligible recipient, it made reference to documents the county had provided. Wood later clarified that the letter should have named the Taylor Foundation.
“As I am sure you are aware, the covenants and restrictions on the site provide that if the county violates those restrictions, the site reverts to the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund,” Wood’s letter continued. “Thus, it is critical that the county provide the FCT with a plan to bring this grant back in compliance. Please let us know how you plan to proceed within the next 30 days.”
This was another question Parks raised during the emergency meeting — whether the Taylor Foundation owned any other conservation land.
“I just know, in knowing Mr. Taylor and Ms. Taylor, conservation and preservation of land and planning, those are all huge issues to their foundation,” Commission Chair Leslie Campione answered.
Lake County officials have declined to speak with GrowthSpotter about the matter, citing the ongoing litigation.
So now county officials appear to be looking for a different nonprofit to take title to the 25-foot strip of land. In an email to the Department of Environmental Protection Grant Administrator, Marsh inquired, “If the County locates another qualifying entity, is it acceptable to have the Taylor Foundation transfer directly to the new entity?”
Niebert said Eustis is weighing its legal options and waiting to see what the commission does at its next meeting March 9.
“Our position is that the dedication was illegal,” he said.
He has had multiple meetings with Lake County Planning Director Tim McClendon to negotiate joint planning terms that would allow the annexations to go through and put the matter to rest without litigation.
“We’ve sent a draft of a proposed intergovernmental agreement with the county to negotiate land use issues,” Niebert said. “So we’ve been operating in good faith on that standpoint, even though we really had no choice but to negotiate because the county was holding this strip of property over our head.”
Under the terms of the draft agreement, the land in question would revert to county ownership, restoring the contiguity of the Harper tract; the city would pay the county a $15,000 annual fire assessment; the city would limit residential density to three homes per acre (totaling 492 homes) and would require those houses to be accessed from an internal road network.
The proposed density is expected to be a point of contention. McClendon had proposed a maximum density of two units per acre, as well as consideration of a 100-foot buffer along the property boundaries.
Niebert said the city could not effectively provide municipal services to a community with densities of less than 3 units per acre.
“This property has been in our joint planning area for over 35 years, so it was always envisioned at some point in time that these properties would transition to higher densities as the area grows and demand for development exerts itself,” he said.