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LEESBURG, FL-City commissioners in this Central Florida city of 15,624 permanent residents, 45 miles northwest of Downtown Orlando, face a dilemma: Grow slow or grow fast.

Anti-development forces argue the city is in no financial position to service a 3,443-acre annexation and a commercial development that would follow. They also fear the planned project would deplete and contaminate the area’s drinking water supply. Some commissioners challenge that view.

Voting by the commissioners on the largest annexation request in the city’s 100-year-old history is expected this summer. If approved, the cattle pasture, owned by Dr. Clayton Pruitt of St. Petersburg, FL, would be sold to developers for a multimillion-dollar mixed-use venture near a strategically-located Florida Turnpike interchange at Country Road 470.

Ground-breaking would tentatively be scheduled for 2003 when the Turnpike interchange is build. The Pruitt development would take an estimated 20 years to build out.

The County Road 470 and Turnpike interchange axis is destined to attract thousands of acres of new commercial development over the next 10 years, local land brokers and real estate lawyers tell GlobeSt.com.

For Leesburg commissioners, local merchants and planners tell GlobeSt.com, the key question is determining how many benefits the annexation offer would bring its tax-paying residents versus a hands-off approach that would allow the landowner and a developer to possibly create an independent community development district that they could control themselves.

Obvious benefits to the city are increased property and sales taxes, utility revenue, development impact fees and control of the project’s growth, independent planners tell GlobeSt.com. Without annexation, the land would become part of an urban sprawl spiral, planners say.

The landowner’s lawyer is Bruce Duncan, a Tavares, FL lawyer and former head of the Lake County Environmental Department. He is telling commissioners the city’s revenue will be $111 per year per resident over the cost of servicing the 3,443-acre annexation. Duncan, a pro-environmentalist, sees no danger in a polluted water supply from any new commercial development.

“I would think Leesburg is in a favorable negotiating position because of the coming Turnpike interchange addition and the fact that spillover commercial growth from Orlando is generally headed that way,” Dean Fritchen, a senior associate in the Winter Park, FL office of Arvida Realty Services Inc. Commercial Division, tells GlobeSt.com.

Fritchen and Arvida are not associated with the project. Pruitt, a vascular surgeon, couldn’t be reached for comment at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. What the city knows, however, is that at least 2,479 acres of the 3,443-acre ranch are developable.

“They also know that dirt is too valuable to be just lying around as a cattle pasture and is going to be developed, either in phases over time or in one giant leap,” a developer not associated with the venture tells GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity.

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