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Proposed center divides Sugarmill

Some Sugarmill Woods residents say the 18,450-square-foot building is necessary; others say they don't want to pay for something they won't use.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

SUGARMILL WOODS -- As one of the largest and most affluent subdivisions in Citrus County, Sugarmill Woods has many amenities, including golf courses, tennis courts and swimming pools.

In this placid setting of rolling lawns and tall pines, though, some residents long for something more.

"People are looking for things to do, especially if they don't golf or play tennis," said Ron Middlebrooks, who retired here in 1999.

Under Middlebrooks' direction, a group of residents is trying to revive a plan for a community center -- a place where people can gather to play cards, watch movies and plays or simply socialize.

"This place should have never been built without a community center," said Michele Eisner, who is heading the fundraising effort for the Pro-Community Center for Sugarmill Woods Committee.

"It would be really nice to meet people and share interests," said Eisner, 53. "It would enhance my life greatly."

Not everyone shares her enthusiasm. The $2.2-million proposal has become a source of conflict, with opponents raising questions about the center's cost and usefulness.

Some feel it would be redundant given the availability of the Sugarmill Woods Country Club, Southern Woods Golf Club or other meeting spaces.

"A lot of people are not happy with the idea because they feel they won't take advantage of it yet they will have to pay for it," said Ruth Anderson, president of the Sugarmill Woods Democratic Club.

One of the chief opponents, JoAnn Deckant, says she has obtained nearly 500 signatures on a petition against the idea. Middlebrooks and others are circulating their own petition.

Sugarmill comprises two sections, or villages, in which 6,400 people reside. On Monday, Middlebrooks will outline the proposal for the Cypress Village Property Owners Association. The 1 p.m. meeting, open to the public, will be held at the country club. A similar meeting will be scheduled with the Oak Village Property Owners Association.

The plan calls for residents in each village to vote on the community center during annual meetings in March (Cypress) and September (Oak).

That is the plan, but nothing is certain. An immediate hurdle will be to get the deed restrictions in each village adjusted so the property owners association can legally assess for the community center.

The 18,450-square-foot community center would sit next to the Chassahowitzka Fire Station on 6 acres owned by the Women of Sugarmill Woods. Middlebrooks said the center on County Road 480 would help unite the two villages.

A rough floor plan shows, among other things, a 500-seat auditorium, library, card and meeting room, fitness center and arts and crafts space.

The need for such a facility is clear, Middlebrooks said, because various organizations now meet in a patchwork of spaces, from a nearby church to the fire station, golf clubs, even restaurants and private homes.

"It would improve the cohesiveness in the neighborhoods," said Roger Johnson, who is treasurer of the community center group. Not everyone, he said, can afford the country club fees or even enjoys golf.

At the heart of the controversy is the financing plan. The committee wants the property owners associations to approve a plan that would put an annual assessment of up to $50 on each lot.

The mortgage would be paid off in 15 years. The assessment would likely continue after that point, but at a reduced amount, Johnson predicted, since the building would be paid off. "It could be fairly nominal," he said.

"To me, it's a no-brainer," said resident Doug Kolb, who retired to Sugarmill Woods 11 years ago from Massachusetts.

Still, some residents object to the idea, if not for the expense then the principle. They already pay up to $95 per year in assessment fees for maintenance of common areas, boulevards and entrances.

"I'm not against them having a building," said Deckant. "I don't want an assessment put on my property to pay for it."

She said some people who own multiple lots would assume a greater share of the building. Proponents, however, argue that the community center will improve property values.

Deckant also wonders how the general upkeep of the building will be paid for, though opponents say part of the assessment includes maintenance.

A more pressing concern, Deckant said, is the greenbelt, the woods that runs behind homes in the subdivision. She said it needs to be cleared of debris to mitigate a fire hazard.

Dick Allen, who has lived in Sugarmill Woods for 22 years, got several of his friends to sign Deckant's petition. "I'll never use it," he said of the community center.

The controversy is fresh but the idea is not. At least two times in the past decade or so a proposal has been brought forward, only to fail.

In the mid 1990s, a proposal called for the county to create a Municipal Service Benefit Unit, a special taxing district, to pay for the center. Citrus Springs' community center was built this way.

-- Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or .

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