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Reporting from Bar Harbor, Maine:
An arbitrator has determined a simple majority vote of three Collier County commissioners is needed to change zoning in eastern Collier County, which includes Ave Maria and the proposed site for Jackson Laboratory.
Former Florida Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Bell issued an 11-page ruling in a dispute between Collier County and the Eastern Collier Property Owners, which includes the Barron Collier Cos. The arbitration is not binding.
The conflict arose when Barron Collier submitted an amendment to the county to move 50 acres of commercial zoning in a future “town center” on Camp Keais Road in Ave Maria to a 50-acre residential site off Oil Well Road that the company intends to donate to Jackson.
Collier County leaders, at the urging of the Economic Development Council, are looking to bring the Maine-based nonprofit genetics research institute to Ave Maria to establish an institute for personalized medicine.
Jackson has pledged to create 244 jobs over 10 years and help establish a larger biomedical research park with other entities. But the price tag of $130 million from Collier taxpayers has many in the community up in arms. Project critics say Jackson’s plan is weak, the investment is too risky and that anybody else interested in establishing a presence at the envisioned biomedical park would want a similar government subsidy. Moreover, commissioners rejected a referendum to let voters decided if they want the project or not.
The local money would be matched by the state. The state Legislature this past spring approved $50 million in first-year funding but no money has changed hands. Jackson’s application to the state for the incentive funding has been stalled in Tallahassee until Gov-elect Rick Scott gets his administration in place.
Regarding the arbitration, the Collier County Attorney’s Office argued that moving some of the commercial zoning along Camp Keais to Oil Well is a rezoning and therefore a supermajority vote involving four of five commissioners is required.
The Eastern Collier group said the zoning for 195,000 acres in the region was put in place in 2003 when the Rural Land Stewardship Area, RLSA, was created.
The stewardship area is a special zoning overlay designed to balance the development rights of the landowners while also providing for conservation of some of the most pristine land in the area. The landowners say any change in the stewardship area only requires a simple majority vote of three commissioners.
Created by a supermajority vote of the board in 2003, the stewardship area gives “credits” to landowners when they agree to put land in permanent conservation. Those credits can be used or sold to develop less pristine land.
The landowners say the conservation areas are created by a simple majority vote and the same applies to where development can occur. The County Attorney’s Office says the county’s records are silent on how many votes are needed to create or change development areas and any change is a rezoning needing a supermajority vote.
Bell was hired to conduct the arbitration at the direction of Collier commissioners in agreement with the landowners’ group. The arbitration earlier this month spanned two days.
What hasn’t been addressed directly by the five-member commission is an upcoming vote Jan. 11 to consider Barron Collier’s amendment to move some commercial zoning to Oil Well for the Jackson project. The election in November of Commissioner Georgia Hiller shifts how the board views the project. Commissioner Tom Henning used to be the lone dissenter on Jackson votes but he is expected to be joined by Hiller.
Even though Bell’s decision is nonbinding, it could have far-reaching impact on future development efforts in the stewardship area if the commission decides to rely on it. There also is the potential that the dispute will wind up in court.
County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow declined to comment Monday.
John Passidomo, an attorney for the landowners’ group, said Bell’s decision confirmed what the landowners’ have believed all along that the zoning was put in place seven years ago when the stewardship area was established. Going to arbitration removes the “cloud” of uncertainty.
“I think the evidence and arguments were clear and convincing and Justice Bell agreed,” Passidomo said. “Without removing the cloud there would be irreparable damage being done to the viability of the (stewardship) program and to the rights of the landowners.”
Scott Price, vice president of Naples-based Arthrex Inc., a medical device manufacturing firm which has filed lawsuits on several fronts to fight the Jackson project without a voter referendum, said Arthrex had primarily objected to the arbitration potentially being binding for the county.
Arthrex isn’t going to weigh in on the arbitrator’s decision but could when the commission takes up the Barron Collier amendment, he said.
“We are not going to object to non-binding arbitration,” he said.
Mark Strain, chairman of the Collier County Planning Commission and a witness for the county, said Bell’s decision raises big concerns of equal protection for property owners in eastern Collier.
“If you live in Ave Maria, you aren’t protected by a four-fifths (vote for rezonings),” he said. “Equal protection doesn’t apply to you.”
Strain said when the community held numerous meetings years ago to debate the particulars of the program before it was adopted, nobody said only a simple majority vote would be needed to make zoning changes where development is allowed.
“During the debate, that issue would have been focused on and discussed and it wasn’t,” Strain said.
If the landowners’ group was able to come up with the position that only a simple majority vote is needed, Strain questions what else they may have up their sleeve.
“This was totally pulled out of the dark, even the commissioners had to refer it to someone else,” Strain said.
Nancy Payton, field officer for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said she was pleased by Bell’s decision.
“I am very pleased and it is consistent with our long-held position,” she said. “The super majority vote happened when the overlay was adopted in 2003.”
Connect with health-care reporter Liz Freeman at www.naplesnews.com/staff/liz_freeman