Arguing that the City of Eustis’ plan to annex 164 acres in the Thrill Hill/Lake Eldorado area would constitute urban sprawl into a rural community, Lake County Commissioners voted 4-1 this week to reject a proposed interlocal agreement that would have allowed the city to hold a final vote on the matter.
The board directed County Attorney Melanie Marsh to notify the Florida Communities Trust that the county wished to deed a 25-foot-wide strip of land in the Lake May Preserve to the nonprofit Friends of the Wekiva River. The county voted 4-1 on Dec. 1 to deed the land to a different nonprofit — in order to block the Eustis annexations — only to find out the state would not approve the land transfer because it violated the deed restrictions on the property, which was purchased with a state grant.
Commission Chairman Sean Parks said he would insist this time on receiving written approval from the Department of Environmental Protection and FCT ahead of time before proceeding with the second land transaction on the park property. “I think we literally have to have DEP say to us in writing that yes, you can give that property to Friends of Wekiva River,” he said.
The county has until the end of this month to notify FCT of how it plans to proceed. Commissioner Leslie Campione, who has been the most vocal opponent of the annexations, said the county needs to maintain the land transfer as a “speed bump” to prevent Eustis from completing the annexations.
Eustis City Manager Ronald Neibert and the entire City Council attended the meeting Tuesday. City Attorney Derek Schroth spoke on their behalf, pointing out that the BOCC had previously approved “noncontiguous” annexations for Clermont, Tavares, Groveland, Howey-in-the-Hills and Lady Lake. Those cities have Interlocal Service Boundary Agreements (ISBA) with the county that allows for the annexations. When Eustis sought similar agreements in 2015, the county denied them, he said.
“And I just want to provide that background because this debate as to whether something’s contiguous or not contiguous, that’s a legal debate,” Schroth said. “I think the political concern is why is Eustis being treated differently for the last half-decade?”
The city has asked Lake County to rescind the deed and allow the council to hold the public hearings and vote on the annexations. If the applications succeed, Lake County has the right to challenge the annexation on grounds that it doesn’t meet the criteria in state statute.
Parks suggested they hold a joint workshop or meeting with a facilitator to work through the disagreements on how the area should develop, and possibly negotiate an ISBA to govern future development in the joint planning area.
Commissioner Kirby Smith agreed. “Let’s all get together and just hash this thing out to whatever was best for the county residents, and what’s best for Eustis, and see if we can’t just come to amends on this and make an appropriate decision,” he said.
Neibert had proposed capping the density of the Thrill Hill neighborhoods at three dwelling units per acre, which is on the low end of the city’s Rural Neighborhood zoning category, but Lake County’s planning director had sought two homes per acre density. Campione, in a memo to the board, insisted that the density not exceed one home per acre, with 35-50% of any future developments reserved for open space.
Commissioner Josh Blake was the only commissioner to vote against the three-part motion, which included the rejection of Eustis’ interlocal agreement and the inquiry to FCT regarding the conveyance of the Lake May Preserve property to Friends of Wekiva River.
“My vote hasn’t changed on this,” he said. “I understand the neighbors’ and unincorporated areas’ concerns, but I do believe Eustis, as I mentioned before, was following the letter of the law.”
Parks supported the motion but qualified his vote by saying he may not support the park dedication a second time, even if the state approves Friends of Wekiva River as an eligible recipient. “I want to see how our discussions go, face-to-face,” he said.
Eustis City Clerk Mary Montez said the city has agreed to a joint meeting, but the date has not been set.