Aurora Oaks/Calibrex neighborhood opponents speak to BOCC

The opposition focused on the legality of application with incomplete documents and questions about the financial safety of the CDD process for Marion County property owners.

file photo: Jimmy Gooding, an attorney, speaks during the Planning and Zoning and DRC Waiver Requests meeting in the Marion County Commission auditorium at the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, August 16, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted December 18, 2023 | By Belea T. Keeney

A typically routine county hearing to consider three new Community Development Districts (CDD) turned contentious Dec. 13 when neighbors of the new Aurora Oaks subdivision objected to key elements of the process, one of which an opponent labeled as a “predatory housing practice.’’

The Marion County Commission reviewed, and unanimously approved, all three CDD requests but only after neighbors strenuously objected to the application for Aurora Oaks, which is between SW 67th and 60th avenues and between SW 52nd and 59th streets. Owned by Calibrex Ocala Ontarion LP, the project is just under 90 acres with over 1,200 single-family and townhomes slated for construction. Abutting and nearby parcels are 3-80 acres and are largely horse farms.

In an email to county staff and the board, resident Mira Korber and her neighbors objected to the project and raised several issues regarding the CDD process. Korber’s email focused on the petition’s completeness.

“Analysis and recommendation to approve Petitioner Calibrex’s submission reflects NEGLIGENCE on the part of county staff. No consent was provided (by Calibrex) to set up a CDD,” according to the email. “Instead, there is a consent Form for…” a Calibrex staffer to receive psychotherapeutic treatment services.

The CDD landowner consent form was missing from the original application package provided to county’s Growth Services staff. Once alerted to the discrepancy by Korber, a consent form was signed and notarized on Dec. 13 before the 2 p.m. public hearing.

Korber’s email also criticized Growth Services staff, saying they are “clearly customer service for developers” and questioned whether applications are thoroughly vetted or are merely “rubber stamped by staff even if insufficient or incomplete.”

The dispute over the CDD continues the neighbors’ opposition to the entire development. In December 2022, Korber and a neighborhood group filed a court petition against Calibrex, alleging denial of due process by county commissioners and a violation of Marion County’s Comprehensive Plan. The petition was unsuccessful. The residents also objected to the project during commission meetings in the fall of 2022 BOCC, but the development continues to move forward.

Regarding the discrepancy with Calibrex’s CDD application, Korber asked, “In whose interests are we really working here? My concern about the level of thoroughness with which these documents are being reviewed or being brought for approval remains.”

Neither staff nor members of the board responded to Korber’s concerns at the hearing.

The board then approved Aurora Oaks’ request as well as those for Marion Ranch, which plans about 1,383 housing units on 325 acres near SW 49th Avenue and SW 80th Street, just north of the Calesa Township development; and Pioneer Ranch, which will have 1,081 housing units on about 268 acres at SW 95th Street Road east of SW 60th Avenue and southwest of the JB Ranch community.

CDD explanation and history

CDDs have become a common means of funding new development. The districts act essentially as a local quasi-government and allow the developer to sell bonds to pay for new roads, sewer systems, water and other utilities that are required. Bonds are less expensive to the developer and differ from a traditional mortgage.

Several large-scale CDDs in the area include On Top of the World and its subdivisions such as Candler Hills and Indigo East; Ocala Preserve; and The Villages. In February 2023, the city of Ocala approved the expansion of the Ridge at Heathbrook CDD, approving the addition of 36 acres to its parcels.

However, the CDDs allow the developer to pass on the costs to the homeowners, eventually becoming part of their annual property taxes. The CDD documents provided by Calibrex state explicitly that the costs would be passed on to the residents.

“Future property owners will be affected to the extent that the District allocates debt for the construction of public infrastructure improvements and undertakes operation and maintenance responsibility for certain infrastructure and administration… To fund the cost of maintaining infrastructure, operations and maintenance assessments will be imposed on the District property owners. As with the special assessments for infrastructure acquisition and construction, landowners are responsible for the payment of these assessments on the basis of their relative property ownership of the areas receiving benefit from infrastructure improvements and subsequent maintenance. All persons choosing to acquire property in the District will be responsible for such assessments in addition to the taxes or assessments imposed by the County and/or other taxing authorities.”

The opponents of the Aurora Oaks CDD noted the volatility of the bond market and questioned whether the CDD would protect the surrounding neighbors should a default occur.

“Future homeowners in the district will be subject to an ever-increasing fee to keep up with interest payments on the bond over a 30-year period, which is a predatory housing practice,” said Kathy Dale, reading from the objection email.

Echoing that sentiment, Korber wrote, “The CDD structure will burden the homeowners that Marion County claims that it is trying to accommodate. How can Marion County justify this kind of abuse of existing neighborhoods simply because the County does not have to pay for the infrastructure? Again.”

During the public hearing, Commission Chair Michelle Stone reminded the opposition speakers several times that the zoning and land use were not up for discussion.

“This is simply to address the Community Development District and it does not have anything to do with the approval of the project of the land use and zoning in any way,’’ she said. “We’re not going back through the land use and zoning.”

Attorney Jimmy Gooding, representing Calibrex, addressed the neighbors’ concerns and praised Korber and the neighbors for their thoroughness and attention. He went on to cite case law with regard to the initial board member make-up by the developer’s representatives; the local bidding process for construction services; issues with the Comprehensive Plan; and that while the term CDD is not mentioned in Marion County’s document, is specifically supported by Florida statute.

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