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Rapid Villages building boom doubling Fruitland Park's population

The Villages at Fruitland Park is set to double the population of Fruitland Park.
The Villages at Fruitland Park is set to double the population of Fruitland Park. (Teresa Burney)

Charlie Rector, community development director of Fruitland Park, sits two miles east of a speeding building boom the likes of which he has never seen in his 43-year career.

Building swarm might be a better description of what is happening on the edge of the sleepy moss-draped municipality in Northwest Lake County. Within 18 months the city of 4,200 people is expected to double to more than 8,000 as the developer of the sprawling Villages builds and sells out 2,074 homes in what it is calling its final phase, The Villages of Fruitland Park.

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While that kind of construction pace would be an impossible feat for most developers, it is a yearly occurrence for The Villages, which regularly builds as many as 4,000 new homes a year in the tri-county area of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties. With that track record 2,000 homes in 18 months is easy work.

And the famous developer of age-restricted communities isn't just building houses. Those are the last elements of a Villages Village.  The community was approved by Fruitland Park in May of 2014 and already the infrastructure, including streets, water, sewer, electricity, three recreation centers and a golf course are in place.

And the roof tops are popping up like dandelions in the hilly sand. Rector said last week that a total of 420 permits have been pulled for new homes and certificates of occupancy awarded for 185.

"I have never seen anything remotely like this. Literally, they move mountains," said Rector.

Building that fast requires a control of circumstances, including a strong partnership with the municipality where the construction is occurring. Even before The Villages bought 780 acres of former dairy property south of State Road 466-A and east of the Sumter County line in December 2013, Villages officials were in talking to Fruitland Park about zoning changes that would make the development possible.

"We have been working hand-in-hand with them," said Rector. "They have been absolutely professional and great to work with. "

And it has paid for a lot of extras that the city couldn't afford.

For instance, The Villages needed water and sewer from Fruitland Park, but the small town lacked the resources to extend the utilities two miles west of city hall. So The Villages paid for a 12-inch well, a pump, a 500,000 under-ground storage tank and installed two miles of water main to the site.

"We will sell them water through the pipes they paid to build," said Rector.

When the city worried that the new water main would disturb its beloved downtown oaks, The Villages installed it under the street, repaving afterwards, said Rector.

"They brought their people in and we blinked and it was done," said Rector.

Worried that Fruitland Park's antiquated computer system could not handle the pace of permitting for the community, The Villages spent $120,000 to equip it with a computer system that matches the one it uses with other municipalities and spent six weeks training city employees.

"They didn't think our old ways of doing things would be able to keep up with what they were doing," said Rector. "We were very antiquated. It was time for us to grow up but we couldn't afford it. Now we can issue permits as fast as they can get them to us."

In addition The Villages is in the process of widening 466-A from two lanes to four from the Sumter County Line to U.S. 27 to accommodate the traffic the new residents are expected to bring.

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The city also will have no maintenance requirements for the community's streets. The Villages will handle that, along with landscaping. First response for fire calls will be handled by The Villages fire station just across the line in Sumter County with Fruitland Park's fire station as a back-up responder.

"We do literally nothing in there," said Rector.

As far as police service goes, The Villages is building a small auxiliary police station inside the development where two officers will be stationed.

Already the new development is changing the city. Commercial property along 466-A is being offered up for sale as businesses start to vie for spots to serve the new population.

The city is expected to get more than a million a year in additional revenue because of the new development.

"I can't see a downside to it," said Rector. "We are reaping a lot of outside benefits because The Villages are here and we are very excited about it."

There has been backlash to the development, notably the fact that the famously active residents of The Villages will outnumber the current residents and have the opportunity to control the city government. Last November Fruitland Park voters approved a referendum that would divide the city into five districts with a city commissioner representing each with the hope of keeping the Villages from dominating city politics.

Rector thinks the benefits of the new development will outweigh negatives.

"I think it's a win-win for us," he said, adding he thinks the city can maintain its old-Florida charm despite the new residents.

"I think it (The Villages) is going to do good things. We want to keep that hometown friendly feeling."

tburney@growthspotter.com or 407-420 6261

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