Following four hours of presentations and discussion, the Lakeland City Commission voted 6-1 on Monday to approve a modified version of a plan for 954 homes, townhomes and apartments on the former Wedgewood Golf Course at Carpenter’s Home. In the process, the commission eliminated two apartment buildings with 20 units each from the plan.
Commissioner Bill Read was, as he often is, the only one to vote against the measure because of his and others’ concerns about traffic in the area. Read asked Bart Allen, an attorney with Peterson & Myers, a Lakeland law firm representing developers SJD Development and Jonathan Hall if the changes the commission approved were amenable.
“Are you happy with what we may be voting on?” Read asked.
“My client is agreeable to the changes we’ve proposed,” Allen said. “We heard the residents as it relates to separation and green space. We are content.”
Several residents spoke at the meeting, as did Brent Geohagen, a land-use attorney representing about half a dozen of the home owners associations in the community.
“I appreciate and do respect the applicant and staff’s respective presentations. We respectfully disagree and oppose what we would refer to as this mega development,” Geohagen said. “I would remind the commission that in these cases, the burden is actually on the applicant to establish why, effectively, the law should be changed.”
Geohagen argued that changing the golf course from a green space with trees and wildlife to a large development would be incompatible with what currently exists, it would not be harmonious, and what is being offered is not unique or innovative — all of which is required by future land use regulations. In addition, he said it would add tremendous traffic and possibly flooding issues with the addition of several retention ponds – which are required for development.
“The community in which my clients reside can best be described as historic, intimate and somewhat more serene than the greater chaos that exists outside the community,” Geohagen said, referring to the strip malls, restaurants, businesses, and congested traffic along U.S. 98 north. “Approving this proposed development would destroy all of that and what their residents have cherished here for so long.”
The development, which will be called Gibson Trails, will be built in several phases; it now includes 834 apartments, 60 townhomes and 60 single-family homes – all on nearly 130 acres.
The vote came after nearly a year of proposals, appearances before the Planning and Zoning Board, and some discussions with residents who have lived in the area for decades. Some complained Monday that Hall and his team stopped meeting and talking with them in September after cancelling a meeting. Several said they understood that development was coming, but they wanted to be consulted about what would be built on land directly behind or in front of their homes.
The Carpenter’s Home development originally opened in 1928 as a retirement community for members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners union.
The developers told commissioners that they began meeting with residents in January to explain what was happening and then with city officials later that month after getting feedback from the community.
The golf course closed for use last year after operating for more than 90 years, first as an amenity for Carpenters Home, which eventually transitioned to use as Evangel Christian School when residency declined at the retirement home. The school closed in 2006 and sat vacant until 2016, when the complex was restored and repurposed as Lake Gibson Village, a privately owned assisted living facility.
In 1983, the historic golf course was redesigned to its current configuration to support new residential development. The now-closed golf course interweaves among seven neighborhoods that include single-family homes, townhomes and multi-family developments that were built from the early 1980s through the early 2000s.
The area was also home to Carpenter’s Home Church, a megachurch that opened in 1975, and had nearly 7,000 worshipers at its peak before closing amid financial scandal. That building was razed in 2015.
SJD Development requested a large-scale land use amendment to change the future land use designation of the city’s Comprehensive Plan from residential medium to residential low on approximately 19 acres and from residential medium to residential high on nearly 60 acres.
Developers had originally wanted to build 1,028 apartments, 16 single-family homes and 204 townhomes, along with 150 assisted living units. That would have totaled nearly 1,400 units. Under future land use plans, they could have built 1,667 units, which they reminded the commissioners and residents several times throughout the meeting.
In addition to homes and townhomes, the two-, three- and four-story apartment buildings are tucked into strips of land that will neighbor Audubon Oaks apartments, Savannah Cottage assisted living facility, and the Fairfield and Sandwedge Villa townhomes.
Gina Ward has lived in Wedgewood for 20 years. She showed a video to prove that traffic was backed up on Carpenter’s Way all afternoon on Saturday, Nov. 19.
“Lakeland is a great place to live, work and play — if it keeps up with roadways,” Ward said. “But it has not.”
Jerry Seifert, 87, said he has done traffic studies for WalMart and Sam’s Club, and North Lakeland has changed dramatically in the last 35 years.
“I’ve witnessed this area evolve from orange groves to me standing here today requesting you keep this,” Seifert said. “Do not act hastily on this large land-use project and regret it later.”
Seifert said despite the massive number of cars on North Lakeland roadways, the city hasn’t had any major road improvements. He urged the commissioners to ensure that there is adequate infrastructure for the new residents prior to the zoning changes the developer is requesting.
“I’m not against change – I’ve been married three times,” Seifert said to the laughter of most in the room. “But I didn’t look at some of the problems that were going to be made by my decisions. I’m going to be dead and gone before they even have a house out there. But look at the future of the city.”
Lakeland attorney Jack English spoke as the lawyer for one of the HOAs.
“The primary area I’m concerned about is the 59 acres, which represents half of their development,” English said, referring to the area on which 26 apartment buildings were proposed. “I do want to compliment them for listening to the public.”
Hall then conceded to eliminating two of the apartment buildings.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden then proposed amending the land-use plan to eliminate two of the apartment buildings containing a total of 40 units on the northwest side of the property — buildings 10D and 10E — to be retained for green space. Five of her colleagues agreed, with Read again the dissenting vote. He said he wanted to see even fewer apartment buildings in a different area and more green space.
Following approval of the land-use change and the development, Mayor Bill Mutz asked Jonathan Hall, the developer and the son of former County Commissioner John Hall, to step to the microphone and address the residents in the room.
“I‘d just like to thank everybody today for coming out. We’ll definitely be working with residents closely because I know it’s something we need to do,” Hall said.
The mayor then asked, “You’re making a commitment that you will?”
Hall answered, “Absolutely.”
Mutz said that was what he was trying to accomplish by bringing him forward.
“The best projects are ones where everyone can work together and have a voice in it and get it done right and this is the time to do that well,” Mutz said. “Our encouragement to you is make the most of the best and the least of the worst and try and work on focusing on what you can accomplish together.”
This will not be Hall’s final visit to City Hall. He has one additional tract of land left for development in Wedgewood. So far, he has not shared any plans for that property.
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