Volatile Morgan Creek Dispute Goes to City Commission

Morgan Creek PreserveA clash between the developer and residents of a gated community near Lakeland Linder Airport appears to be a straightforward case but it’s not: Morgan Creek Preserve homeowners want to stop Landstar Lakeland from moving a portion of a visually appealing stormwater retention pond to make room for eight houses.

The City Commission has been asked to rule on whether the city’s Planning and Zoning Board made the right decision on Aug. 21 when it denied the developer’s request following a July 17 public hearing. City staff said the request is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and had recommended approval of “minor modifications to PUD zoning.”

But no matter what the City Commission decides at Monday’s meeting, the issue is likely to end up in court, City Attorney Tim MCausland told the commissioners during a study session on Friday morning.

McCausland advised the commissioners to ignore lawsuits, past and current, filed against Landstar and to focus on the land development issue, “not necessarily who is a good guy or bad guy.”

Three lawsuits have been filed and closed before going to trial surrounding issues of the developer having not turned control of the homeowners association over to the homeowners.

And while Landstar representative John Hall told the Planning and Zoning Board about plans for the future development of Parcel 2, that property is the subject of an ongoing foreclosure and lien lawsuit filed in 2014 by the original owner, English Creek, a Maitland-based company.

English Creek alleges Landstar and its subsidiary MCP2 has not made promised payments. At one point, Circuit Judge Larry Helms ruled in favor of English Creek, ordering Landstar and MCP2 to pay more than a half-million dollars in damages, attorney fees and court costs and placing a lien against MCP2. However, Helms later overturned his own ruling and the case continues.

Lobbying

Both the developer and homeowners have been lobbying city commissioners, asking to explain their sides of the controversy at the upscale, gated community off Pipkin Road and bordering Lakeland Linder International Airport.

McCausland cautioned the commissioners that if they have listened to the developer’s pitch, they also need to make time to hear from the homeowners before the 3 p.m. Monday meeting.

Longtime Commissioner Justin Troller said he has taken the city attorney’s advice and refused both sides’ requests for private meetings.

Commissioner Scott Franklin, who took office in January, said he had heard from the developer so now has made arrangements to meet with the homeowners on Monday morning.

“Both have indicated they do not have enough time to present their arguments” during the allotted time at Monday’s hearing, Franklin said.

In background material, commissioners are informed of a city staff report to the Planning and Zoning Board that cautioned, “While the relationship between the developer and the residents is unquestionably strained and volatile, disagreements and/or differences of opinions between the two parties are not relevant to the to the request” and “should not be the basis for any action.”

Background

In 2004, the City Commission approved Morgan Creek Preserve as a planned unit development with 355 single-family homes and common areas featuring a series of pedestrian trails connecting Morgan Creek with scenic stormwater ponds.

Work started shortly after that on an area designated as Parcel 1, and 133 lots were sold. The other two parcels of approximately 40 acres each have not been developed.

The stormwater pond in question is in an area designated for recreation and also includes an RV parking area, clubhouse, swimming pool and open play field. The developer wants to reclaim a portion of the pond, build another pond nearby and use the freed-up land for the eight extra houses.

Originally the area was within the Runway Protection Zone for the Lakeland Linder airport but the airport maps have been revised and it no longer is in the restricted zone, meaning houses would be allowed there, David Carter of Carter Engineering told the Planning and Zoning Board.

Allowing the homes to be built there would bring in $22,000 more a year in assessment fees to the homeowners association, according to Hall, who was speaking on behalf of the Landstar.

Ray Feldwick, one of three property owners who has filed now-closed suits against the developer regarding control of the homeowners association, read from a petition signed by 82 households opposing the proposal. He said the changes are not compatible with the original plan because the additional homes are not on the plan.

Beverly Humphries told the Planning and Zoning Board her home on Lathola Loop has a view of water from almost every window and that she and other homeowners on the loop paid premiums of $15,000 to $30,000 for the view of the pond.

After Assistant City Attorney Palmer Davis cautioned Planning and Zoning Board members to base their decision on the issue of whether the developer’s request is compatible with the Land Development Code:

  • Board member Larry Durrence said that building new homes in front of the existing homes would transfer the value of the waterfront view to the new homes when the existing homeowners paid premiums for their lots.
  • Board member Lyle Philipson said the homeowners should have been shown changes to the layout before buying their lots.
  • Board member Glenn Higgins said he visited the site and decided that the proposed homes would not be compatible with the site and would decrease property values.

Higgins’ motion to deny the request passed by a 5-1 vote.

Normally the Planning and Zoning Board has the final say on such issues but the decisions can be appealed to the City Commission, which acts as an arbitrator or court of appeal.

City Commissioner Bill Read told fellow commissioners on Friday that based on his experience when he served on the city of Bartow’s Planning and Zoning Commission, “You have to put blinders on. You have to make decisions based on the land use and the law.”