On the verge of growth spurt
By DAN DeWITT
CLERMONT -- Clermont, a city famous for lakes, now claims some strangely oceanlike views.
A ridgetop in the southeast part of town looks out over the Kings Ridge subdivision and wave after wave of roofs -- all in evenly spaced rows, all an identical gray color. Their tight formation blocks out any sign of green lawns or the houses' uniform white walls, and extends almost to the horizon.
Clermont's population has grown from 6,642 in 1989, the year of the last killing citrus freeze, to about 11,000 now. An additional 8,000 residents are expected by the end of the decade.
Across the road from Kings Ridge, workers have dug into the red sand of the ridge to begin building another new subdivision, Somerset. Signs advertising still more developments -- some ready for buyers, some merely planned -- have been posted all around the edge of Kings Ridge: Greater Pines, Hills of Clermont, the Legends, Magnolia Park.
In a nearby commercial strip, a Cracker Barrel and an Outback have recently joined the standard lineup of fast-food restaurants. Land has been cleared for a SuperTarget store; a Home Depot is set to follow.
It has all happened so fast that Elaine Renick, a City Council member who moved to Clermont six years ago, sounds like an old-timer.
"This is not the same quiet little town I moved to," she said. "If people in Brooksville don't think their town can be transformed in five years, guess again."
Most of the conditions that she and other officials say caused Clermont's rapid growth are now present in Brooksville, which is about 40 miles to the west.
Brooksville's population is about the same now as Clermont's was a decade ago.
Clermont has long been a crossroads of major highways: State Road 50, U.S. 27 and the Florida Turnpike. Brooksville, with ongoing and recently completed road projects -- State Road 50, U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway -- is becoming one.
Both cities are in the midst of formerly productive agricultural land now available for development. Residents of both towns describe them as hilly and beautiful, with natural features vulnerable to development. Clermont's pride is its lakes, which have dropped to record-low levels because of the drought and increased pumping.
Brooksville is probably too far from Tampa to quite match Clermont's pace of growth, said council member Joe Johnston III and other city leaders.
"It think we're still 20 years from getting that type of crush," Johnston said.
But, along with all the other similarities is this crucial one: Brooksville's approach to expansion is much like Clermont's was when it approved its first major annexation in 1990.
On Wednesday, the Brooksville City Council will hold a public hearing on its comprehensive plan, including an amendment to address the annexation of a 1,600-acre parcel owned by LandMar Group LLC of Jacksonville.
This amendment would allow the 799-unit Hampton Ridge development, a 125-room hotel and 40,000 square feet of commercial space on 839 acres, most of which is now designated as rural in the county's comprehensive plan. Though LandMar has not announced plans for the remaining 721 acres, city documents say it could eventually accommodate as many as 2,884 homes.
All council members are on record as supporting the development.
"I would tell them to be extremely careful," said Clermont Mayor Hal Turville.
"They should not make the assumption that growth is going to pay for itself; (Brooksville) is probably going to be a more expensive place to live. The quality of life is probably going to be diminished. You will wait longer in line for groceries and you will be stuck in traffic. If they believe there is character in their community, they need to be prepared for that to change quickly."
Clermont's lakes and orange groves were once so stunning they justified the building of the Citrus Tower, on U.S. 27, so tourists could be charged to take in the view.
"I can tell you, when you got on top of the Citrus Tower, if it wasn't blue, it was green," said Turville, a lifelong Clermont resident.
Three killing freezes in the 1980s ruined both the scenery and the economy. Landowners there -- like ones south and east of Brooksville -- saw prime groves rendered virtually worthless overnight.
"We went from purely a citrus-based agricultural community to total devastation," said former Mayor Bob Pool, who is currently a Lake County commissioner.
Clermont's location, on the western fringe of the Orlando metropolitan area, made development the obvious way to profit from frozen-out groves.
In 1990, the city annexed a hilly 1,300 acres of former citrus land known as Skytop and in 1994 began taking in a series of planned developments. It has since added a total of 3,100 acres with approval for about 9,000 homes. Kings Ridge, annexed in 1996, was the largest single addition, with a golf course and more than 3,200 houses on 1,100 acres.
Pool, the former mayor, and council member Ann Dupee, who both championed growth in the 1990s, said it has delivered its promised economic benefits.
Lake County's unemployment rate is lower than neighboring counties', mostly because of the booming construction and real estate markets. A large sports medicine complex has begun to emerge on the Skytop property, an outgrowth of Clermont's long association with the sport of triathlon, which combines swimming, cycling and running.
The USA Triathlon National Training Center opened last year, near South Lake Hospital and a branch of the Lake-Sumter Community College. A hotel/expo hall and a sports-medicine research center are planned for nearby properties. All of this means jobs for doctors, teachers, researchers and coaches.
"What we've done there is really quite wonderful," Dupee said.
On Montrose Street, in Clermont's old downtown, merchants talk of their struggle to adjust to the new market.
Mike Hoskinson, who has owned a barber shop here since 1982, said his preferred method of advertising -- word of mouth -- doesn't work with newcomers who live in gated communities and commute to Orlando.
"Some of them don't even know that Clermont has a downtown," he said.
Jim Hanks, whose family has owned Hanks Electric in the area since 1955, said his old customers "had more time than money."
The reverse is true of his new ones, he said, meaning they place a premium on convenience. So, while he has lost out on appliance sales to new big-box stores, he has gained on installation and service calls.
"If you look around, all the services are increasing," Hanks said, "everything from restaurants to doctors and dentists, to places to get your toenails done."
Residents can list many ways they have paid for any boost in the local economy.
Clermont and its equally fast-growing neighbors -- the town of Minneola and unincorporated south Lake County -- now have regular traffic jams. The area's new schools and parks become overcrowded almost as soon as they are built. Its cherished lakes seem to be in permanent decline. Property taxes have climbed steadily and utility bills have skyrocketed.
Brooksville council members have argued that the high-cost homes at Hampton Ridge should add so much to the city's tax base that its millage rate may decline. By bringing in additional customers to share the burden of the utility system, they say, sewer and water rates may also fall.
Don't count on it, Turville said.
"The argument is always out there that we need tax base, we need the tax base," he said.
"I would suggest that if growth really did pay for itself, the cheapest places to live in the country would be New York and Los Angeles."
Most of the new houses in Clermont are nearly as expensive as the ones planned for Hampton Ridge, and Clermont and Lake County charge high impact fees designed to offset effects of new development.
It hasn't been enough.
A $33-million high school is scheduled to open this fall in Clermont only 10 years after completion of the last new high school in the area. It is being paid for, in part, by a half-cent sales tax approved by Lake County voters in 2000.
Clermont's property taxes have increased 55 percent since 1990. That same year, the average home paid $9.70 per month for water and $14.90 for sewer. Now, in some parts of the city, those charges are $20.41 and $27 -- and seem sure to increase more because of an agreement Clermont is negotiating with the St. Johns Water Management District.
Clermont has been pumping more than its permits from the district allows for several years, largely because of the high volume of water needed to maintain and establish the St. Augustine grass lawns in the new part of town, east of U.S. 27. Homes there use an average of 18,000 gallons per month compared to 8,000 gallons in the west side of the city.
"They actually have been the largest permitted violator in the district," said Dwight Jenkins, director of water use regulation for St. Johns said of Clermont.
The city's new permit will allow it to pump enough water to serve its anticipated growth through 2006. After that, though, the city will be limited to its 2001 pumping levels.
This will require extreme conservation measures in the future, Renick said, and almost certainly far higher water rates.
An argument about the impact of this pumping will sound familiar to people in Hernando County worried about declining levels in its lakes and rivers.
The St. Johns Water Management District says the four-year drought -- not pumping -- has caused water levels to drop in the lakes around Clermont.
Along with many residents, Ron Hart of the Lake County Water Authority said he believes pumping has a significant impact. His agency recently embarked on a long-range study of this effect that was prompted, he said, "by the concerns of South Lake residents that pumping is sucking their lakes dry."
The water district's records date back 107 years and in all that time the lakes have never been as low as they are now. To drive along their shores is to be confronted repeatedly by the same scenes: docks hanging 10 or 12 feet above dry lake beds; stands of cypress stranded hundreds of yards from the water's edge; small lakes evolving into fields of weeds.
Levels in the chain of lakes that start in the Green Swamp and feed the St. Johns River have fallen an average of 8 feet below normal, Hart said. Water no longer flows in the channels between the chain of lakes, he said, meaning they are, in fact, no longer a chain.
It may be expected that new commercial development has cut into the profits of Clermont's old businesses. More surprising is that development, and especially the condition of the lakes, is a potential threat to an enterprise identified with the city's future.
Fred Sommer, a Clermont native, began holding triathlons there in 1984 and the city has since hosted more than any other town in the world, he said.
But the city's lakefront park, where these races are staged, is now closed because the water has receded beyond the posts that mark the limits of the safe swimming area.
Though this has not forced the cancellation of any races, Sommer worries that it eventually might.
"It's a major concern of ours," he said of the falling lake level. "It seems like you can almost watch it drop."
Even the leaders once most enthusiastic about Clermont's development have reservations about the way it has proceeded -- especially because the city now seems powerless to stop it.
"People are saying, justifiably so, we're tired of all the rooftops," said council member Dupee.
Of the 9,000 new homes the city has approved, about 5,500 have yet to be built. And the city may be forced to annex more residential projects, just as it has in recent years, Turville said.
The county has approved several subdivisions just outside the city limits. The city has annexed some of them so it can apply its own, tougher, development regulations and because Clermont is the only local government able to provide water and sewer service.
"Basically the county is planning our city for us and we're struggling with that," Turville said.
Cooperation from the county, then, is crucial to good planning, he said. In particular, Turville and other city officials strongly recommend that Brooksville and Hernando County work together to draw up an urban service boundary.
These boundaries establish an area that the city and county agree can be efficiently provided with urban services, such as utilities and police and fire protection. Growth could not extend beyond that limit until the land inside is developed nearly to capacity.
Clermont's council members agreed last month to seek such an agreement from Lake County, and Pool said the county is willing to consider the proposal. But the process, they agree, will be greatly complicated by the sprawling development surrounding the city.
Brooksville and Hernando have a comparatively clean slate on which to draw such a line. The subject has not come up in recent meetings between the City Council and the County Commission, though Bill Geiger, the city's community development director, said he has mentioned the idea to county planners.
Clermont city officials had one more piece of advice for Brooksville -- it should hire highly qualified experts to negotiate a development agreement.
"You have to have a first-class land-use attorney," said Barry Brown, head of Clermont's planning department, "because one thing you can bet on is the developers know their job. And they have the best planners and the best lawyers and the best engineers retained."
LandMar is a subsidiary of power company giant Duke Energy. Its representatives include Jake Varn, one of the state's best-known development lawyers, and the engineering firm the city has hired to design its long-range utility plans, Coastal Engineering Associates Inc.
Geiger and Emory Pierce, the city's public works director, are representing the city.
City officials say they feel comfortable with that arrangement because of their confidence in their staffers. They have also pointed out that LandMar has in some cases offered more than the city asked -- help to build a sewage treatment plant near its development, for example.
But Turville warned that professional developers are adept at presenting a friendly face, at least initially.
"That's part of what they do. They are in the business of getting these projects approved," he said.
"It's a whole other ballgame when you're playing with the biggest names in the industry. They are motivated by the economies of what they are doing and have very little interest at all in the impact they have on your community."
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