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LAKE CITY ‒ One person is dead after a pedestrian was hit while walking along a road in Columbia County. Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) troopers say a van driven by a 65-year-old Alachua man was traveling north on U.S. Highway 41 (State Road 25) approaching Southeast County Road 349 at approximately 7 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 9.

The pedestrian, who remains unknown at this time, was walking northbound on U.S. Highway 41 ahead of the van. The right front of the van collided with the pedestrian, who was pronounced deceased.

The driver stayed at the scene until law enforcement arrived.

Troopers are asking anyone who may have information about the crash to contact FHP.

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ALACHUA ‒ An Alachua man has been charged with lewd and lascivious molestation on a child. Ricky Rodriguez, 48, of Alachua, was served a warrant on Sept. 8 and was subsequently charged with lewd and lascivious molestation on a child between the ages of 12 and 16.

Rodriguez was originally charged with three counts of lewd and lascivious molestation, but he was only formally charged with one count. The alleged offense occurred in January 2022. A sworn complaint was filed in July and a warrant for his arrest was issued on Aug. 30.

Rodriguez has been released on $250,000 bond.

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GAINESVILLE ‒ Michael Lee Finn, Jr., 35, of Hawthorne was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison after pleading guilty on June 14, 2022, to production of child pornography. Jason R. Coody, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, announced the sentence earlier this month.

“This sentence is yet another example of the unwavering commitment to the protection of our most vulnerable and should serve as a significant deterrent to those who would attempt to harm them,” said Coody. “We will continue to work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners to investigate and vigorously prosecute those who prey upon our children.”

Court documents reflect that on Oct. 17, 2021, law enforcement officers were dispatched to a domestic disturbance at a residence in Gainesville. Upon arrival, officers spoke with the complainant, who advised she had been in a lengthy relationship with Finn. The complainant borrowed Finn’s cell phone and while reviewing images stored on the phone observed numerous pornographic images of adults. She also located videos that appeared to depict a minor child victim laying partially naked on a couch as well as naked in the shower. It did not appear that the child victim was aware she was being video-recorded. The complainant confronted Finn about the videos and an argument commenced during which Finn left the residence.

Officers canvassed the area and located Finn and advised him of his Miranda rights. Finn admitted to taking the photos and videos of the child victim without her knowledge. He further stated the pictures “might have been for personal gratification.”

Finn was arrested on state charges for possession of child pornography. A state search warrant was obtained for the contents of the cell phone. In the “Hidden” folder there were several videos of the child victim that focus on her nude body and genitalia. Further investigation determined that the child victim was unaware that the images had been created.

“Parents must remain ever-vigilant, even in the confines of their own homes as predators use technology to secretly exploit and victimize children,” said Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) Jacksonville Assistant Special Agent in Charge K. Jim Phillips. “We are in the throes of a societal epidemic with regard to the sexual exploitation of children. Thanks to partners like the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, we were able to put a stop to this deviant’s behavior.”

Finn’s prison sentence will be followed by a lifetime of supervised release. He will be required to register as a sex offender and will be subject to sex offender conditions.

This conviction was the result of a collaborative investigation by Homeland Security Investigations and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant United States Attorney Frank Williams prosecuted the case.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Residents packed the City of High Springs commission chambers to overflowing at the Aug. 30 Plan Board meeting. Concerned citizens showed up to voice their opposition to a proposed subdivision of 1,437 single-family lots, 250 multi-family units and 200 senior living units.

The proposed Bridlewood development consists of five parcels totaling some 688 acres and is located east of Highway 41 and south of Northwest 174th Avenue. The lots in the proposed planned development consist of 70-foot X 100-foot lots and 100-foot X 100-foot lots spread throughout the entire property. A portion of the property has an existing plat that was recorded in 1925 made up of 1,440 single-family 25-foot X 100-foot lots.

Residents expressed alarm about school overcrowding, traffic congestion, insufficient infrastructure, increased sewage requirements and increased burden on police and fire services should the development be approved. Following over two hours of presentations by JBPro Director of Engineering Chris Potts and City staff, along with numerous questions and public comments from residents, the Board voted to delay a final decision on the planned development until their next meeting on Sept. 27.

Because the original plat had never been abandoned, existing property rights allow the developer to build on the pre-existing plat approved in 1925, which would allow for more homes on the rest of the property following an approved 2005 plan, pushing the number of homes to 2,240.

City staff said that the updated planned development includes requirements and amenities which do not exist under the current planned development. Items that have been added to the new proposed planned development include a minimum single-family home size, setback requirements, residential design standards, requirements for exterior elevations, landscaping requirements and a large number of parks and open space.

The City Commission will be considering the results of a recently completed impact fee study and will likely institute new impact fees for water, sewer, parks and recreation, roadways, and general services which includes public safety. The impact fees are to pay for costs associated with new development.

“The developer has agreed to incur the proposed higher impact fees, if implemented,” said High Springs spokesperson Kevin Mangan. “If the Bridlewood Planned Development does not get approval and the developer builds to the previous plat requirements, he may not be required to pay the higher impact fees.”

As an example of the difference between what the developer would pay under the previous plat, Mangan pointed out that the water impact fee is currently $250. “Under the proposed impact fees, the same impact fee is anticipated to be a minimum of $3,630 and a maximum of $8,150,” he said.

Without those higher impact fees, which the developer may not be required to pay under the previous plat, the City would lose those dollars. Items like roads, parks, fire and police protection must be maintained. According to Mangan, if the impact fees are not there to offset those expenses, the City will lose a significant amount of revenue to enhance much needed infrastructure and public safety.

While residents are concerned about schools, road improvements, playgrounds and equipment for their children, and water and sewer capacity, the monies provided at the development stage as well as funds generated through impact fees and tax revenue will cover the costs for these concerns, according to Mangan. The 20-year net fiscal impact of the Bridlewood development is forecast to exceed $11 million to increase service levels in other areas of the City as well.

The development on the table as proposed by Potts includes extensive landscape requirements, increased landscaping in open spaces, amenities such as a clubhouse, pool, splash pad, tennis/pickle board courts, multi-use fields, recreational equipment and parks located within a 10-minute walk from any residence in the development.

The developer has agreed to set aside acreage for a new school and public safety facility. Mangan said, “We are required to maintain certain service levels. The revenue from this project would help the City fix roads and expand our water and wastewater facilities among other things.”.

“I know our citizens are concerned about the size of this development, but the Bridlewood planned development is a better option than the existing platted development from 1925,” said Mangan. “It is the City’s mission to welcome and encourage strategic growth. The Bridlewood development, which has a total build out time of 15-20 years, does just that.”

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ALACHUA ‒ Alvin Harley Crews, 51, of Macclenny, and Ronnie Ryan Padgett, 18, of Glen St. Mary, were arrested on Sunday, Sept. 4, after allegedly stealing a passenger van from a residence along U.S. Highway 441 in Alachua. They were also charged with possession of drug equipment, and Crews was charged with cocaine possession.

At about 12:21 a.m. an Alachua Police Department officer was traveling southbound on U.S. Highway 441 in Alachua when he saw a van traveling 77 mph in a 55-mph zone. The officer conducted a traffic stop and saw Padgett get out of the driver’s side of the van after it crashed into a concrete barrier. Padgett reportedly admitted he didn’t have a driver’s license and that he had marijuana in his pocket and was placed in handcuffs. The officer reported finding a glass pipe stuffed with a Brillo pad and a smoked “blunt” in Padgett’s pockets.

The officer discovered that the van had been stolen from a residence along Highway 441.

Post Miranda, Padgett reportedly said that the glass pipe was not his and that he had no idea what it was used for. He also reportedly said that the van belonged to his mother’s friend Brian, who dropped it off for the pair to use after Padgett’s vehicle had become disabled on Highway 441. Padgett reportedly said he was taking the van to get gas for his own vehicle.

The officer discovered that Padgett’s driver’s license has been suspended since December 2021; Padgett reportedly said he was only driving because his passenger, Crews, was too tired to drive.

Crews appeared to be sleeping at the time of the traffic stop and the officer woke him and asked him to exit the vehicle. The officer reported that he then asked Crews if there was anything illegal in the van or on his person. Crews responded that there was not. The officer wrote that he next asked Crews what was in his pockets, and Crews reportedly replied, “That’s a good question,” and began emptying his pockets. The officer reported that Crews removed a glass pipe and a container with 20.8 grams of crack cocaine from his pockets.

Crews was charged with grand theft of a motor vehicle, cocaine possession and possession of drug equipment. He is being held without bail, pending first appearance.

Padgett has been charged with grand theft of a motor vehicle, driving without a valid license (second or subsequent offense) and possession of drug equipment. He is being held on $27,500 bail.

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ALACHUA – It’s that time of year again when the dark purple and golden grapes of Florida are ripe for the picking, just in time to bring a refreshing quencher to the dog days of summer.  For a few short weeks each year, Florida’s native muscadine grapes adorn vines in the wild and in area farms and vineyards. 

At the Loftus Family Farm in Alachua, the grape picking season officially opened a few weeks ago, but there are still some plump, juicy grapes waiting for the picking.  Other area u-pick grape operations are also underway as the fruits ripen.  Weather, as unpredictable as it is, has a significant impact on the health of grape vines and on how long it takes their fruit to ripen. 

The last chance to pick grapes at the Loftus Family Farm will be this Saturday and Sunday, September 10th and 11th between the hours of 7 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Some years, scorching temperatures will accelerate the ripening process, and this year’s crop is no different says Don Loftus, a local farmer and viticulturist.  Don Loftus, along with his son, Curtis Loftus, run the vineyard which opens each year.

The Supreme variety of muscadine grapes seem to be great performers each year, according to Loftus.

Perhaps mastering the technique of cultivating the grapes is knowing when they’re just right for picking. 

“The biggest problem is picking the Supremes too early,” Loftus explained.  As much as those plump purple grapes call out to be picked, they’re probably not ready yet.  “You want to wait until they’re really dark,” he said.

Unlike other fruits, muscadine grapes do not ripen significantly once picked.

Don Loftus got into the business of growing muscadine grapes more than 15 years ago when he started planning for his retirement.  Since retiring from the University of Florida, he has dedicated his time to the Loftus Family Farm, which includes the muscadine grape vineyard he has developed and grown from scratch.  Well into the throws of retirement, Loftus now realizes he left one full-time job for another, operating a vineyard and farm, which is why, in part, he has turned operations of running the business over to his son Curtis. 

In 2004, Loftus first started converting the field that once grew persimmons, which were also negatively affected by North Florida’s winter weather patterns, into 1.5 acres of grapes.  

The u-pick farm is one of a handful in the area and is open to the public.  The Loftus Family Farm specializes in the Ison and Supreme varieties of muscadine grapes, but is branching out into others as well.

Over the years, Loftus has added new varieties, such as the Delicious, a self-pollinating muscadine developed by the University of Florida.  He’s using the new varieties to replace others lost to natural causes and winter damage in prior years.  Each no variety requires a few years before the they are on a scale ready for picking, but this year.  Loftus compares the fruit to the Supremes, joking, “As their names suggests, they really are quite delicious and they have the same crunch and taste to them.” 

The ‘Delicious’ variety is also disease resistant and is among the top yielding muscadines.

Loftus said his son may be addition additional crops and offerings to the farm to extend the season for which the farm is open to the public.  The Loftus family has their hands full meticulously attending to the 14 rows of grape vines, each several hundred feet long and none of which are sprayed with potentially dangerous chemicals and pesticides. 

Indigenous to the southeast region of North America, muscadine grapes ripen in late summer.   Right about now is the last chance to pick grapes at the Loftus Family Farm where avid pickers are welcomed to their hands-on picking experience.

The vineyard has already become a popular spot among many people who are aware of the u-pick farm.  Loftus credits some of that success to the well-manicured rows of grapes and relaxing atmosphere at his family’s farm.  Loftus said many pickers like to eat the grapes as they are, some use them for producing wine and others for making jelly and sauces and freezing for later consumption. Florida’s $20 million-a-year grape industry is typically the second- or third-largest market for table grapes and wine in the country.

The address for the vineyard is 15585 NW 29 Street, Gainesville.  East of Alachua on NW 156th Avenue, the farm is at the midway point between State Road 121 and County Road 231.

Additional photos, health benefits, directions to the vineyard and uses for muscadine grapes and other information are available at LoftusFamilyFarm.com

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HIGH SPRINGS – The City of High Springs is ratcheting up the future of its parks and recreation program. On Aug. 25 the High Springs Commission approved a is $141,605 proposal for a Parks, Trails and Recreation Master Plan from GAI Consultants Inc.'s Community Solutions Group (CSG).

High Springs currently does not have a master plan for future parks and recreation needs as the city grows. The plan is designed to ensure the city has adequate capacity in the parks system to provide a high level of service to residents.

Commissioner Ross Ambrose supported the proposal saying that the City has expended funds in the past without the help of a clear plan. He also said he wanted the Parks and Recreation Board to be included in the process, which he was told would be the case.

According to the proposal, the plan will help High Springs establish a long-range vision, assess current and future recreation needs, provide strategies to fill gaps and reduce redundancies within the park system, promote new ideas, while also building and deepening existing partnerships and alliances.

The plan proposes a number of benefits including improved transparency and community support for Parks Department projects, programming and offerings. Also, GAI will identify new opportunities for future development and help to align and prioritize capital improvement projects.

Payments will be due to GAI in four lump sum installments based on project phase. Project initiation is $10,339, existing conditions analysis is $62,347, master plan development is $29,368 and a strategy and recommendations report is $37,551. The time-frame to complete the project is estimated to be 12 months. City Manager Ashley Stathatos said that funds to pay for the plan development have already been included in the FY 2022-23 budget.

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