The heartland communities experienced a wide variety of triumps and tragedies in 2011, making it a particularly memorable year. Festivals, the closing of a cat sanctuary amid charges of abuse, a school shoooting and along awaited community center opening all made the headlines from May through August.
Editor’s note: This edition comprises Part II of our traditional year in review, as reported on the pages of the Alachua County Today newspaper from May through August. Topping headlines in 2011 were the usual election battles and a host of financial issues facing local cities as well as triumphs and tragedies and ongoing battles waged in the heartland communities.
Reported in the May 5 edition of Alachua County Today was that the City of Alachua had almost entirely restored a $1.7 million deficit in restricted funds. The news marked a big turnaround for the City, which learned in mid-2010 that it had serious financial deficiencies and was even teetering on a financial state of emergency. The 2008-2009 audit, presented in June 2010 revealed the city spent $1.7 million of restricted funds on city operations. But a 2011 audit report covering a one-year period ending Sept. 30, 2010 revealed that through budget cuts, all but $15,771 had been paid back into the restricted cash reserves. By the time the report was delivered to the commission, all of the restricted funds had been repaid.
Former High Springs City Manager James Drumm was picked to lead the City of Zephyrhills, Fla. starting in May, 2011. Drumm had been High Springs City Manager for about six years until his departure in October 2010, when the High Springs City Commission voted 4-1 to terminate his contract. Before a final vote was taken, Drumm resigned from the post and left with six months’ salary and benefits. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Zephyrhills is a city of 13,288 people located in Pasco County, northeast of St. Petersburg, Fla. High Springs has about 4,700 residents.
JGC Land Development, LLC, developer of Heritage Oaks subdivision near Santa Fe High School, filed suit in July against the City of Alachua after commissioners agreed in a May meeting that the City would stand by its actions in requiring and drawing down a $914,000 irrevocable letter of credit (ILOC). In a complaint initially delivered to the City in 2010, JGC also alleged that the City wrongly required payment of $175,000 to make improvements to a wastewater lift station impacted by the development. The ILOC was intended to cover the estimated costs of all required remedial repairs and improvements such as streets and drainage if the developer failed to make them by an agreed upon deadline. In the complaint, JGC says requiring the $914,000 ILOC placed an inordinate burden on the development and has essentially led to foreclosure proceedings. The litigation remains in the courts today.
After years of discussions, the Alachua Chamber of Commerce and the City of Alachua finally sealed the deal that would give the local business organization a permanent home. With fitting timing, Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper, City Manager Traci Cain and Chamber President Bob Page signed the lease agreement during the Chamber’s annual banquet on May 5. In lieu of charging a fee for the lease, the City agreed to provide the space to the chamber in exchange for the Chamber’s repair, maintenance and general upkeep of the building in addition to continuing to fulfill the common business interests it shares with the City. The Chamber is currently engaged in a fundraising campaign to pay for renovations to the building.
The area was rocked by news that shots had been fired at High Springs Community School on May 18. The incident landed 63-year-old Robert Nodine in jail. The day’s events were apparently sparked by a request from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) that the school not release Nodine’s two grandchildren because of an investigation being conducted by the agency. DCF had not yet arrived at the school to deal with matters related to that investigation when Nodine arrived. Nodine is charged with four felonies, including two counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and two counts of possession of a weapon on school property. According to police, Nodine armed himself with a handgun and fired several shots before being taken down by gunfire from law enforcement. Police say Nodine became irate while at the school, and while being escorted off the campus, the grandfather was reportedly able to arm himself. As the altercation escalated, both Nodine and police officers reportedly fired their weapons. Nodine was the only person reported to have been injured. He was taken to an area hospital for treatment of his injuries, then released and remanded to the Alachua county jail, where he remains. Although most of the school’s children had already been released on the day of the incident because of an abbreviated Wednesday schedule, as many as 175 students remained on campus for after-school activities. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) report released in August indicated that the use of deadly force by officers against Nodine was warranted. The FDLE investigation was prompted by officers firing shots, which ultimately brought down Nodine.
The City of Hawthorne was hit with a $9,000 increase in its annual auditing bill, dealing yet another blow to the financially troubled city. The city had been dealing with a number of financial issues and hired Sexton & Schnoll, a certified public accounting firm, to conduct a financial audit. Sexton & Schnoll’s initial fee was estimated at around $19,000, but in May, the firm requested a fee increase of $9,000, bringing the total estimated cost to $28,000. The increase was blamed on unanticipated bookkeeping the firm had to conduct.
What began as a measure to clarify the City of High Springs’ alcohol ordinance in May has since become a politically divisive issue among commissioners. A dispute between a local private school and a local business exposed the shortfalls of High Springs’s alcohol ordinance. In May, that disagreement led commissioners to discuss options for clarifying its ordinance, and perhaps even making it more lenient. The ordinance was blamed by some for pushing businesses out of the city, but others regarded it as a safety and moral issue.
Exactly three weeks after gunfire was reportedly exchanged on the campus of High Springs Community School (HSCS), parents, students and the community as a whole joined together June 1 to honor and recognize the law enforcement officers who responded to the scene. Called “A Celebration of Success,” the gathering drew a wide array of parents, residents and officials who packed the school’s cafeteria. Alachua County Superintendent of Schools Dan Boyd, then High Springs Police Chief James Troiano, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, then High Springs Mayor Larry Travis and over a dozen law enforcement officers were among those attending. Deputy Brian Phillips of Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) and Sergeant Chuck Harper of the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) were the first responders to the incident on May 18. Phillips, the school’s resource officer, had reportedly escorted 63-year-old Robert Nodine off campus when the man was somehow able to arm himself with a gun. As the confrontation with Nodine escalated, Harper went to the school to assist Phillips and gunshots were fired moments later, police say. Parents and local businesses raised some $2,100 to put on Wednesday’s celebration. Both Deputy Phillips and Sgt. Harper were given a box of gifts donated by local businesses and stacks of handwritten cards from the school’s students.
Alachua County Animal Services along with two other organizations seized 697 cats and one rooster from the Haven Acres Cat Sanctuary near High Springs. Steve and Pennie Lefkowitz, whose home is also on the property, operate Haven Acres. The seizure, which occurred over a two day period beginning June 7, was part of a criminal investigation and in response to concerns of alleged hoarding. Animal Services was reportedly tipped off in late May when a person wanting to drop off a cat at the sanctuary became concerned upon seeing the conditions of the animals there. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) both took lead roles in the seizure. The final tally of 697 felines was more than triple the 200 cat limit Haven Acres was permitted by Alachua County to keep. Most of the cats were being kept in pens scattered across the eight-acre property, but some were kept inside the home and elsewhere. Deceased cats were found, including some in a refrigerator and at least one in a cage, according to Animal Services officials. The county’s permitting of the sanctuary had resulted in a lawsuit filed several years ago by the City of High Springs. Neighbors complained of a strong odor emanating from the property and for several years, city officials warned Alachua County officials that they worried the ‘sanctuary’ could be a public health threat. About two months after 697 cats were seized, sheriff deputies arrested the owners of the facility on 47 animal cruelty charges related to the couple’s sanctuary. Among the health concerns called out in the 14-page charging document were muscle atrophy, fleas, ear mites, missing and abscessed teeth, emaciation, dehydration, feline leukemia virus, alopecia, feline immunodeficiency virus, severe upper respiratory infection, ocular discharge, nasal discharge and several others.
AxoGen, Inc., a high tech company located at the University of Florida Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator announced in June a merger and transition to a public company. AxoGen, Inc., underwent a merger with Texas based LecTec Corporation. The merger resulted in at least $12.5 million for the Alachua-based biotech company. AxoGen, which specializes in developing products that repair nerves that have been severed or severely crushed.
Hawthorne City Commissioner William A. Carlton, 84, was re-elected to serve for an additional two years on the city commission. The clash for Seat 3 on the commission ended June 14 after Carlton defeated his opponent, James G. Franklin, Sr., for the position. Of the 600 registered Hawthorne voters, 112 voted for Carlton, with 57 voting for his opponent. Hawthorne Mayor Eleanor Randall and Commissioner DeLoris Roberts will be up for re-election in June 2012. Voters also approved all 13 charter amendments on the June 14 ballot.
After nearly three months, Alan Hitchcock Park on Alachua’s Main Street reopened to the public. The local landmark, commonly known as the Old Theatre Park, was closed on March 14 due to structural safety concerns. Renovations, which included repairs to the east wall of the park, construction of two new columns and reinforced fiberglass rods, were paid for by the Downtown Redevelopment Trust board (DRTB), and cost some $40,000.
A 6,000-acre wildfire burning in eastern Alachua County, prompted the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) to close on June 15, its property within the Santa Fe Swamp in Alachua and Bradford counties. The blaze engulfed the entire 6,000-acre swamp when a strike of lightning ignited the wildfire on June 6. Local firefighters from three counties were called in to assist with preventing structural property damage.
Charles Grapski was cleared of charges of probationary violations on June 21 when they were dismissed by Judge James Nilon. The one-time Florida House and City of Alachua commission candidate had been facing four violations of probation alleged in a March 15 report. Most of the violations were for failing to pay fees. Although Grapski was off the hook for the probation violations, his alleged conduct in the courtroom on June 21 resulted in a charge of criminal contempt of court, which remains unresolved today.
On June 28, former Alachua City Manager Clovis Watson, Jr. confirmed what had been rumored for some time, that he would make a run for the Florida House of Representatives. Watson said he decided to run for the seat, which is currently held by incumbent Charles S. “Chuck” Chestnut, in order to provide the type of leadership in Tallahassee that brings opportunity and results. Watson, the fourth of six children, lived in Alachua’s Merrillwood Housing Projects during his childhood. After graduating from high school in 1976, Watson stayed in his hometown of Alachua to work at the Copeland Sausage Company and later became the first African-American police sergeant and Deputy Chief of Police. He was appointed Alachua City Manager in 2002.
Waldo celebrated with the “High Tea Party and Fashion Show” in June. Fancy hats, linen tablecloths and dainty finger foods were only the precursors leading up to the main show. The event was sponsored by Waldo Concerned Citizens for the Community, Inc. (W3C’s). Proceeds from the event are used to provide financial assistance to a Waldo community high school graduate seeking post-secondary education. The Waldo Community Center was transformed into a well-appointed tearoom befitting the 35-40 ladies dressed appropriately in elegant attire, complete with the required hats and gloves. Adding spice to the excitement, the Red Hat Divas of Gainesville came out to support the cause and joined in the action by showing off their purple wardrobes and their always stylish red hats.
As first reported by Alachua County Today, it was discovered that the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) was coming under scrutiny from the State Attorney’s Office. What began as a review, later became an investigation by the State Attorney’s Office followed a citizen-led effort in which it was alleged that county commissioners repeatedly used informal meetings to formulate decisions on issues without public input or review. Ward Scott, a former candidate for county commission and city of Alachua resident had criticized the BOCC for holding what he dubbed, “the meetings before the meetings.” The State Attorney’s Office recently closed its investigation and reported that it found no violations of the law. Attention called to the matter by Scott and the media did lead the County to alter its procedures by providing an agenda for the type of meetings in question.
With less than three months remaining in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, officers at the Alachua Police Department (APD) approved a bargaining unit agreement with the City. As members of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), officers at the Alachua Police Department had been seeking pay raises. Union negotiations seemed to reach a standstill several months beforehand with little chance of an agreement in sight. The stalemate was broken when Florida Governor Rick Scott increased the amount employees would be required to contribute into the Florida Retirement System (FRS). Meanwhile, he also reduced, by a greater amount, the percentage of an employee’s pay that the State, city, county or other participating agency must pay. In light of the changes, City of Alachua Commissioners, like other boards in the area, authorized an across-the-board pay increase of 3.1 percent to nearly all city workers to offset the employee’s increased contribution requirements. But APD officers were left out of that move because wages and salaries for officers are managed through the FOP union contract with the City. The increase did, however, open the doors for a concession by the City, which agreed to provide that same 3.1 percent employee offset increase to officers under the terms of the contract up for consideration.
Alachua Elementary School Principal Jim Brandenburg finally hanging up his hat after two decades at the post. The decision to retire shocked many of his teachers, students and the community as a whole. Brandenburg didn’t cut all ties the community. He still leads the Alachua Chamber of Commerce as president. He said the retirement would allow him to dedicate more time to his volunteer activities. Just weeks after Brandenburg announced plans to retire, his replacement, Eva Copeland, had already been picked. At the recommendation of Superintendent Dan Boyd, board members of the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) voted unanimously to appoint Copeland as the principal of Alachua Elementary School. Copeland was already teaching at Alachua Elementary when Brandenburg began as an assistant principal in 1991. Copeland taught at Alachua Elementary for about 16 years and spent the last four and a half years at High Springs Community School.
Jorge Avina, owner of Los Avina Mexican restaurant, made the decision in July to call it quits on his High Springs location and instead reopen it on Alachua’s Main Street. After two years on NE 2nd Avenue in High Springs, Avina said his business was being hindered by the City of High Springs’ alcohol ordinance, which prevented him from serving customers beer and wine. By the time Avina made the move on Sept. 1, the City of High Springs altered its alcohol ordinance, but it was too late for Avina who had already signed a lease in Alachua.
Former City of Alachua mayor and commissioner Jean Calderwood announced July 20 that she was stepping back into the political arena with plans to run for Alachua County Commission. The longtime Alachua resident was joined by supporters when she kicked off her campaign with a press conference at Alachua City Hall. The former mayor said she plans to run for the District 3 seat currently held by Alachua County Commissioner Paula DeLaney. Since stepping down in April 2010 from her role as the City of Alachua mayor, Calderwood said a number of people had asked, urged and encouraged her to run for the County Commission. But she said the final decision to run came after discussions with her family. Calderwood said she wants to restore a sense of pride to living in Alachua County, saying, “It makes me sad that you don’t hear anybody bragging about Alachua County.”
CTD Holdings, Inc. officials and local dignitaries joined in cutting the ribbon on the company’s new headquarters in Alachua on July 25. CTD Chief Executive Officer Rick Strattan and Director Dr. Jeffrey Tate explained the future promise the growing company holds not only for local jobs and the economy, but for medicine as well. Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper publicly welcomed CTD Holdings and its child companies. “We want to think Nanosonic for choosing Alachua,” he said. Specializing in the manufacture of cyclodextrin compounds, the company has been ramping up production at its newly-acquired facility in Alachua as final equipment installations and construction were completed.
In a 3-2 vote, High Springs commissioners gave the okay on July 28 for a controversial new ordinance removing the distance requirements that a restaurant serving alcohol must be from a church or a school. The new law became effective Aug. 7. Under the previous ordinance, alcoholic beverages were not to be served within 500 feet of a church or 600 feet of a public or private school. The alcohol issue became a key issue in the 2011 commission election in November, and since that time commissioners have discussed reinstituting the more restrictive law.
High Springs attorney Tom Weller was named by the High Springs Chamber of Commerce as the Citizen of the Year. Weller was honored at the chamber’s annual banquet July 29. High Springs Chamber of Commerce President Donna Mogler pointed to Weller’s eagerness to volunteer. “He’s always there to lend a helping hand whenever you need it,” she said. “He’s just an all-around good guy.” Weller was among four other citizens who were nominated for the title. The honor also earned him a spot in the Christmas parade as its grand marshal. Also recognized at the annual banquet were Leda Carrero, Kelly Deese, Barbara Martin and Sandra Webb. All five of the nominees were selected because of their volunteerism in the community. Weller said of the honor, “I think it’s fantastic, especially considering the other four people that were nominated…all of them do an awful lot for the community.” Weller spends much of his volunteer time with the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, but he also works with High Springs’ Main Street Organization, a mentoring program, and has previously served as president of the High Springs Chamber of Commerce.
The community mourned the loss of 35-year-old firefighter Chad Hood who was killed August 2 when the Suzuki motorcycle he was driving collided with a Volkswagen minivan on U.S. Highway 441 in Alachua. The accident happened early in the morning near a Sunoco gas station in the area of the Turkey Creek neighborhood. Hood was reportedly on his way to the High Springs fire station when the accident occurred. He was a Gainesville resident and graduate of Buchholz High School. He had been with the High Springs Fire Department since 2007. Hood left behind a wife, Susan, and a young son, Wyatt.
Hundreds of Archer area residents and dignitaries celebrated the opening of a community center as they cut the ribbon and the doors were opened on the historic Archer High School Gymnasium August 2. The ceremony marked the realization of a dream for Archer Commissioner Roberta Lopez who has spent the better part of the last decade spearheading grant writing and fundraising efforts. The 1937 building has now been returned to its original condition, but with some interior upgrades. The multi-purpose facility will serve as meeting space, a community playhouse and community center among other uses.
Amid budget woes, the City of High Springs lost both its police chief and fire chief during the last week of August. The employment contract for High Springs Police Chief James Troiano was terminated while Fire Chief Verne Riggall submitted his resignation. The termination and resignation apparently came as the upcoming budget called for a salary reduction in Troiano’s pay and a complete termination of Riggall’s position. In Riggall’s resignation letter, he wrote, “Current issues and the proposed elimination of the Fire Chief’s position make it impossible for me to continue with my employment.” Meanwhile, Troiano received a severance pay of one half his annual salary. Troiano said the City wanted him to take a pay cut of as much as $20,000 annually, a reduction he said he could not afford.
Sonny’s Real Pit Barb-B-Q of Alachua was sold on Aug 30. Since it opened in 1983, the Alachua location had been owned by Sonny Tillman’s family. A long-anticipated sale of the restaurant was finalized when it was signed over to new owners Ken Kirkpatrick and Chip Dixon. The restaurant was temporarily closed as the new owners made renovations to the building. The changes included the installation of a lunch counter and upgrades to the general dining room.