Leesburg city commissioners are expected to decide on Monday whether to sell about 1,685 acres to the land-holding company of the massive Villages retirement development to build a new community.
The property near Florida’s Turnpike south of the city center has been destined for more than a decade to be developed with industries that were supposed to provide jobs for Leesburg. However, that plan didn’t work, City Manager Al Minner told commissioners in a memo advising them to sign the $11.8 million offer.
He said homes in The Villages — a booming 55-and-over community northwest of Orlando spread over Lake, Sumter and Marion counties — would bring in $2.1 million in property taxes annually.
“You’re not going to get that with the industrial plan,” Minner said Saturday. In his memo, he said potential property-tax revenue is 95 percent more than industry would generate.
He urged the sale, saying it is “the best potential for growing the local economy and the city’s tax base.” Those are powerful arguments for commissioners in the city of 22,000, the least prosperous of Lake County’s bigger cities.
Three commissioners said positive things about the proposed sale. But Commissioner John Christian said he wants to make sure any agreement to allow a 55-and-over development on the site includes a per-home contribution to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.
That’s important, Christian said, so that people making modest wages who will work in nearby service businesses can afford to have homes in Leesburg.
“Without that I’m very leery in supporting it,” he said.
City Commissioner Elise Dennison, however, said residential development on the sewage spray-field site would bring much-needed tax revenue.
“This should help us keep that millage [tax] rate the same because we’ll have more homes,” Dennison said.
She said that’s important because of a likely statewide referendum next year on whether to increase the homestead exemption by another $25,000, which would cost local governments precious tax revenue.
Development at the site would also help with job-creation efforts because all of the new homes would bring shopping centers and restaurants, Commissioner Jay Hurley said.
He said The Villages is the mark of quality in retirement communities.
“Whatever they do, they do it first class,” he said.
Hurley said The Villages has a strong presence in Wildwood now and has been assembling other properties in the area. So acquiring the Leesburg site makes sense, he said.
Mayor Bob Bone said he has had discussions about the potential sale with Minner the past couple of months.
He said he wants to delve further into the details of the proposal before Monday’s City Commission meeting, but, “I think it’s potentially a great opportunity.”
The city wouldn’t be able to keep the full $11.8 million purchase price if it decides to sell, however. That’s because some 600 acres of the property came to the city through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, which helped to pay for the spray field on the property.
The city would have to repay about $3.2 million and could keep $8.6 million, Minner wrote.
The Villages does not intend to start construction for five to seven years, and the company has agreed to sell the land back to the city at the same price if it fails to build in 12 years.
The Villages Land Company would have nine months to close on the property.
During that time, Villages and city officials would be nailing down details, such as how the new community would be served with water, sewer and reclaimed water and how services such as fire would be provided.
The city also would have to make sure that the EPA will go along with the new deal.
The city badly wanted to bring industry to town and had even planned an airstrip and free space for some aviation startup companies at one point. However, companies simply weren’t interested in the land, even though it is at the intersection with Florida’s Turnpike.
Residential growth in the past has been slow in Leesburg — the city grew an average of 2.6 percent annually since 2003