NORTH PORT — A push to get West Villages neighborhoods out of North Port took a big step forward Wednesday as citizens delivered a second batch of petitions to the city.
It is an extension of the ongoing campaign to withdraw the enclave of upscale neighborhoods from within North Port’s boundaries.
Along with the additional signatures, the petitioners expanded the territory they want to deannex, and they are getting their signatures certified.
Those backing the deannexation effort Wednesday presented 1,314 petition signatures of registered voters within the West Villages Improvement District to City Clerk Heather Taylor, who with a staffer counted every petition, then certified that her numbers matched theirs.
From here, the petitions get forwarded to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections, where they will again be certified, or not, and returned to the city. That begins a feasibility study period. Those findings would get reviewed by North Port commissioners, who would then grant or deny the deannexation request. It’s a six-month process.
Those collecting voter signatures are disaffected homeowners within the West Villages in North Port, a series of housing and commercial spaces that includes the Atlanta Braves spring training complex. The upscale development was rebranded as Wellen Park in April.
Wednesday’s petition targeted a withdrawal from North Port within an area that includes the Myakka Country Estates, a deed-restricted community petitioners contend that due to its non-continguous boundaries — and a series of muffed boundary expansions and contractions between 1970-1990 — qualify it as a candidate to unhitch from North Port.
Petition leadership is with West Villagers for Responsible Government. The group seeks to remove lands west of the Myakka River from the city’s municipal boundary, according to petition language. Another batch of deannexation signatures was delivered in July.
That was a straight request to unhitch West Villages from North Port, and would place thousands of North Porters within unincorporated Sarasota County. The same group is pushing that effort.
The two petitions dovetail with the West Villagers for Responsible Government’s goal to decouple all land west of River Road from North Port’s boundaries.
At buildout, West Villages will contain some 20,000 homes and 50,000 residents, or about two-thirds of North Port’s current population. It’s comparable to other master-planned or contained communities such as Lakewood Ranch in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The deannexation premise is aimed at saving tax dollars within Sarasota County, and “to ensure (West Village) residents are no longer accountable to the lack of fiscal irresponsibility demonstrated by the city of North Port,” said John Meisel, chair of the West Villagers for Responsible Government and who helped deliver boxes of folders and petition files to city hall.
He arrived with volunteers Victor Dobrin and Jen Zambrano. Dobrin is a board member with the West Villages Improvement District, a self-governing unit created when North Port annexed a former ranch into the city that ultimately became West Villages.
The deannexation movement dates to 2019, when North Port raised city property taxes by an average 13%. West Villagers for Responsible Government sprung from that action, its founders had insisted. The group collected their first batch of 1,314 signatures in two days at pop-up rallies, Dobrin said.
“People,” he said, “were very responsive.”
But the road ahead has obstacles, as some North Port commissioners had cast doubt on the movement. And Wellen Park builders filed a civil suit against the group, insisting that the de-annexation movement had caused buyer uncertainty, trouble in securing bonding and potential legal costs. An amended complaint filed this month added Neal Communities of Southwest Florida and GB WV LLC to the list of plaintiffs.
The civil suit filed in September requested that the feasibility process become quasi-judicial, something similar to a courtroom setting, and include Wellen Park and Mattamy Homes, the principal builder at Wellen Park.
West Villagers for Responsible Government had also filed an ethics complaint against North Port Mayor Debbie McDowell for her alleged involvement in eavesdropping on the group’s virtual strategy session. The Florida Commission on Ethics ruled that McDowell had not violated a state statute for using her position as mayor to benefit herself or others, however, according to details in the ruling dated Sept. 16.