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Controversial development plans for Sugarloaf Mountain revived

The recession sent the contentious development of Sugarloaf Mountain into hibernation, but the housing revival and a new turnpike exit near the mountain has re-awakened it and, possibly, the controversy as well.

Since the 1990s there have been plans to build a couple thousand homes and businesses to serve them on Lake County's beloved Sugarloaf Mountain. And, from the beginning, there has been opposition to developing one of Florida's highest peaks.

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The land's owners eventually won the right to build as many as 2,434 homes on the picturesque peak only to have the housing recession send the plan into dormancy.

With the local new housing market revived and a new exit into the area from the Florida Turnpike under construction, plans for the development have revived.  Richland Communities, the newest owner of the 1,433 acres, is in the process of changing the old plan, which was approved as a development of regional impact (DRI), to a PUD (planned Unit development) with the city of Minneola.

Minneola's Planning and Zoning Board recently heard the case and approved it. Next, the development plan moves to the Minneola City Council for a first vote in early January. The meetings will likely be attended by current residents in the rural area of the mountain, as well as bicyclists who flock to Sugarloaf for the rare terrain that peaks at 312 feet above sea level.

For the most part the revised Sugarloaf Mountain plan has changed little.  Plans still call for 2,434 residences and 120,000 square feet of commercial space.

However, the new plan does not include a golf course. One was built on the property earlier but has since has gone feral.  Instead, green spaces will be scattered throughout the development.

The biggest change in the plan is the path of a road that will bring traffic from a new Florida Turnpike exit at Minneola north on Hancock Road extension through the Hills of Minneola and onto Sugarloaf. The earlier plan brought it west of the development while the new route has it curving east and through the heart of the development before dead-ending at Scenic County Road 455.

The change was something that developers thought would make residents who have homes on large land plots to the west of the Sugarloaf land happier because the traffic would be directed away from their homes.  Also the southern access should help take future traffic off of S.R. 455, which has a scenic designation.

Also, "part of the plan change is to reflect that the primary access to the project now is from the south. " Earlier plans had access from the north," said Curt Wilkinson, vice president of Richland Communities.

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The roadwork network proposed in the plan already has some bicyclists worried. One plan proposed by the county has Sugar Loaf Mountain Road, a popular ride for cyclists, having a break in the middle that they are worried would keep them from traversing the mountain.  Jim Stivendor, public works director of  Lake County said the break would apply to cars but not to bicyclists or pedestrians.

Wilkinson of Richland said he doesn't have any problem with Sugarloaf Mountain Road remaining contiguous like it is now.

"It's our preference not to take it out but if Lake County tells us we have to we will," he said.

Wilkinson said that the new roads and developments should make it better and safer for cyclists. Bike lanes will be added to roads that don't have them now.

"And there's going to be an elaborate trail system connecting into the regional trail system," he said.

There is no certain timeline for the development to begin selling homes. It does have 131 lots already platted and ready near the center of the development on the west side. Two people live there now, he said.

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"Our schedule [for development] will be somewhat tied to the market and to the completion of the [turnpike] interchange," Wilkinson said. "It will be a couple of years before you actually see homes being built."

The plan for the development is to deliver homes for buyers from all stages in life, from first-time buyers to empty nesters and everybody in between, he said.

Teresa Burney can be reached at 352-455-1955 or at teresaburney4@gmail.com

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