City Commission gives initial green light for Preserve at Savannah Lakes infill project east of U.S. 1

FORT PIERCE – The City Commission here paved the way Sept. 20 for a huge infill project about a half-mile north of Midway Road and east of U.S. 1 upon approving the Preserve at Savannah Lakes Community Development District.

Interim City Attorney Tanya Earley introduced the Kolter Group request for the CDD for a new community proposed between the High Point 55-plus community on the north and the Gator Trace Planned Unit Development on the south.

“This is the first reading of an ordinance,” she said. “Unlike most ordinances, it’s not staff-generated and not staff-recommended; Instead, it comes to you by way of a petition filed pursuant to Chapter 190 [of the] Florida Statutes for the development of a community development district.”

The Kolter Group’s Tallahassee-based attorney, Jere Earlywine, then came to the podium to explain why the Delray Beach real-estate development company preferred establishing a CDD taxing unit to fund the project’s infrastructure rather than paying for the work upfront.

“I see the CDD as having three main benefits: financial, default protection and what I consider ancillary benefits,” he said. “When you have a CDD do the public improvements as opposed to using a mortgage loan or the developer’s own money and then fronting all those costs into the home prices, the money actually goes further. The second set of benefits is default protection. When you have a recessionary environment, the chances of it going belly up with a CDD are less because the money is actually held in a trust estate.”

Mr. Earlywine proceeded to detail what he viewed as the ancillary benefits of community development district, which include the fact a CDD – because it’s a government entity – can collect taxes, has sovereign immunity protection from frivolous lawsuits and the ability to get funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“HOA communities cannot get that,” he added, referring to FEMA funds. “It’s in a much better position than an HOA for a community like this one that has over $17 million in infrastructure.”

Mr. Earlywine emphasized that the Kolter Group would be submitting project approvals for the development shortly after winning Board approval of the CDD boundaries. Current plans are to build a mix of townhomes and villas on the 120-acre site.

“The CDD is an important part of getting those approvals in place,” he explained. “The way that Kolter is approaching the project has a lot of nice benefits. They’re going to keep about a third of the project as natural preserves. We’ve got a natural trail system that’s being installed, as well as amenities and things for families. The integrated sidewalks and trails connect to the East Coast Greenway, [and] it’s a really nice project with 40 acres of wetlands being preserved on-site.”

After Mr. Earlywine concluded his presentation, Mayor Linda Hudson wondered how Kolter planned for homeowners to access the site.

“Is Dixon Drive the access point?” she asked.

The applicant’s contracted land planner, Dennis Murphy, tackled that question.

“Without getting into a lot of site plan details, what we have is a 600-plus unit development,” he said. “Our access will be through a combination of South Market [Avenue], direct access on U.S. 1 and some additional supplemental access points right now. Dixon is in the mix, [but] it is not necessarily the primary access at the moment.”

Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson also expressed concerns about resident access.

“Do you have to identify your means of access within the CDD right now?” he asked.

Mr. Murphy emphasized that while the CDD application includes general graphic and location maps, the Board would see more specifics later on as part of the project approval process.

“We have identified conceptually the big picture footprint issues,” he explained. “How to get in and out, how to bring the utilities in, how to handle stormwater drainage, how to handle any critical environmental issues on the property. Again, that is somewhat separate from this mere enabling authority that we’re seeking approval for tonight.”

Commission J. Johnson admitted he’d previously met with Mr. Murphy to discuss unresolved issues because he’d recently voted against a different CDD application.

“I just wanted to kind of get a feel because I was the lone dissenting vote in our last CDD conversation,” he recalled. “I had my other reasons at that time, and that’s on the record. I just wanted to make sure I’m clear about that infrastructure there because I believe some of the right of way would connect to this project in the U.S. 1 corridor. You know, signalized intersections are important for 600-plus-unit developments. We get a lot of complaints about developments that try to access U.S. 1.”

While he didn’t name which developments, Mayor Hudson didn’t hold back.

“High Point,” she interjected, referring to the massive retirement community just to the north of the proposed project whose residents have clamored for a traffic signal onto U.S. 1.

Commissioner J. Johnson agreed that particular community has complained incessantly.

“High Point is the name of one of them,” he admitted. “We get frequent calls and petitions through the Department of Transportation and the City of Fort Pierce.”

In response, Mr. Murphy affirmed that he’d already been made aware of the concerns.

“I can assure you, your staff has made us painfully aware of the importance of ensuring safe ingress and egress in and out of this project site,” he said.

“Good job staff,” chimed in Mayor Hudson.

Mr. Earlywine, however, told commissioners the request that evening was separate from any future discussions on traffic concerns surrounding the development, which would be addressed.

“To be clear, establishing the CDD through the process we’re going through right now would not affect that conversation,” he insisted.

For his part, Commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr. wanted to ensure that prospective purchasers of the planned residential units understood how the CDD assessment would appear as a separate charge on the annual property tax bill. Residents of other St. Lucie County CDDs have complained in the past to the County Commission about their high taxes without understanding that they’d agreed to the CDD assessments upon signing their purchase agreements.

“I think that’s the part where you have to inform those that will be purchasing lots in there to know there’s a special levy by the CDD,” he said. “There’s also a levy by the City of Fort Pierce that’s on top of what that would be. We have to make sure that’s communicated to the citizens.”

The Kolter Homes attorney assured him buyers would be made aware of the special assessment upon signing their purchase contracts.

“There’s a disclosure right above their signature block that has to be in there,” Mr. Earlywine said. “The sales folks for the home builders are very familiar with it, and then there’s a lot of disclosure in the public record, on the websites and all the other public notices.”

The Commission then voted unanimously to approve the Preserve at Savannah Lakes Community Development District.

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