Road tested

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Dennis McGuire's high-pitched Long Island twang rings across the parking lot at Palm Valley, a mobile-home park fronting Alafaya Trail 300 yards north of the University of Central Florida.

He gives the late-comers four minutes to make it to the bus. And he spends a minute familiarizing a visitor with Palm Valley's key political issues. First concern: the turn onto busy Alafaya Trail -- the only way in and out of this 642-unit park at the far south end of Seminole County.

"I've tried and tried to get a light there, but the county won't do it," says McGuire, who is president of the Residents' Association. "They say, 'You need at least 1,000 people a day, and you're never going to get that, so quit bothering me.'"

McGuire says some park residents have never even tried to make the left turn out of the park, and they govern their lives by the traffic pattern on Alafaya: "They never leave here before 9:30, and they never go anywhere at 4:30."

There is hope for a new road, a back way that would connect to McCollouch Road and give the park's 1,100 senior citizens access to the traffic light on that road's intersection with Alafaya. A developer, Phillip Emmer, has stepped up and offered to provide the retention pond needed, but at a price.

Emmer, of Gainesville, wants to build a 168-unit, 444-bedroom student-housing complex next door to Palm Valley. If built it would be the third student-housing complex erected within a quarter mile of this park during the past three years. The prospect of more students, noise and traffic doesn't appeal to McGuire. But Emmer's road offer -- along with promises of a dividing wall, a 100-foot setback and strict enforcement of noise rules -- has brought McGuire and many of his neighbors around. "I told him, 'Either you're a great guy or you're the greatest actor I've ever seen,'" McGuire says of Emmer.

To ease the residents' minds, Emmer has chartered this bus, with televisions, plush seats and a bathroom, to take them to Gainesville to see two of Emmer's apartment complexes serving students of the University of Florida, plus a community of homes for people with families. Lunch will be served, along with a side trip to the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Thirty-four of the residents take the offer, a number that causes a measure of disappointment in the otherwise cheerful voice of Lou Reeves.

"I'm from the old school of the '60s. I'm a big believer in gray power," says Reeves, a 61-year-old former Miami school teacher and retired Army major who moved here two years ago with his wife, Gail. "The problem here -- look at all the empty seats."

Apathy keeps the park from getting its signal light, Reeves believes. It also keeps residents from negotiating a better deal with CWS, the park's corporate owner and the source of its second big political issue. Residents say they pay higher fees and receive fewer services. They want a shade cover for their bocci court.

CWS recently raised lot rentals by 4 to 8 percent and passed on a county ad valorum tax, making the park's owner a larger villain in many residents' eyes than the developers who have added more than 2,000 beds to the neighborhood since 1996. "I say challenge it," Reeves says. "But you come out to the meetings, and you see the same 30, 40, maybe 50 people."

Our driver, Sergio, is lost. We're in Gainesville, at an office that says Emmer Development, but no one is here to meet us. The bus lumbers back into traffic and makes two U-turns before we debark at Tivoli, a 144-unit student-housing complex built last year not far from UF.

The complex is virtually deserted; it's been almost two weeks since graduation, so the quiet is perhaps deeper than it was last month. We enter the clubhouse to find bagels and orange juice. No neighbors are on hand to talk about what it's like living next to the students.

Lori McGriff, Emmer's daughter, announces that her father can't be with us today because he's in Phoenix, visiting his mother. Then she launches into her pitch, which is that Emmer's developments are exclusive. Very exclusive.

All applicants have a credit check, she begins, and every student must have a parent sign their lease, agreeing to take responsibility. "You can't rent to just anyone anymore," she says.

The Tivoli manager, Sherry Sharra, hands out copies of the lease. The units rent from $599 for a one bedroom, to $1,260 for a four bedroom with four baths.

Among the provisions: a $25 late charge on any rent check received after the 5th, and the prerogative of management to demand the entire lease amount 10 days after that. No pets, even for a visit. House rules includes a provision relating to noise, mandating quiet time after 11 p.m. and before 8 a.m.. Second violation is a $25 fine; third is eviction.

A woman named Grace asks how tall the wall dividing the proposed complex and Palm Valley is going to be.

"It's supposed to be eight feet," says Sharra.

"The wall is brick, or what?"


"We thought it would be 10 feet," says Grace.

"Ten was discussed," Sharra says. "The concern was that some people might feel they were in a prison."

"That would be good on my side," says Grace.

Darlyne Ray, 77, lives 100 feet from Northgate Lake Apartments, and since the complex was built two years ago she says she has called the Seminole Sheriff's Office three times about the noise there.

Ray bought her home in Palm Valley in 1996. "It was swamp behind us then," she says. "We didn't know anything."

Like Tivoli, Northgate Lake Apartments are very nice, Ray says. "I've driven through it; it's well-kept and all, but of course the kids -- they party. The real issue is the car stereos."

Most say safety is a paramount concern. Joggers already invade Palm Valley's quiet streets. They'd like residents of any new complex to be told their roads are off limits. McGriff agrees to it.

"It's a very nice park," Ray says. "We all know each other. We play together. We're just trying to preserve the life that we have."

The bus drives through an older Emmer student-apartment complex, and an offer to stop is forcefully rejected by McGuire, who keeps saying, "They're in good shape, they're in good shape." We don't meet any neighbors.

McGuire is telling Tracy Straw, the assistant manager of Tivoli, why he moved to Florida. "It was high taxes, the cost of living," he says. "People take a pension, Social Security, they come down here and live like kings."

Next stop is a planned development of $90,000-$160,000 houses arranged around a pool, tennis courts and an array of rules, including one that says no resident's child shall be under 14. Marguerite Parkin, who moved to Palm Valley two years ago, enjoys the catered lunch. Then, as an aside, she says, "I think they don't want us to make any trouble."

Parkin says her grocery store, church and other activities outside of Palm Valley are reached by taking a right turn on Alafaya. "I don't want to go left," she says. "I'm keeping out of Orange County because I can't make a left."

Like many of the people on the bus, Parkin subscribes to the creed that land owners have the right to build whatever they like. Formed long before zoning and environmental laws, the creed keeps politics feeble and trouble minimal. "They are making an effort to please us. That's something," she says of Emmer. "But it's a money-making situation. When you're in business, that's what you do."

Ray adds, "Emmer is good because at least he's asking for our input. You can work together. There can be peace."

On the way back to Palm Valley Grumpier Old Men is playing on the video monitors, and riders are absorbed in the movie, whose ultimate message is compromise.

Given UCF's plans to grow, it doesn't require much foresight to imagine Palm Valley itself being absorbed by student apartments. Thousands could live here at a potential profit several times that of what it's currently earning. McGuire recognizes it. "Thank you very much," he says at the suggestion. "The way I look at it, they're sitting on a land gold mine."

Seminole County addresses the Emmer development 7 p.m. June 22 at the County Commission chambers in Sanford.

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