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Next proposed Inverness affordable housing project makes progress

Despite a rocky start when a Fort Lauderdale-based developer proposed its second Inverness affordable housing project, Green Mills Group completed an important hurdle this week paving the way for its development.

The Inverness City Council voted unanimously for a comprehensive plan amendment land use change that would start the process leading to the proposed 100-unit apartment complex. The vote was the second and final vote for the comp plan land use change. Later this month the council is expected to approve the developer’s zoning change request.

The council vote ushers in the change from the property’s current comp plan designation of low density residential to high density.

Originally there was neighborhood resistance to the proposed 6.5-acre project at 1940 Forest Drive, but that changed after Green Mills representatives met with area residents and made concessions to the Longwood Gardens complex to alleviate many of their concerns.

“I think once we were able to have a dialog ... that allowed us to scale back (the project, the residents were accepting),” said Shaun Mosheim, Green Mills development manager for the project.

Although the affordable apartment complex was best suited for four stories, Green Mills reduced it to three, he said.

The developer also reduced the number of units from 110 to 100 units.

fredhiers / Fred Hiers / Chronicle Reporter 

Green Mills Groups’ next proposed Inverness site for affordable housing for seniors.

Many in the neighborhood also expressed concern about the proposed family demographics, fearing increased traffic, noise, and a change in the nature of the community.

Mosheim said he then asked “if they would be amenable to a seniors demographic,” and residents were more receptive to the change. So the project will now be open to only those 55 years old and older.

But Mosheim warned that while the proposed affordable housing for residents 55 years old and older was needed in the county, there’s still a need for affordable housing for working families.

Greg Rice, Inverness community development director, said there are still many land use steps in the process before final approval, so the public and council will have ample input.

Councilwoman Jacquie Hepfer said during Tuesday’s public council meeting that the area needed affordable housing, but this project also allows for a controlled greater density.

“I’m thrilled to see you have anti-urban sprawl,” she told Green Mills representatives at Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilman Gene Davis said that “part of small town done right” means Inverness needs to offer people affordable housing.

Mosheim told the Chronicle that part of the process now will also be to apply for a federal affordable housing tax credit, which would make the project profitable for Green Mills. Mosheim said if Green Mills isn’t awarded the tax credit through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Green Mills would apply again the following year.

Council president Cabot McBride said the community needed the affordable housing given the rising cost of homes and rentals.

“We talk all the time about smart growth,” McBride said, adding that if the dictionary had a picture of smart growth, this project would be it.

“This is something we need to do for our senior (citizens),” McBride said.

About two years ago Green Mills completed its first Inverness affordable housing project, Colonnade park, on Colonade Street.

The apartment costs are, in part, based on area incomes and are limited to people based on those incomes.

The income limit for a household with one person is $17,760 – $31,040. The limit for a two-person family will be $20,280 – $35,520, according to Green Mills.

The rent for a one-bedroom apartment would cost $475 – $951 per month, based on income. A two-bedroom apartment would cost $571 – $1,142.

The developer’s plan is to begin construction during the first quarter of 2024 and complete the project in early 2025.


Education
School district unified as one in reunification

In emergency situations, the handling of the aftermath can be just as important as the incident itself and the Citrus County School District is taking steps to be prepared for such situations.

A two-day training session was held on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to implement the procedure for the reunification process of parents with their children following evacuation during an emergency situation, which could be anything from a tornado, bomb threat, gas leak or active shooter situation.

“It’s something we hope we never have to use,” said Superintendent Sam Himmel. “But we want to be prepared in case anything ever happens.”

Citrus County School District 

Himmel

The first day of training was mainly about theories and how to put the plan in action, the second was actual practice time, according to Dave Vincent, Citrus County School District police chief and school safety specialist.

Vincent

“Getting an educator to think in an incident command structure, I thought would be a challenge, but everybody’s kind of embracing that and starting to figure out who to go to,” said Chief Vincent.

Essentially, as the students are being transported on buses to the designated evacuation area, parents/guardians are able to go ahead and begin the process of reunification.

First step: They will check in and fill out a paper slip with both them and their child’s information. The official “Checkers” will verify via Skyward that the person actually is a parent, guardian or someone with permission to pick up a student – this is where having your student’s emergency pick-up list updated is important.

Second step: Parents/guardians will keep part of the slip while the Checkers hand off the other part to the “Accountants” who will verify also via Skyward whether or not the student is there at the site. The Accountants also receive the bus attendance sheets as they arrive so they know exactly what and how many students are there and who they need to track down. This is also where the importance of teachers taking attendance every class period comes in, so that in the event of an emergency, the district knows which kids were actually in school that day. All of this will happen simultaneously with the Checkers.

Third step: Parents/guardians will take their slip to the Reunifiers who will then call for the student to be sent over to the reunification area to be reunited with their parent/guardian. They will then be directed outside and away from the crowd and back to their cars.

While this process may seem complicated, it is necessary to make sure that all students are accounted for and their whereabouts are known.

mattbeck / Matthew Beck Chronicle photo editor 

I Love You Guys Foundation instructor Kevin Burd, right, gives information to several Citrus County School District employees involved in a training exercise Wednesday, June 8, at the Citrus County Auditorium in Inverness.

In light of recent events in Uvalde, Texas, it is more important than ever to make sure that everyone in the district is on the same page about this process, so that if an incident ever did happen, everyone knows where to go and what to do.

“What we want our parents and students to know is that there is a process,” said Chief Vincent. “I think that when you look back at incidents across the country, there is a lot of criticism for what happens after the fact. I’m not here to say it’s easy or criticize anybody’s process, but it’s a complicated process and having a plan and doing trainings like this to make it easier for both staff members and parents is really important. I hope that our community sees the effort that we’re putting forward.”

This two-day training has been in the works for a year now, having contacted the "I Love U Guys" Foundation during the planning to come and help facilitate the process.

Stacy Avila and Kevin Burd from the "I Love U Guys" Foundation led the training days in collaboration with Chief Vincent to establish their Reunification Method and get the district ready.

“It’s evident that they are committed and dedicated to the safety of their students and taking it to the point of bringing us in to assist and guide them in their reunification plans,” said Burd. “It’s just been a great experience and I think they’re taking away a lot from it.”

The training was mandatory for school district employees and school administrators, as well as any teachers contracted with the county, with an overall turnout of about 75 people participating in the training days, including the school district police department. This process bridges the gap between the law enforcement, first responders and educators.

“With having a predominantly educator-attended class, questions come up about, ‘Well while this is going on, what’s going on, on the first responders’ side?’” said Burd. “It’s nice to hear the feedback from the educators side so that they know there’s a plan in place and there’s training taking place on the first responders’ side that parallels what they are trying to do for the school because at the end it’s all about the safety of our schools and saving lives.”

“Talking it through and practicing with drills builds up muscle memory,” said Avila. “And then now moving on to the exercises and simulating an event to test your capacity.”

In addition to what is going on inside the building, there is an established traffic plan as well that will be enforced by law enforcement officers to ensure that parents/guardians don’t intercept their students as they exit the buses. The only way to ensure everyone is accounted for is to keep things separate until the parents/guardians go through the proper verification process before the child is released to them.

“You never want the real thing to be the first time you try something, so my hopes is that we do this every year as positions change to refresh it,” said Chief Vincent.

Better to be over prepared than under and Citrus County School District is making moves to keep student safety one of its top priorities.

“This will work for the lowest stress thing to the highest stress thing,” said Avila.

Avila herself is a retired police officer from Colorado who was also a hostage negotiator. On September 27, 2006, she found herself the hostage negotiator during the Platte Canyon High School shooting. Unfortunately, they lost one of the students, Emily Keyes, who was shot and killed during the incident. It was her parents, Ellen and John Keyes, who started the "I Love U Guys" Foundation that Avila is now a part of.

“They really wanted to put their energy and focus not in being the angry parents, they put their energy and focus into what could they do to make schools safer?” said Avila.

Having that first-hand experience in an emergency situation means that Avila brings real world knowledge to the table about how events will actually go down day of, something that will greatly benefit Citrus County after learning from her these past two days.

“I really respect all the work Citrus County has done in preparing and not waiting for something to happen first,” said Avila.


Elections
Spaight cites legal, community services in campaign for county judge

Efficiency, textbook justice, and understanding.

It’s Edward Spaight’s goal to bring more of those qualities to a local courtroom as a Citrus County judge.

Special to the Chronicle 

Spaight

“Somebody who’s been a public defender for 13 years really knows what it means to serve the community,” he told the Chronicle Editorial Board on Wednesday, June 8. “Judges make decisions that really affect people, and they act in their best interests.”

Spaight is contending alongside Assistant State Attorney Lisa Yeager during the 2022 election season for the county’s first judgeship seat, which will become vacant with the December retirement of Mark Yerman, who’s been on the bench since 1993.

Special to the Chronicle 

Yeager

“He’s got tremendous shoes to fill,” Spaight said. “I just want to follow his example.”

After obtaining his law degree in 2001, Spaight, a native of upstate New York, started clerking in Maine for three superior court judges, who are similar to Florida’s circuit judges.

Special to the Chronicle 

YERMAN

Spaight was admitted in 2002 to practice law in Maine, and worked seven years as a lawyer at Vafiades, Brountas & Kominsky, a private law firm in Bangor, taking on corporate, civil and family cases.

In order to keep his family together, and to escape frigid weather, Spaight, his wife of 26 years, Veronica, and their two young daughters moved to Citrus County in 2009.

That May, the Public Defender’s Office for the state’s fifth judicial circuit hired Spaight, who wanted to work out of the office’s bureau in Inverness.

Spaight was appointed in 2015 to oversee the local Public Defender’s Office as a chief assistant public defender. He’s also one of two defense attorneys in the county who’s qualified to chair death-penalty cases.

“For the past 20, 21 years now, I’ve been working as an advocate,” Spaight said about his varied legal career. “I’ve literally argued for life and death on behalf of clients, I’ve argued for one parent over the other to get custody of their children, I’ve argued for and against domestic-violence injunctions, and I’ve argued in court for people who were just fighting over money.”

Spaight said his most rewarding experience was serving in Maine as a guardian ad litem for children, acting as their legal representative, which he’s continued to do as a lawyer in the Sunshine State for adults with mental and physical disabilities.

Since 2019, he noted, Spaight’s been on the board of directors for the Covenant Children’s Home in Dunnellon, which helps fill in the gaps of Citrus County’s foster-home network.

Spaight said his family’s participation also spans into the Seven Rivers Church in Lecanto, his daughters’ schools, and the county theater troupe.

“I’ve developed a lot of relationships within the community,” he said, adding he’s also grateful for the endorsements from Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast and retired Citrus County Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas.

Thomas, who’s a member of the Chronicle Editorial Board, was not present during the board’s meeting with Spaight.

Spaight said his role as a father and background as a defense attorney have been key to becoming compassionate with his clients and their victims – a trait he hopes to retain and use while on the bench.

When it comes to following a particular law philosophy as judge, Spaight would like to pursue the “textualist approach” advocated by the late U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, Antonin Scalia – in other words, Spaight said, “What does the law say? Do that.”

“We have to follow the laws as written,” he said. “I don’t believe we should be legislating from the bench.”

If elected as county judge, Spaight said he’d like to build on the expedition of cases he, judges and other attorneys improved on when COVID-19 brought the judicial process to a standstill.

This could include doing more remote hearings, Spaight said, and using the county jail’s courtroom as another venue to resolve cases.

“It’s the old saying: ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’” he said. “I want the wheels of justice to keep moving efficiently, and I think we can do better.”

Spaight wants to also remain involved in the county’s alternative-court system, which has offered eligible defendants other routes to resolve their criminal cases with treatments, frequent drug tests and other checkups instead of incarcerations and convictions.

He’d also like to improve access to the Veterans Court program to heal more former military personnel caught up in the justice system by helping them cope better with the trauma of service.

Asked how long he could see himself as a county judge, Spaight said Yerman and other county judges told him they never felt a need to pursue a higher judgeship.

“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘I would never take a circuit job,’” he said, “but county judges love being county judges ... and I don’t know that I would ever feel the need to not serve as a county judge.”


Elections
Yeager eyes county judgeship: 'This was the right time'

Lisa Yeager is ready to take her knowledge as a local prosecutor and private attorney to the bench of a Citrus County courtroom.

Special to the Chronicle 

Yeager

Yeager decided to campaign in 2022 for the county’s first judgeship seat, which will become vacant when Mark Yerman retires in December after being county judge since 1993.

It was Yerman who swore Yeager in as a member of The Florida Bar in April 2001.

Special to the Chronicle 

YERMAN

“When it comes to judges, he’s the one I look up to, and I started with him,” Yeager told the Chronicle Editorial Board on Wednesday, June 8. “If I can be just a quarter or a half of what Judge Yerman has accomplished, then I’d feel I’ve been successful.”

Yeager will vie for the open county judgeship alongside Edward Spaight, who oversees the Public Defender’s Office in Inverness as chief assistant public defender.

Special to the Chronicle 

Spaight

“This is a vacant seat ... and it seemed like this was the right time,” Yeager said. “Obviously I hope it works out. If it doesn’t, I am going to keep doing the job that I have and the job that I love.”

Yeager is an assistant state attorney for the State Attorney’s Office in Hernando County. She supervises and mentors misdemeanor prosecutors while also handling a docket of her own felony cases.

“So I’m in court all the time,” she said. “It’s a lot but it’s fun, I love it.”

Yeager’s career in court began as a certified legal intern with the State Attorney’s Office in the spring of 2000 before she was hired as a prosecutor in July 2000 out of Citrus County, where she moved to in 2001.

“Citrus is my home; it’s where my kids – I brought them home from the hospital to Citrus, they went to school in Citrus,” she said. “This is home, and I miss working here but I do work with a great group of people.”

Yeager moved into the private practice in January 2004 by working with the formerly named Militello & Militello law firm in Inverness. In July 2007, Yeager opened her own practice in Citrus County.

“When you go out on your own,” she said, “you really learn what it’s about.”

Acquiring experiences in criminal, civil, family, dependency and small-claims cases was what Yeager wanted for her pursuit of a judgeship.

“I knew, at some point in my life, I wanted to go for a judge,” she said, “and I think the best way to prepare yourself is to have multiple areas that you’ve practiced.”

Yeager returned to the local State Attorney’s Office in November 2013 to be the juvenile prosecutor for roughly five years before she was transferred to prosecute in Brooksville.

Yeager said she wanted to prioritize her children over her bid for judge. Her son is a lineman in Connecticut, and her daughter is starting her first year at the University of Tennessee, moving in the week of primary voting.

“I needed to make sure my kids were good,” the single mother said.

Yeager also felt it wasn’t right to contend with a county judge running for re-election with a good reputation.

“There’s an unwritten rule, an unspoken sort of rule with attorneys – it’s taboo to run against a sitting judge if they’re doing a good job,” she said. “If that person’s doing a good job, why would you run against them? ... I just don’t do that.”

When it comes to her law philosophy as a judge, Yeager said “personal beliefs shouldn’t come into” rulings and orders.

“I believe everybody should be treated with respect, courtesy ... and, in the judicial system, everything being fair,” she said. “You should simply base whatever rulings on laws of state, precedent, constitutions – not your personal beliefs, none of that should matter.”

Yeager is supportive of alternative-court programs, which, as a prosecutor, she oversaw defendants participating in to pursue treatments and recovery without obtaining a conviction.

If elected, Yeager would like to work on improving Veterans Court by having local veterans volunteer as trained counselors for veterans trying to resolve their criminal cases through the program.

“I don’t know the PTSD and the issues they’re going through,” she said, “another veteran does.”

Yeager would like to stay on as county judge for as long as she can, and doesn’t have a desire to be a circuit judge because she wouldn’t be a fan of the possible publicity surrounding the high-profile cases those judges preside over.

Instead, she wants to solve the more simple but still unfortunate situations citizens have to endure.

“The county judges, to me, are like the root of the county,” Yeager said. “They are the people that hear the what I like to call the ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I-type cases.’”


News_notes
Supervisor of Elections to be at Lecanto Post Office

The Supervisor of Elections office will be holding an outreach event at the Lecanto Post Office on June 9 from 9-11 a.m.

Register to vote, make changes to voter records or request a vote-by-mail ballot. Information to apply for election worker positions will also be available.

Anyone interested in having the elections office staff at an organization or business, contact Supervisor Maureen Baird.

The Lecanto Post Office is located at 320 S. Lecanto Highway, Lecanto.

To learn more, visit votecitrus.gov, email vote@votecitrus.gov or call 352-564-7120.


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