Lake Louise development gets greenlight from city council

A plot of land at the intersection of Southwest 7th Ave and Southwest 32nd street is the site of a potential housing development known as Lake Louise shown on Tuesday May 10, 2022 in Ocala, Florida. The homes of the county residents in this photo will be surrounded by city zoning due to a recent annexation into city limits. The annexation increased density from four units per acre under the county code to 18 units per acre under the city code. [Alan Youngblood/Special to Ocala Style]

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Posted May 12, 2022 | By James Blevins

A project that could potentially add nearly 1,200 units to an 88.73-acre parcel northeast of S.W. Seventh Avenue and S.W. 32nd Street moved a step closer to reality during an Ocala City Council meeting last week.

Over the objections of several neighbors of the recently annexed property near Lake Louise, council members on May 3 unanimously approved two ordinances that will adopt a future land use policy and amend that land use designation from medium residential to low intensity.

The land had been zoned by Marion County as “medium density,” which allowed for four units per acre. After being annexed into the city on Jan. 18, the land now carries a city zoning designation of “low density,” which allows a maximum amount of 18 units per acre.

According to city officials, there’s quite a bit of difference between the city and county land-use categories due largely to infill development within Ocala. Since 2013, the city has not had low-, medium- or high-density residential classifications.

Director of Growth Management Tye Chighizola told the council the number of allowable units is less than what the city could allow under low intensity, adding that 18 units is only the maximum; the developer could also go lower.

Chighizola also noted the council could lower the number of allowable units when the planned development (PD) comes back before them.

Fred Roberts, attorney for the applicant, developer John Rudnianyn,  told council the land use would be predominantly residential but could include business as well.

Members of the public, many of whom has previously spoken out against the annexation and any proposed future development near Lake Louise, begged the council to consider potential implications and impacts to the surrounding area and property owners by the addition of nearly 1,200 homes.

Larry Yonge expressed his great displeasure at the addition of so many vehicles on roads already over capacity.

“It makes no sense to me to add more,” he said. “We are not ready for more, not without infrastructure. I want to state that it’s my opinion that this project is definitely wrong.”

But council members pushed back against these concerns.

Speaking about a proposed development near Saddlewood Elementary School that the council recently nixed based on lack of infrastructure, Council member Jay Musleh said he didn’t think there were any significant similarities between the two proposals.

Musleh argued the proposal near Saddlewood is located in a busy corridor that requires much more infrastructure, including a four-lane highway that has yet to be built.

“In this particular property, you’ve got a four-lane road built to transport traffic from the east to the west side,” he said referring to SW 32nd Street, a bypass road built a few years ago to relieve traffic on nearby roads like Maricamp Road.

The planned development process also allows for more oversight on what eventually will be built there, Musleh added.

“It’s going to come back to us for every little section that’s going to be developed within there. It is a subdivision that never really got built. And even if it had been built, they’d have had the same flooding issues that people have experienced in Heritage Hills for years, because it just wasn’t designed well enough back in the day. Therefore, I support this development,” he said.

Possible Conflicts of Interest

Before the ordinances were voted on, City Attorney Robert Batsel Jr. disclosed to the council that his firm represents the applicant, Rudnianyn, in other matters. In this instance, however, Batsel said he was only representing the city of Ocala.

“It has long been the case that we have had both the city as a client and private clients who do business in Marion County, and, from time to time, have issues with the city or need to be what we would call adverse to the city,” Batsel said.

The city attorney said that every one of his private clients knows and has a clause in their contract explaining that he represents Ocala to the extent that “you have anything adverse to the city of Ocala, not only can we not represent you but that we are going to represent the city of Ocala against you.”

Batsel said both city council and city staff have always understood this dynamic. He said typically he reminds staff whenever necessary when he represents someone “in other matters.”

“If we have been involved, we tell you we have. That’s long been accepted. It’s in our contract,” he said.

After Batsel gave his disclosure, council members made no comments on the matter. Chighizola elaborated on the interactions the city had with Batsel over the issue.

“The only conversation we’ve had with [the applicant] during this process was about the annexation because of the enclave issue of the two houses that are kind of surrounded that [already] exist there. So we wanted to make sure that we were consistent with state statutes and so we did seek out advice from the city attorney, but otherwise, we negotiate the policy and the land use process,” Chighizola said.

Public Comment

A member of the public said he wished development in Ocala could take a pause, giving the citizens of the city a chance to breathe.

“I recognize that growth has to happen but can we do it in a more measured way?” he asked the council. “Can we address the traffic issues before we just approve these types of projects?”

Kimberly Davis, who said she lives very close to the property in question, called the area “one of the hidden gems of Ocala.”

“One of the reasons that people I feel are drawn to this place is that we have a quality of life and nature around us with space to breathe,” she said, adding she feared that wouldn’t remain true if development continued unabated.

Larry Yonge also mentioned his consternation at what he termed “misleading” land-use descriptions.

“If you look at change description for medium density, which is currently with the county now, it goes to low density in the city. Well, obviously, we would all think that means the density is going to be lower. That is not the case. It’s going drastically higher. That’s a little bit confusing and needs to be clarified before this project simply goes through upon recommendation of staff and lawyers for the city and the applicant,” he said.

There are already undeveloped properties zoned in Marion County that are compatible with apartment and high-density development, Yonge said, adding it made no sense to him to add to it by changing the land-use and rezoning properties that are already zoned and planned for single family.

Aerial shot of the annexed property. [City documents]

“I own one of the two houses in the middle of the property, and certainly I’m very concerned about the potential enclave—what went into that?” he asked the council. “It makes no sense.”

Yonge also brought up his concerns over potential conflicts of interest with developers and the city attorneys, asking council to refrain from voting on developments where he believed this conflict existed until the issue was thoroughly investigated.

“It seems quite apparent, especially now, with the recent newspaper article, that a conflicting situation has occurred with numerous projects in our city and county,” he said. “And that they were addressed and solved by the same lawyers representing both parties.”