A massive development planned for an area south of Leesburg that’s currently zoned agricultural cleared an important hurdle Thursday as the Leesburg Planning Commission gave its blessing to plans for up to 2,943 homes on 1,008 acres north of Dewey Robbins Road between U.S. Hwy. 27 and Number Two Road.
The advisory board voted to recommend that the city of Leesburg annex the unincorporated area and change its existing zoning and land uses to accommodate the Whispering Hills project’s higher densities. The decision came despite dozens of neighbors showing up to oppose their community’s transformation as they raised concerns about increased traffic, flooding, and the loss of their cherished rural lifestyle. If the zoning changes take effect, residential densities in the area could increase from 1 unit per 5 acres to 2.7 units per acre.
“The density is just too high. This project just creates another Villages-type environment in this part of county,” said Deborah Shelley, referring to the sprawling retirement community’s steady encroachment into surrounding rural areas.
Other residents agreed, including Lucile Heald-Oldham, whose family has roots in the area stretching back to the 1880s.
“This project is yet another change of existing land use that will forever change the character of our area,” Heald-Oldham said.
Project representatives sought to reassure residents in a presentation that stressed the developer’s plans to improve area roadways and touted project amenities including a 27-hole golf course, a 10-acre equestrian center, two recreational areas and a town center.
“We’re designing something far above just cookie-cutter housing subdivisions one after another,” said Tara Tedrow, an attorney for Marsan Real Estate Group, which is parntering with Dubai-based Ayana Holding on the $1.6 billion joint project.
With Florida’s population expected to add millions of new residents over the next 10 years, the choice for Planning Commission Chairman Tim Sennett wasn’t whether to accept growth, but what kind of growth.
“If they didn’t do this, we’d possibly see a bunch of small communities that don’t have what this is offering,” he said.
But Lori Brown, whose 40-acre property on Dewey Robbins Road abuts the project site, was disappointed by what she sees as the city’s quest for higher tax revenues and economic growth at the expense of the area’s rural appeal.
“All they’re looking at is dollar signs,” Brown said. “There’s enough growth in our area the way it is.”
The Whispering Hills project next heads to the Leesburg City Commission on Sept. 13 for an initial vote, with final consideration expected in December. Other permitting agencies also will have a say on the project, including Lake County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the St. Johns River Water Management District.