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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ Following the Interstate-75 crash that killed two High Springs residents and seriously injured another on Thanksgiving morning, the alleged driver of the black passenger vehicle responsible for the crash was arrested.

Demiko Montrell White, Jr., 23, of St. Petersburg, the alleged driver of the black passenger vehicle that caused the white SUV to overturn, was arrested on a charge of possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. White is also wanted on a warrant out of Orange County for violating probation by getting arrested on a battery charge in Leon County and was sentenced to probation in Pinellas County just three days prior to the crash for violating a previous probation by failing a drug test. His probation meant that White was prohibited from leaving Pinellas County without permission from his probation officer.

Deputies learned from Florida Highway Patrol that the driver of the car that caused the crash had an out-of-county warrant. The alleged driver, White, also had a suspended driver’s license. When the vehicle was searched, a handgun was found in the glove compartment and a small bag of marijuana was found. A search of the driver’s criminal history revealed that White is a convicted felon with an active warrant out of Orange County.

White’s passenger stated that the handgun and marijuana were not his, and he didn’t know who they belonged to. The passenger was not arrested.

Post Miranda, White agreed to answer questions, and he was asked if he was driving the vehicle involved in the accident. He said, “Y’all already know who was driving, I spoke with a trooper.” The deputy said he needed to re-interview him, then White said he was not the one driving the vehicle. The deputy asked if he was in the passenger seat, and White said, “I never said that.” The deputy then advised White that a handgun was found in the passenger side glove box, to which White reportedly replied, “Oh, no, I was driving.” White said he had no knowledge of the handgun. When asked how the handgun had ended up in the glove box, White said, “It has always been there.” The deputy reminded White that as a convicted felon, he cannot be around any type of firearms, and White reportedly said, “That’s ok, I can beat it.”

The deputy wrote that due to the conflicting stories told by White, there was probable cause to arrest him.

According to court records posted on Nov. 29, White was released on $15,000 bond on Nov. 26, with the condition that he possess no firearms. A public defender was appointed. The First Appearance Order scores him as a low flight risk and states that he is not employed.

An Orange County warrant dates from an arrest on April 27, 2021, in which the arresting officer reported that White was driving 100 mph on SR 408. White’s driving and arrest records date back to 2015 with numerous charges listed, which include failure to show, failure to pay fines, controlled substance arrests, suspended license, probation for 360 days, arrests for battery, felony possession of cocaine and marijuana, careless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, felony battery charges, fleeing and eluding.

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ALACHUA ‒ A three vehicle crash on Thanksgiving morning resulted in the deaths of two High Springs residents and serious injury to a third. The crash occurred on Interstate-75 just south of the Alachua exit at Mile Marker 397 at approximately 10:40 a.m.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), the driver, who sustained minor injuries, was a 55-year-old male driving a white sport utility vehicle. Deceased passengers were a 13-year-old and an 83-year-old female, both from High Springs. The seriously injured passenger is a 50-year-old female, also from High Springs.

The crash occurred when a 23-year-old St. Petersburg man, driving a black passenger vehicle, with a 21-year-old passenger, also from St. Petersburg, was traveling south on I-75 in the center lane. A semi truck hauling a trailer was driven by a 38-year-old Clermont man and was also traveling south on I-75 in the right lane, beside the black passenger vehicle.

At the same time the white SUV carrying the High Springs residents was traveling south on I-75 in the left lane. The black passenger vehicle entered into the right lane, which was already occupied by the semi. The right side of the black passenger vehicle struck the left side of the semi and then began to travel in an easterly direction toward the left lane. The black vehicle’s left front struck the right rear area of the SUV. The impact caused the SUV to travel onto the right shoulder and overturn several times.

Two passengers from the SUV were ejected as the vehicle rolled over and they were pronounced dead at the scene and the third passenger was taken to the hospital in serious condition.

The driver and passenger in the black passenger vehicle and the driver of the semi tractor/trailer reported no injuries. All occupants of the white SUV and semi tractor/trailer were wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash. It is unknown whether the driver and passenger in the black passenger vehicle were belted in.

In addition to FHP, Alachua County Sheriff’s Deputies, the Alachua Police Department and the High Springs Police Department responded to the scene of the crash.

At the time of the initial report, this accident was still under investigation.

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NEWBERRY ‒ All aboard the Polar Express! This year the 2021 Polar Express event will be held at Dudley Farm Historic State Park, 18730 W. Newberry Rd, Newberry. The event will take place on Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 10 – 11 and 17 – 18, plus bonus shows will be held on Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 29 – 30. All shows are continuous from 5:30 – 8 p.m.

Readers of the popular book by Chris Van Allsburg, “The Polar Express,” will likely remember that the writer takes a young boy and the readers on a magical train ride on Christmas Eve to the North Pole. There he receives a special gift from Santa Claus.

This presentation of the magical story is coordinated by Bob Watson and Lynn Reeves and includes real live visits with Santa along with complementary hot cocoa and cookies.

Although there is no cost for the Polar Express experience, there is a state park entrance fee of $5 per car load. Donations are encouraged to help defray costs and support this all-volunteer effort. Dudley Farm will be closed during this event.

For more information about this seasonal experience, call Bob Watson at 352-262-5068 or Lynn Reeves at 386-365-2137.

Visitors unfamiliar with Dudley Farm State Park will find a 325-acre historic park that offers an opportunity to see how Florida family farms evolved from the 1850s until the mid-1940s. Dudley Farm is an authentic working farm. Its buildings have been restored or are currently being restored to their original condition. Dudley Farm State Park is normally open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The farmstead closes at 4 p.m. For more information about this historic state park residents may call 352-472-1142 or visit www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/dudley-farm-historic-state-park.

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ALACHUA ‒ It was the spring of 1996. Charles Moore, a 1969 graduate of A. L. Mebane High School, fervently wanted to establish an organization to revitalize the history of the school as the county's all black high school during the segregation era.

A.L. Mebane High School saw its first graduating class in 1960, and over the years saw changes in education for African Americans and the results of the struggle for racial equality and civil rights. In 1970, Alachua County schools were integrated by Federal law, and there would be no more graduating seniors from A.L. Mebane High School. All the county schools were integrated, the high school students at Mebane were transferred to Santa Fe High School, and Mebane became an integrated middle school.

Moore's brainchild was an organization for all the Alumni to celebrate their history with the community and help future student generations from the neighborhoods remember what the past was like and recognize current opportunities.

Moore sought to keep the school spirit flourishing through yearly reunions, with the focus on keeping the legacy alive for all the graduating classes from1960 to 1970. The unity and spirit of the 10 graduating classes remained strong and the Alumni Association was created by Moore in 1996, who also served as its first president.

Since then, each year on the weekend after Thanksgiving, former students and family members from A.L. Mebane High School hold a multi-day homecoming celebration and parade for a school that no longer exists. Sponsored by the A.L. Mebane High School Alumni Association, the event has become a community tradition. What started as a small group of former students dedicated to keep a connection with their classmates, has become a community event spanning generations celebrating their history, culture and achievements.

The goal of the Alumni Association is not just to celebrate its history, it is also to provide opportunities to current students and give them a better chance at education and a successful future.

“It is important that people remember the past and the struggles of those who came before them. People without a purpose perish, so we want to make sure we provide that opportunity and help future generations,” Moore said.

Each year the Alumni Association awards scholarships to graduating seniors who apply and meet requirements based on student achievement and motivation. “The other requirement is that they have had a family member who went to A,L, Mebane High School,” said Moore. “We presently have eight scholarships available, which are given to 8th grade students at Mebane Middle School with our Step-Up Award.”

Typically, the money is raised from activities surrounding the Alumni weekend including the parade, food or donations. However, the past two years during the COVID pandemic have greatly limited the scope of the activities. “Out of concerns for public safety and spreading the virus, we canceled many of the group activities including the parade,” Moore said. “But we feel the celebration of our history, gathering of Alumni and community, and raising funds for the scholarships are still important, so the event still happens, even if on a smaller scale.”

This year the gathering was small with a ceremony and speakers at the Paradise Community Outreach Church in Alachua at the invitation of Pastor Debra Sermons. The ceremony started with the entire gathering uniting in the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with additional music from the St Matthews Choir.

Vice Mayor of Alachua Shirley Green Brown spoke, as did High Springs Mayor Bryan D. Williams and Newberry Commissioner Tony Mazon. The keynote speaker was Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson, Jr. who was introduced by Under Sheriff Joel DeCoursey, Jr., who formerly served as the police chief for the City of Alachua and the City of High Springs as well as City Manager for High Springs. Watson and DeCoursey had also attended Mebane as students.

Watson said history should be remembered as well as the achievements and struggles of those who came before them. He pointed out that while African Americans hold many positions of leadership now, including sheriff and police chiefs in Gainesville, High Springs and City of Alachua, it was those who came before them that made these changes possible.

“They were the ones who were not allowed the opportunities or denied the right to be first, but they made what we see today possible,” Watson said. “It is now our responsibility to show the younger generation that anything is possible. Encourage them with the importance of education, learn their history and the struggles that got us to these achievements.”

The Alumni society also held a BBQ dinner after the ceremony, with the $12-15 meals going toward the scholarships. “We felt we had to keep it safe and scale back the activities due to COVID, but that also hurt our funding drive for the scholarships,” Moore said. “We are accepting donations from anyone who has it in their heart to contribute to the scholarships for these young people's higher education and give them better opportunities for the future. The Alumni Association believes in paying it forward based on the achievements of those before.”

Anyone who would like to donate to the scholarships can send a check to PO Box 628 Alachua FL 32616 in the name of A L Mebane High School Alumni Assoc., Inc.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ A new mayor is taking the reins in High Springs as Commissioner Byran Williams was appointed to the position by the Commission at the Nov. 18 meeting. Outgoing Mayor Gloria James was appointed to serve as vice mayor. Long-time High Springs City Commissioner Scott Jamison retired from his seat after serving more than nine years as a commissioner and former mayor. As commission newcomer Katherine Weitz was the only qualified candidate running for Jamison’s seat, an election was not required and she was sworn in to Jamison’s former seat. Williams faced no opposition and was automatically returned to the Commission.

In other City business, the Commission upped monthly salaries for city commissioners to $900 and the mayor at $1,000. Ambrose pointed out that the salaries had been set at a higher rate in 2017 and have since been reduced. He suggested that the Commission consider raising the salaries for the next fiscal year. He said the 2017 salaries were set at $1,000 for commissioners and $1,200 for the mayor. City Manager Ashley Stathatos said staff would research salaries in the surrounding cities for Commission consideration.

The Commission also approved Resolution 2021-R, which amends the Land Development Code Administrative Fee Schedule. In some cases, the fees were lowered while in other cases they were raised. The changes were recommended following a survey of land development fees for neighboring cities of Alachua, Newberry and Gainesville and Alachua County.

Stathatos said the recommended fees are more in line with surrounding communities and will encourage development in High Springs. Annexation fees were removed, which were $500 for small annexations and $2,000 plus $50 per acre for large annexations. She said several cities in the area do not charge for annexations to encourage properties to come into their cities.

Additional changes included increasing the Land Development Code Text Amendment Fee from $1,500 to $5,000 per section due to the amount of time this takes staff. The fee for a lot split was decreased from $500 to $200.

The fee for a Planned Unit Development was increased from $3,500 to $6,000. A fee of $3,000 has been added for modification of a Planned Unit Development. Previously, there was no fee.

The Site Plan Review fee is $2,500, but with the approval of this resolution, the proposed fee for Minor Site Plan Review is to be set at $500, Major Site Plan Review will be set at $2,500 and Site Plan Review with Infrastructure will be $4,000.

The current fee for a Preliminary Plat is $3,750, Final Plat is $1,500 plus recording fees, and construction plans is $3,250. The proposed fees are $1,500 plus $10 per lot for Preliminary Plat, $1,500 plus $5 per lot for Final Plat and $3,000 plus $1 per lot for Construction Plans. The fee for a Zoning Verification Letter will decrease from $50 to $25.

Another item receiving unanimous approval was Ordinance 2021-12, which amends the adopted Fiscal Year 2020/2021 budget.

High Springs has been allocated $3,094,274 in American Rescue Plan Act Funds received with approximately half of it received thus far, according to Assistant City Manager Bruce Gillingham.

Gillingham offered several options for commission consideration, including engineering of the water plant, funds for the Opioid Task Force, Phase III of the Wastewater Treatment Plant, City Hall elevator replacement, body cameras for the High Springs Police Department, cardiac monitors, a new roof for City Hall, bonuses for first responders and broadband.

Commissioner Linda Jones suggested a Commission workshop to consider all the options and others agreed that would be preferred with so many options to consider. A workshop was set to take place at 5 p.m., Nov. 29, just prior to the next City Commission meeting.

The Commission narrowly approved Ordinances 2021-09, 2021-10 and 2021-11 involving annexation of approximately 735.17 acres into High Springs. The intent is for this area to be developed into a solar facility by Duke Energy.

All three measured passed separately with a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Katherine Weitz and Linda Jones voted against approval.

The next City Commission meeting is scheduled for Nov. 29 at 6:30 p.m. with a workshop scheduled at 5 p.m.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The High Springs Chamber of Commerce hosted the 24th Annual Christmas Tree Lighting on a brisk Nov. 26 evening. The event has been held continuously over the years—even through the pandemic.

Pre-Covid in 2019, the park was filled with a record crowd of families bringing their children to watch the Christmas tree lighting and a chance to meet Santa Claus. Businesses and local churches provided booths distributing candy, popcorn, cookies and other treats to the children. Another booth was set up to help children make Christmas ornaments. People dressed as Christmas characters roamed the crowd interacting with the children and posing for photos.  

Then in 2020 with the pandemic ever present, although much of the traditional fun was missing to be replaced by other activities. All the hands-on booths for face painting, gift design, card making and other activities for the children were gone due to social distancing. All treats at the booths were individually wrapped to avoid cross contact. While children still got to sit with Santa, they sat next to him, with Santa wearing a face shield and the kids in required masks. The audience was much smaller as well.

“This year we wanted to bring back the excitement and activities that had made this event a community tradition, but still be safe health wise,” said Chamber President Sharon Decker. The event was more spread out, with open air bleachers near the tree lighting. Much of the close contact games and activities like face painting were gone and all cookies and treats were handed out one at a time by gloved volunteers to limit contact. All the booths and games were held in the Farmers market at the other end of the field. Kids could still make cards and ornaments, but working as individuals to limit contact on the supplies.

The number of vendors was reduced to six, with the tables spread out. The Summit Baptist Church, High Springs Women’s Club and Garden Club had tables for children to make cards, ornaments and Christmas bookmarks. Witness of Christ Ministry gave out free cookies and baked goods. The Pink Flamingo brought a brightly lit food truck offering coffee and hot chocolate. Girl Scouts volunteered to help Santa as he listened to the children's wishes. A large model train also attracted the attention of youngsters. On a larger scale, the High Springs Lions Club brought their Polar Express train over to offer free rides to children. With the “train cars” only seating one child in open air and distanced apart, the tradition continued as the train circled the field.

But for most people it was the tree lighting and a visit from Santa that brought them to the event. As 6:30 p.m. approached, a large crowd gathered near the tree. High Springs Pastor Sammy Nelson was honored as “Citizen of the Year” and he led the crowd with a prayer, Pledge of Allegiance and introduced singer Dani MacKinzie, who sang Christmas songs.

At 6:30 sharp, Santa and Mrs. Claus were introduced and the tree was lit up with a multitude of lights and ornaments supplied by the High Springs CRA. Santa and Mrs. Claus stationed themselves at the Gazebo by the Farmers Market to listen to the long line of excited children and their wishes for Christmas.

“We were really glad how it all worked out,” said Decker. “From what I am being told, this is one of the biggest crowds and I think we were able to make it a great event and bring back the traditional celebration while still making health safety adjustments.’’

Decked sang the praises of volunteers who helped make the evening successful, crediting Chamber members and City staff, including Bruce Gillingham and David Fuller as well as the High Springs Police Department and Chief Antione Sheppard, Pastor Sammy Nelson and his church, and John Decker.

As for the future, Sharon Decker said,” We are looking forward to making it bigger next year and keep the tradition going.”

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ALACHUA ‒ Alachua Elementary fourth grade students were recognized at Nov. 15 Alachua City Commission meeting for their creative talents. The students’ artwork, representing “Cold & Warm,” is currently on display in the foyer of City Hall. Mayor Gib Coerper and Alachua Elementary’s Ann Robles presented a certificate to each student who came to the front of the Commission Chamber as their name was called.

Funding from the Florida Legislature, sponsored by State Representative Chuck Clemons, brings $375,000 for the Alachua Water Quality and Resiliency Improvement Project. In 2017, the City of Alachua experienced contamination of its water supply due to Hurricane Irma impacts. Currently, the city wells supplying the drinking water to the area are located in karst geology and geographically close together, increasing the likelihood of the wells to be overwhelmed during storm events and subject to potential impacts by surficial contamination.

The project consists of the engineering design and permitting needed to construct a 1.0 million gallon per day (MGD) supply well, raw water main, treatment improvements, an operating facility, yard piping improvements, electrical backup, and associated infrastructure improvements. Once constructed, these improvements will diversify local water supply sources and ensure availability of clean drinking water.

Additional funds to the City’s Water Utility Enterprise Fund will be appropriated from revenues and expenses related to American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund Grant. Alachua's allocation is $4,957,950, with half of the allocation received on Oct. 6, 2021. The remaining funds are anticipated to be distributed within a year for additional investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

The City will soon be constructing a parking lot in the downtown business district. The Commission approved amending the Fiscal Year 2021-22 Budget for the receipt of unanticipated revenue added to the CRA Special Revenue Fund to appropriate revenues and expenses for a $150,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Business Services. The funds will be used for construction of a parking lot with underground water retention and utilities within the historic downtown core of Alachua. The 40-space parking lot will include two handicap-accessible spaces. Pedestrian connections to access historic Main Street will be included with the project. The project will also include the conversion of existing overhead electrical service to underground service.

In other business, the Commission approved a request to create two lots on a 16-acre property at Alachua Crossings. The replat will create two new lots and provide for maintenance of common areas such as stormwater facilities and the access driveway. There is an existing office building located on one of the proposed lots at 5550 N.W. 111th Boulevard. The Planning and Zoning Board recommended approval of the request at their Oct. 12, 2021 hearing and forwarded the final plat application to the City Commission.

Due to notice requirements, the Commission deferred a decision to Nov. 29 for approval of the Preliminary Plat for Convergence Research Park, which proposes creating a subdivision on a 109-acre property into a total of 273 lots, with associated common areas and rights-of-way. The area is generally located south of the San Felasco Parkway, east of County Road 241, and north of Shaw Farms.

Troon Creek, LLC, developer of the new Briarwood subdivision located along CR 235A near Santa Fe High School, requested an extension of the Nov. 9, 2021 deadline for completion of infrastructure to Dec. 30, 2021. The developer cited supply chain constraints related to the COVID pandemic. The final plat and subdividers agreement was approved by the Commission on Nov. 9, 2020 and amended on July 26, 2021, to permit the construction of sidewalks as homes were completed.

Tara Baywood developers requested a change in the phasing development of the subdivision. The request would not change the number of houses or layout, only the order of construction within the development. If approved, construction plans will be required to demonstrate that all public utilities can be provided for each phase. Once construction plans are approved, the application for Final Plat and Subdivider's Agreement will return to the City Commission for consideration. The property is located near Lowes.

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