Despite survey results, North Port commissioners want Warm Mineral Springs development to continue
The commission’s direction to city staff did not sit well with many residents who spoke out at the meeting.
A large majority of North Port residents don’t want to see high-intensity development on the roughly 80 acres that Warm Mineral Springs sits on, according to new survey results.
Despite the recent findings, the North Port City Commission during a Monday workshop pushed city staff to continue discussions with Warm Mineral Springs (WMS) Development Group LLC, which has proposed developing the site of Florida's only hot spring with a hotel, eco lodges, residential housing, and more.
The commission is also urging staff to move toward a medium-intensity development for the land to meet the standards for the WMS Development Group proposal and its potential public-private partnership (P3).
“We have a friendly potential P3 partner here who loves this property, who none of you have gotten to know yet, who I believe can help work with our staff in our city to figure out a way to take that entire area and turn it into a viable partnership that can be economically viable for them and environmentally and conservational-sustainable for the 80 acres,” said city commissioner Phil Stokes.
The commission’s direction to city staff did not sit well with many residents who spoke out at Monday’s meeting.
“You're still going to do what you want to do,” said resident David Iannotti, who has been speaking out against larger developments on Warm Mineral Springs for months. “You aren't representatives at all — you're an embarrassment. That's what you are. Because reason and evidence and proof, no matter how much everybody brings to you, you just turn it around."
This comes as WMS Development Group presented its second version of its vision revamping the property, which officials from the group say is more in line with what environmentalists and community members have voiced in recent months.
The survey, which was conducted by the third party ETC Institute, found that over 90% of respondents support “low-intensity development” for the spring, which is defined in the survey as “gardens, trails, parks, playgrounds, and outdoor recreation.”
Meanwhile, 65% support “medium-intensity development,” which includes a broader scale of activities, including “museums, wellness center, restaurants boutique retailers, and professional offices.”
It also shows 90% are against “high-intensity development,” which includes the maximum amount of development for the land, allowing resort facilities and residential units.
For the past year, the North Port City Commission has been in discussion with Warm Mineral Springs Development Group LLC in forming a public-private partnership.
In its initial proposal, the group proposed a development that included a 250-room resort, 300 residential units, a wellness center, restaurant, and more.
The revised version of the plan reduces the number of rooms for hotel stays from 250 to 200, while also restricting the height of the hotel to two stories. Fifty of the 200 units will be “eco-cabins.”
“You really want to do something good for the community? Do it somewhere else. It's a beautiful plan, but not at the springs.”North Port resident Robin San Vicente
The new plan also includes an indigenous village and museum, and amphitheater, food truck park, a restaurant, 36-hole putting course, and expanded parking. It also installs some low-impact developments, such as an urban garden, citrus groves, a new trail connection, and a ropes course.
There is also an increased buffer zone of 100 feet that was implemented in the design to keep development further away from the spring and the roughly 20 acres that it sits on.
During the presentation, the developers brought in Hank Fishkind of Fishkind Litigation Services, who noted that based on the latest development plan, it would be considered a “low-intensity development.”
Despite the detailed presentation from the developer, North Port residents were not pleased with the revised results.
“You just disregard that survey, then you just keep bombarding the Warm Mineral Springs community, like they don't even exist,” said resident Robin San Vicente, who used to work at the springs when it was privately owned.
“You really want to do something good for the community? Do it somewhere else. It's a beautiful plan, but not at the springs.”
Some of the concerns from residents and environmentalists stem from the impact that it will have on the spring quality, and also the surrounding wildlife.
Apart from an offshoot of the spring being a warm-water refuge for manatees, a wildlife study conducted on the property found there are over 100 burrows that house gopher tortoises, the eastern indigo snake, gopher frog, and the Florida burrowing owl.
The ETC survey also asked how North Port residents would like to see the improvements made, with 82% of respondents saying they would support property tax proceeds or other tax-generated revenue used to improve the property.
Nearly 90% said they would support a “phased improvement,” where the revenue generated from the park would help rebuild the park over time, while nearly 60% said they would be in favor of using property taxes of a tax supported bond issue to fund the rehabilitation.
"While I certainly respect people saying they're willing to use tax revenues on the property, I'd like you all to sit with me when we had that discussion of increasing the millage rate by one and a quarter point. I think we'll hear a very, very different tune."North Port Mayor Barbara Langdon,
Multiple city commissioners said making the fixes in phases would be an ineffective method.
"Using the $300,000 positive revenue flow every year, that would take 25 years to accumulate that,” Commissioner Alice White said when talking about improving the utility systems. “And even if that were to be doubled, then you're talking about 12 years."
Several commissioners also brought up the desperate need the park has for getting better utility systems installed, which they said could improve the long-term health of the spring.
Mayor Barbara Langdon, who is in favor of the partnership, said she found it interesting how residents responded to the question of using tax revenue to implement changes to the park.
“While I certainly respect people saying they're willing to use tax revenues on the property, I'd like you all to sit with me when we had that discussion of increasing the millage rate by one and a quarter point,” Langdon said. “I think we'll hear a very, very different tune.”
Debbie McDowell was the sole commissioner who voiced outright disapproval of the WMS Development group plan during Monday’s meeting. She noted that the results for the survey were clear.
“I cannot agree to the hotels and the condos. I can't in good conscience. There are other ways,” McDowell said.
She suggested other avenues for developing a park, like partnering with a nature conservancy.
“Everybody talks about how this is going to be an economic driver,” McDowell said. “I swear preserving this and keeping it park is an economic driver, just as viable as what is being proposed.”
Commissioners voted down efforts that McDowell made to explore other avenues outside of the WMS Development group.
They also turned down potential plans to make it a state park, or to donate the land to Native American tribes.
The overwhelming support for low-impact development closely aligns with a 2019 master plan for the spring, where residents showed strong support for open-air activities being installed at the park.