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Reporting from Bar Harbor, Maine:
An arbitration hearing to determine how many Collier County Commission votes are needed to move zoning designations in Ave Maria and elsewhere in eastern Collier got underway Saturday and will continue Monday.
The outcome could ultimately play a role in the location of the proposed and controversial Jackson Laboratory genetics research center.
At issue is a dispute between the County Attorney’s Office and major landowners in eastern Collier involving a special zoning overlay for the region, called the Rural Land Stewardship Area, RLSA. The overlay was established to protect some of the most environmentally pristine lands in the area against development while allowing landowners to build in less sensitive areas.
The arbitration is not binding. Former state Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Bell is presiding. He is expected to issue his ruling by the end of the month.
The arbitration, being held in the commission chambers, is open to the public. Only a handful of Ave Maria residents and landowners who are affected by the zoning issue attended Saturday.
What sparked the dispute is an amendment submitted from Barron Collier Co. to move 50 acres of commercial zoning in a town center on Camp Keais Road in Ave Maria to an area along Oil Well Road that is now designated residential. The Oil Well location is the site proposed for Jackson. The amendment includes moving an access road on Oil Well Road.
The County Attorney’s Office says a supermajority vote from four commissioners is needed to approve the change. The Eastern Collier County Property Owners, which includes Barron Collier, contend only a simple majority vote is needed.
What has not been raised publicly or at any prior commission meetings is that newly-elected Commissioner Georgia Hiller is opposed to the Jackson project without a voter referendum on potentially spending $130 million in local taxpayer dollars to match state funding. She is expected to join Commissioner Tom Henning in create a two-vote bloc against issues involving Jackson.
Jeff Klatzkow, the county attorney, said during the hearing that making any change where development can occur in Ave Maria or elsewhere in eastern Collier is a zoning matter that requires approval by a supermajority vote. That’s similar to how zoning matters in the largely developed western Collier are handled.
Needing four votes also requires that a developer has project that is acceptable to the surrounding area.
“It’s also a matter of fairness,” Klatzkow said. “They (Eastern Collier) say they can put an entire town out there on three votes.”
But the attorney for the landowners’ group, Ed Cheffy, said traditional zoning standards were never meant to apply within the unique zoning overlay for eastern Collier. That was decided in 2003 when the overlay was created.
“The zoning is done,” Cheffy said. “It was probably more elaborate than any zoning in Collier County history.”
Cheffy also said zoning is done by ordinance, not be resolution. In the zoning overlay, special areas designated for environmental protection have been created by resolution, not by ordinance. The same was meant to apply in areas where development is allowed, he said. He presented a copy of a resolution, not an ordinance, that created the development area for Ave Maria in 2005.
Nicole Ryan, policy director for The Conservancy, testified for the county that the issue of how many votes is needed to move zoning in Ave Maria will have widespread impact on how other development will be allowed. The Conservancy’s position is that four votes are needed, just as it in zoning matters elsewhere in the county.
“We believe future residents of Ave Maria deserve that same level of protection,” she said.
Nancy Payton, field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, a witness for the landowners’group, said a simple majority vote is used to put lands in conservation and was always meant to be the same for where development is allowed.
“It’s ying and yang,” Payton said.
Russell Priddy, a cattle rancher who owns, 9,000 acres in eastern Collier, testified that he never would have agreed to take part in the zoning overlay if it meant getting a rezoning and a four-fifths vote of the commission to use development credits or sell them after putting some of his land in preservation.
“We would never have gone down that road,” Priddy said.
He said it was a complete surprise to him that it recently came up that four votes are needed to use his development rights. That concept never came up during the 30 community meetings he attended when creating the zoning overlay was in the works.
“That scenario was never in play,” he said.
Only one person from Ave Maria, Marielena Montesino de Stuart, signed up to speak. She told the arbitrator that hundreds of property owners in the Rural Land Stewardship area will be impacted by the outcome of the arbitration but they are unaware that the proceeding is taking place.
“My understanding is that no written notice was ever sent to each of the owners, and no legal notice was ever placed in the newspaper notifying people of these proceedings,” she said.
She also said it is illegal for the county to designate its authority in this issue to an arbitrator.
“Your honor, this arbitration should not take place,” she said.
The county finished calling its witnesses, which were two less than originally planned. The landowners said they need five more hours for testimony on Monday.