BOCC to vote on 312-unit apartment complex at On Top of the World

Neighbors oppose the project citing 55+ community concerns, safety issues for seniors in the area and incompatibility with multifamily housing.

Home » Government
Posted April 2, 2024 | By Belea T. Keeney

File photo: Ken Metcalf during the Planning and Zoning and DRC Waiver Requests meeting in the Marion County Commission auditorium at the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala on Tuesday, August 16, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

Once again, organized groups of county residents are planning to confront the Marion County Board of County Commissioners over a proposed development, this time a 312-unit apartment complex at the entrance to the On Top of the World retirement community.

Opponents insist the multifamily rental housing does not belong in a 55+ subdivision and have raised issues ranging from the area’s already overcrowded schools to safety concerns to the loss of character of their community.

The commissioners moved the hearing to April 22 at 9 a.m. after hundreds of opposition parties swarmed the Planning & Zoning hearing held Feb. 26. Initially, a change of venue was announced but the board will meet at its usual auditorium; the time and date was changed to accommodate what is expected to be a large public turnout.

Planning & Zoning approved application Feb. 26

The county’s Planning & Zoning staff recommended approval with conditions, and the P&Z Commission–after discussing the application for over two hours on Feb. 26—voted 5-2 amid strong public opposition to approve and move the application on to the county commission.

The application from Tillman and Associates Engineering, LLC, was on behalf of the landowners, On Top of the World Communities, LLC, and is “to rezone the 22.63-acre property site located at 8441 SW 9th (sic) Street Rd. “The change would be from Community Business (B-2) to Planned Unit Development (PUD) on two parcels for 312 multifamily/townhome units with amenities. No nonresidential-use areas are proposed by the PUD,” the application stated. The correct street address is 8551 SW 99th Street Road.

The apartment community would be owned and managed by Continental Properties, a national multifamily developer and owner/managers of properties. They have 16 communities in Florida and 77 total throughout the United States. Representatives for Continental said studio apartments would start at about $1,300 per month, and the three-bedroom models will start at $1,800 per month.

A unique aspect of this project is that it is set within the Vested Development of Regional Impact of Circle Square Woods of OTOW, established in 1978 when State Road 200 was a two-lane road and barren of nearly all other development.

The P&Z staff report stated, “According to applicant’s email, originally, at the time the project was established, the historic provisions of Marion County’s 1973 effective development regulations enabled B-2 zoned commercial properties to be developed commercially or for residential development. The PUD proposes to utilize a portion of the project’s vested enabled development amounts on the vested commercial site. The proposed 312 multifamily dwelling units are drawn from total of 3,600 multiple-family dwelling units under the vested rights.”

There are multifamily neighborhoods within OTOW comprised of dozens of sixplex, one-story villas that make up the Friendship Village and Americana sub-neighborhoods on the southwest portion of the senior community. These are also part of the multifamily allowed uses for the VDRI.

The rezoning is slated for the Canopy Oaks mixed-use PUD that has already been developed at SW 80th Avenue and SR 200, with a shopping center that currently includes a Publix grocery store, restaurants, banks, a hotel, a Dunkin’ Donuts and Cody’s Original Roadhouse that were part of the Phase 1 plans. The apartment complex is slated for Phase 2 along with a proposed clinic/medical office and a fast food restaurant.

Ken Metcalf–director of planning with Stern, Weaver, Miller in Tallahassee and the lawyer representing OTOW–told the P&Z board, “It’s the developer’s choice what vested rights they want to use. These units are already approved. We didn’t even need to apply for a PUD. The B-2 zoning from the ‘70s is still in effect.”

The application also stated the units are exempt from transportation and school concurrency requirements because of its vested status. The PUD would be serviced by Bay Laurel Utilities for water and sewer, which is part of the OTOW family of service providers; it will not impact county water/sewer and stormwater needs.

The P&Z staff report section on schools stated the community is served by Hammett Bowen Jr.  Elementary School (118.33% utilization); Liberty Middle School (111.64% utilization); and West Port High School (109.81% utilization).

All of the schools are operating over their capacity; however, county staff felt this was not enough of a significant issue to recommend denial.

“While the local schools within the area are experiencing overcrowding, the school district as a whole has ample capacity for any new students generated by this development,’’ the report stated. “It is concluded that the proposed rezoning public schools’ impacts could adversely affect the public interest.”

The P&Z staff report estimated that an additional “2.4 persons per household,” would add about 749 people to the area.

OTOW resident opposition

OTOW residents and concerned neighbors have been staging regular protests since February around the community’s various entrances on public property. Organizers report that dozens of sign holders and those gathering signatures on opposition petitions indicate the level of anti-apartment sentiment among those affected. Residents also planned a “No Rezone” golf cart parade to take place inside the OTOW community.

Nancy Carp, a neighborhood organizer for OTOW residents, said security issues, costs for road improvements and the financial hardship to improve safety for OTOW residents are her main concerns.

“We have a gatehouse, but it’s just for surveillance,” Carp said. “It’s just for cars coming in and out. But anybody can come in or out, even on a golf cart, and they don’t get checked. People walking in don’t get checked. If there are apartments, it’s (OTOW) just around the corner.”

Opponents who spoke during the Feb. 26 P&Z hearing noted numerous concerns, including the distinction between renters and property owners; the lack of activities for children in the area; the prevalence of other age-restricted communities in that stretch of SR 200 such as Oak Run, Palm Cay and Pine Run; additional traffic issues; the possible uncontrolled pedestrian traffic into OTOW; and school overcrowding that will be exacerbated by another development.

The commission auditorium was full that day, and nearly 100 people waited out in the courtyard for their turn to speak or observe the meeting. Carp reported over 500 people also waited outside the building during the meeting. Opposing speakers talked to the board for about 45 minutes.

Tom Rumora, an OTOW resident and organizer, in a letter to the BOCC that he shared with the “Gazette,” wrote, “The developer claims to already have the so-called ‘right to build unrestricted family apartments and/or commercial facilities,’ due to a zoning decision made 50 years ago. However, there is strong opposition from thousands of OTOW residents, and if these apartments were being proposed today without this ‘right,’ the Zoning Board and County Commissioners would logically reject the project.”

Rumora also mentioned security in his letter.

“The 55+ restriction in OTOW will be nullified by the apartments. A small fence or row of shrubs will NOT realistically prevent people of all ages from having easy access, visibility, contact, and impact on OTOW residents. The apartment project will therefore functionally nullify one of the most important aspects of life in OTOW — the legal, ethical, and moral expectation of quiet, safe, adult/retirement living standards. Apartment residents will become VIRTUAL OTOW RESIDENTS, merely separated by the tiniest of distance and physical restraints. They will have uncontrolled 24-hour access — bypassing the gate/guard — in golf cars, scooters, bicycles, skateboards, and on foot.”

One opposition speaker mentioned a better use of the parcels would be to build medical facilities or an assisted living/senior community. Another raised the possibility of teenage skateboarders mixing with seniors in golf carts with disastrous results. The speed limit of 55 mph on SR 200 and a mix of children and school buses were also mentioned as a concern.

In addition to the project itself, Carp said she was also taken aback by the demeanor of at least some of the P&Z board members. Some appeared bored, she said, checking their phones or not paying attention.

“We attended the Planning and Zoning meeting on February 26th, with over 500 people strongly expressing our concerns but to no avail,’’ she wrote. “In fact, the chairman made the comment, ‘This will just be good practice for March 19th when we go before the County Commissioners.’ At the end, he then stated, ‘I will sell your home for you right now and make lots of money for you and me.’ We were appalled by these statements.”

In reviewing the video, the “Gazette” confirmed that Greg Lord, P&Z member and an area real estate agent, spoke to residents’ expectations about buying next to vacant land.

“They didn’t tell you that this plot of land would be developed one day,’’ he said. “It’s their (the property owner’s) right (to develop.) My fellow real estate agents don’t tell you this land won’t stay vacant. In Marion County… the horse farms will be gone one day.”

He also stated, “Those folks that live on that street to back up to this, when they want to sell their property, come to me, and I’ll help you sell it and make money on it.” The audience reacted audibly to the comment and board member William Heller shook his head at the remarks.

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