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HIGH SPRINGS – Opponents of the controversial mural project in High Springs spoke at the May 12 High Springs City Commission meeting to express their concerns about the pending project and related ordinance. Earlier in the week on May 9, a private meeting was held to discuss ways they could make sure City Commissioners were aware that the group objected to allowing murals in the city.

At the commission meeting, Wallace Simmons, Lance Verner, Deborah Simone, Janet Evans, and John Sterpe expressed their viewpoints, which included admonitions for the City to use the City of New Smyrna Beach’s guidelines for a mural ordinance and asking for guidelines on who would be responsible for maintenance of murals already in existence. Individuals also asked Commissioners not to allow murals or Walldogs to “desecrate our historic buildings,” and not allow the “enemy coming from outside High Springs” to paint murals.

Concern was also raised that Commissioner Ross Ambrose should recuse himself from voting on a mural ordinance because he is also on the Heart of High Springs board.

Heart of High Springs President Nancy Lavin phoned in to update everyone on projects and issues relating to the group. She said they would make sure everyone abides by historic preservation principles and that the group has raised money for replacement of the four “Entrance to High Springs” signs. “We are working with the downtown merchants in their Artwalk program and started a program to allow students looking for Bright Futures hours to work with their different programs and projects.”

Lavin also said that the group has raised $90,000 in pledges from individuals and businesses in High Springs that are in favor of the murals and $20,000 for the sign projects. Lavin also said the organization has already put in their order for the first of four entrance signs.

Ambrose addressed several issues that were listed in a handout provided to Commissioners. He read, “The Heart of High Springs has essentially forced the City to implement a mural ordinance to protect itself.” Ambrose said he thinks the City could have used it [a mural ordinance] to have kept the “Goggle Girl” mural from happening, something many citizens have said they dislike. “We could have used it then.”

Ambrose denied a conflict of interest, saying, “Because someone supports something passionately is not necessarily a conflict of a moral thing. You should have elected officials that are for certain things and advocating...Since I do not personally benefit, it’s hard for me to not do my job to represent part of a voice here in the community that does think that a mural project in the community is worth exploring.”

Ambrose added that he didn’t attend the meeting held earlier in the week because it was listed as a private meeting only to the people who were invited, and once he learned that Commissioner Jones would be in attendance, he thought it might not be good for two commissioners to attend.

City Attorney Andrea Parker responded that Ambrose could have attended as long as they didn’t discuss how they would vote on the ordinance being proposed.

Kristy Swilley addressed Commissioners and said she would have appreciated it if Ambrose had presented the potential conflict to the Board on Ethics and received a written response saying there was no conflict. Parker responded that she had presented the issue to the Commission on Ethics and was told there was no conflict of interest since there was no financial benefit to Ambrose.

Swilley said she would like to see a paper trail to that effect directly from the Ethics Commission.

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ALACHUA ‒ The Alachua City Commission approved at its May 9 meeting a voluntary annexation request by William and Margaret Kirkland. The property, located in the 15000 block of Peggy Road, is currently a vacant .54-acre parcel with an Alachua County Future Land Use Map (FLUM) designation of Agricultural and Alachua County Zoning designation of Rural Agriculture. Property annexed into the City retains its current unincorporated zone district classifications until a Future Land Use Map Amendment and change to the Official Zoning Atlas is adopted, and no development, redevelopment or expansion can be done until the amendments have been adopted.

In other business, the Commission approved a request by Tomoka Hills Farms, Inc, to amend the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) on 25.48 acres from Agriculture (6.42 acres) and Moderate Density Residential (19.08 acres) located east of CR 235A/Northwest 173rd Street and south of Northwest 162nd Lane.

The approved amendment changed the FLUM Designation to Moderate Density Residential on approximately 13.81 acres and Medium Density Residential on approximately 11.67 acres. The Moderate Density Residential FLUM Designation permits a density of up to four dwelling units per acre or a maximum of 55 dwelling units for the property; the Medium Density Residential FLUM Designation permits a density of four to eight dwelling units per acre or a maximum of 93 dwelling units for this property.

In related action, the Commission approved rezoning the 25.48-acre property to Residential Single Family – 4 (RSF-4) on 13.81 acres and Residential Multiple Family – 8 (RMF-8) on the remaining 11.67 acres. The Commission approved both requests on first readings with a second reading to be scheduled for a future meeting.

The City of Alachua has been awarded the Florida League of Cities 2021 Hometown Health Award for the third straight year. Lindsey Larson, Health Account Executive and Gwen Mahabir, Hometown Health Manager, presented the Hometown Health Award to the City Commission.

The award signifies that the City of Alachua has demonstrated commitment to employee well-being and has played a vital role in creating a workplace that supports a healthy environment and health-conscious culture.

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WALDO – Three men who authorities say are Mexican nationals have been arrested on drug and weapons charges. Helio Rolando Lopez-Elizalde, 23; Edwin Giovanny Mendoza-Verdugo, 20; and Jorge Mario Velasquezgii, 40, were arrested Wednesday, May 11, in Waldo and charged with possession of trafficking amounts of heroin, carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and committing a first-degree felony with a weapon. All three said they were born in Mexico and listed an extended-stay hotel in Gainesville as their address; no driver’s licenses or other U.S. identification cards were listed for any of them.

An Alachua County Sheriff’s deputy conducted a traffic stop at 3:52 p.m. at 16400 N.E. County Road 1475 in Waldo on a black Chevrolet Malibu for multiple tint violations. The deputy reported that the front windshield was tinted all the way down, and the driver’s side window was darker than permitted by law. The deputy reported that Lopez-Elizalde, the driver, said he did not speak any English. Translation services were used to obtain his name.

Velasquezgii, the front seat passenger, spoke a small amount of English and reportedly told the deputy they were from Mexico and working in construction, but they were off work that day. He reportedly said they were heading toward Interstate-75 to go to the hospital, but the deputy noted that they were heading north, in the wrong direction to get to I-75.

After Mendoza-Verdugo got out of the back seat, the deputy noted “multiple nervous indicators” from the passengers, and a K9 team walked around the vehicle, resulting in a positive alert for contraband. All three occupants were pat-searched for weapons and placed in the back seat of a patrol car.

The deputy reported that he conducted a probable-cause search of the vehicle and found a plastic bag with a brown rock-like substance that later tested positive for heroin, which weighed over 250 grams, including packaging. The deputy also found a loaded handgun that was in reach of all the occupants of the vehicle.

When the deputies returned to the patrol vehicle to place the subjects in handcuffs, they found blue pills that were identified as Oxycodone. A further search of the vehicle found another loaded handgun under the driver’s seat.

Post Miranda, all the occupants of the vehicle reportedly denied knowledge of any illegal contraband inside the car.

All three were charged with possession of a trafficking amount of heroin, carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and committing a first-degree felony with a weapon. Lopez-Elizalde has an added charge of possession of a controlled substance without a prescription and is being held on $275,000 bond. Mendoza-Verdugo is being held on $250,000 bond. Velasquezgii is being held without bail; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) has requested a detainer for him.

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ALACHUA ‒ At Santa Fe High School, being at the top of their graduating classes is a family affair—or rather, a ‘families’ affair—for two current and two past students.

Rylie Tam has been named the school’s 2022 valedictorian, while Megan Walls is this year’s salutatorian. Earning those tops spots is certainly a significant achievement. But what makes them even more noteworthy is that just two years ago, Rylie’s older brother Ethan was the school’s valedictorian, while Megan’s sister Lacey was the salutatorian.

Principal Dr. Tim Wright says he’s not surprised by the students’ success. He says their families were certainly focused on education and encouraged their children to make the most of their opportunities. But he says the students were also very self-motivated—for example, taking many challenging Advanced Placement courses while at SFHS.

“They all took command of their learning and were always seeking out opportunities to challenge themselves,” said Wright.

Rylie admits she’s always been very competitive, which made the news about being at the top of her class even more gratifying.

“It was always a joke that I would never let Ethan beat me at anything, and so when I found out I was super happy that I accomplished that,” she said. She added that he was also happy to hear the news.

Lacey learned about her younger sister earning salutatorian honors as she was wrapping up the semester at Tuft’s University in Boston, where she’s majoring in economics and sociology.

“I thought it was really hilarious that it worked out that way,” she said. “We all knew each other growing up, we were at High Springs (Community School) together, so it’s cool to see it pan out like this.”

Did her older sister’s salutatorian status in 2020 have an impact on Megan?

“It was motivating, but there was also pressure on top of that,” said Megan, who will be going to Boston University this fall to study environmental science and sociology. “I feel like everyone thought Lacey was the more ‘book smart’ sister, so it was reassuring for me to make it as salutatorian too.”

Rylie said her brother’s achievements motivated her as well.

“Growing up with an older brother, I always wanted to be like him and accomplish what he did, so being able to follow in his footsteps was really cool,” she said.

Rylie has earned a full scholarship to Butler University in Indianapolis to play Division 1 Volleyball and study biology. Her brother Ethan is currently studying anthropology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

“I think all four of them will attack college just like they did high school,” said Principal Wright. “There are no limits to what they can achieve because they’ve always set such high standards for themselves.”

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ARCHER – Alachua County Fire Rescue responded to a vehicle crash with fire on State Road 45 in Archer on Thursday, May 12. Engine 82 and Tanker 82 arrived on the scene to find a dump truck that had struck a tree. Engine 82 extinguished a small fire in the engine compartment and also mitigated a diesel fuel leak from the fuel tank.

Additional units that also responded were Engine 81, Rescue 81 and Alachua County Fire Rescue District Chief 8 and Gainesville Fire Rescue’s Hazardous Material Team, who were cancelled enroute after the fuel leak was stopped. The Alachua County Office of Environmental Protection also responded to assess the environmental impact of the fuel spill.

The driver was transported to a local hospital for treatment of his injuries.

The crash is under investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol.

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Former High Springs resident and business owner Suzie Ann Clark passed away on April 1, 2022, at the age of 82.

After earning a degree in massage therapy, Clark moved to High Springs in 1995 where she opened the Wellness Spa of High Springs.

She was a member of the High Springs Chamber of Commerce, volunteered for the High Springs Historic Society and created items for the Historic Museum to sell to earn money. Clark served on the High Springs Parks and Recreation Board from 2002 – 2021.

She was also a member of the League of Women Voters. Her philosophy was, “If you want to make a change, then you needed to be involved, be educated and vote.”

She joined the GFWC High Springs New Century Woman's Club in October 2001 and served in many positions and as president from 2004 – 2007.

Clark also held sewing sessions with a group of avid seamstresses in her spa facility to create burial outfits from bridal gowns for babies who were born but didn’t survive childbirth or who died very young.

“She was a staunch supporter of first responders, always smiling and embracing High Springs police officers with a hug and ensuring that we were wearing our protective ballistic vests,” said High Springs Police Chief Antoine Sheppard.

Clark was active with senior programs in High Springs and throughout the area. Clark participated in Senior Recreation Center events in Gainesville, where she showed off her humbug bags, quilts and other stitched items. She spearheaded Zumba classes at the High Springs Civic Center that continued for almost two decades (pre-COVID) and continued the program at her spa in later years.

She was also one of the founding members of the High Springs Garden Club and Community Garden.

An early morning telephone call would find Clark on a walk for exercise with friends and to enjoy the morning air and get caught up on what her walking friends were doing. If she wasn’t out taking a walk in town, she would be walking along the beach collecting driftwood. She was also a member of the High Springs Yellow Belly Sliders Bicycle Club.

She was passionate about quilting and adored collecting unusual and interesting materials for her creations. A display of her quilt work is currently at the Historic High Springs Elementary School and Community Center located behind City Hall.

Clark was an active member of the Tri-City Quilters Guild and also loved to make clothes. Each year for Christmas she would make her granddaughters all sorts of clothes including vests, shirts, and sweaters. She also loved to make humbug bags, mug rugs and cross-stitched bookmarks. Clark always said quilting was a stress reliever and described it as “therapeutic.”

She ushered in the Quilt Trail program into High Springs and made sure other quilters knew about the program so they would come and view the quilts on buildings around High Springs.

Clark was a soft touch for any cat or kitten who was hungry or didn’t have a home. For years she would gather up feral cats and have them spayed/neutered. Many of the cats stayed to become her own. She fed many of them outside and accepted some who were tame enough to be house cats into the house.

She was especially fond of and bragged constantly about her grandkids and their accomplishments. She created gifts for them throughout the year and enjoyed sharing stories about how well they were doing in their chosen areas.

In her formative years Clark graduated high school in 1957 from Kenmoore West in Buffalo, New York. From there she went on to graduate in 1961 From Buffalo State Teachers College with a bachelors’ degree in home economics. She eventually returned to school for a degree in recreation and gerontology from Brockport College.

During her college years, Clark married and became a mother to her only child, Monica.

She worked in a variety of jobs including Western New York Child Care and Catholic Family Center at Holy Cross and St. Michaels. Clark was not only a Girl Scout leader, but also, she was a paid Girl Scout who taught women how to be Girl Scout leaders. She was also an inspector of day camps and camps.

A woman of many talents, Clark worked at the Strong Museum constructing exhibits as well as teaching recreation at St John Fisher College for over 20 years.

As if her career and being a mother wasn’t busy enough, in 1969 her farm was the first licensed organic farm in Orleans County. She was also a very talented folk musician, who played a variety of instruments including the Hammer dulcimer, auto harp, mountain dulcimer, and the spoons.

In 1971 Clark started the Turtle Hill Folk Festival in Rush, New York, which just celebrated its 50th year in 2021 and Clark was proud to be in attendance for the 50th year anniversary of this festival. Turtle Hill got its name because it was first held on her farm behind the garage where there was a hill that resembled a turtle.

For over 20 years Clark was a member of the Golden Eagle String Band and during that time the band worked on five records, two videos, one tap, two song books and a CD. The band had a national recording contract with Folkways Records and two of their records are now part of the American History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.

Clark also loved to garden and composted before composting was popular. Her family acknowledged that she could grow some amazing strawberries. She had a large coy fish pond that made her garden extra special. She was multi-talented and crafty. One of her projects was to make Faberge-style eggs and she also built furniture.

Clark always had a smile on her face and loved to laugh and joke. She used to say, “My 4 F’s keep me going: Family, friends, fabric and felines.”

She will be deeply missed by family and friends.

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TALLAHASSEE – Today, the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) named Trinity Brooke Whittington, a fourth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Bell Elementary School in Gilchrist County, as a finalist for the 2023 Florida Teacher of the Year award. The announcement came during a surprise visit to Bell Elementary School, with Deputy Chancellor for Educator Quality Dr. Paul Burns imparting the honor. The Florida Teacher of the Year program recognizes excellence in teaching and celebrates outstanding professional educators in schools across the state. The 2023 Florida Teacher of the Year winner will be announced on July 14 in Orlando.  

“Great teachers not only impact their students, but also their schools and their communities,” said Incoming Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr. “My congratulations to Trinity Brooke Whittington for your selection as one of five finalists for the 2023 Florida Teacher of the Year award.” 

“We are very proud of Trinity Brooke Whittington. She’s an outstanding teacher and excellent role model for our entire community,” said Dr. Jim Surrency Gilchrist County Superintendent. 

“Mrs. Whittington’s classroom is a place of magic, where children are hooked from the moment they enter until the moment they leave. The relationships she develops with students, parents and colleagues are true and binding,” said Suzanne Mathe, principal of Bell Elementary School.  

Trinity Brooke Whittington has lived in the Gilchrist community her entire life. She has served as a fourth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher for the past five years and focuses on creating engaging lessons that affect her students in positive ways. Mrs. Whittington also teaches about service by leading school-wide efforts to provide blankets to the local nursing home, and by starting a library swap program to promote literacy. Her personal academic journey includes earning a bachelor’s degree from Saint Leo University, where she graduated summa cum laude.  

Five finalists were chosen for 2023 Teacher of the Year from nearly 185,000 public school teachers throughout the state. After each school district selects its teacher of the year, a selection committee representing teachers, principals, parents and the business community reviews each district application on the basis of outstanding ability to teach and communicate knowledge of the subject taught, professional development, philosophy of teaching, and outstanding school and community service. The winner will serve for one year as the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education.

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