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Reporting from Bar Harbor, Maine:
COLLIER COUNTY — Collier County commissioners decided Tuesday to hire an arbitrator to determine if four votes are needed by the county board for Jackson Laboratory’s proposed site and for other development issues in rural Collier.
The county will work with the Eastern Collier County Property Owners, a group of 126 businesses and families who own nearly 200,000 undeveloped acres, in selecting the arbitrator.
The motion passed 4-1 with Commissioner Tom Henning dissenting.
John Passidomo, an attorney for the property owners, said the arbitration could get done in time for the board’s Dec. 14 meeting when commissioners are scheduled to vote on an amendment to the Ave Maria master plan for Jackson’s site on Oil Well Road.
Commissioner-elect Georgia Hiller will be on the board by then and she’s been a vocal critic of the Jackson project and the board not going to a local referendum on $130 million in local taxdollars being needed to match state dollars. She is expected to create 3-2 votes with Commissioner Tom Henning on Jackson matters.
At issue is whether the Ave Maria amendment to split up commercial zoning along Camp Keais Road and move some of it to Oil Well constitutes a rezoning or not. A state law and the county’s own zoning ordinance says supermajority votes, or 4-1 votes, are needed for rezonings.
The debate centers around the Rural Land Stewardship Area, RLSA, the zoning overlay for rural Collier which was created in 2002 to give property owners credits for giving up development rights to protect environmentally sensitive land. The landowners can turn around and sell the credits to developers for projects on less sensitive lands.
Alan Reynolds, with the engineering firm, WilsonMiller Stantec, said the commission created the zoning when it approved the RLSA and so no rezoning is needed when developers use credits they’ve purchased.
Several of the rural landowners said they never would have voluntarily given up their development rights for the credits if it meant buyers of the credits would have to go through a cumbersome rezoning.
“My family would never have done this if we had any indication, any thought, that a rezone would be needed,” said Russell Priddy, whose family owns 9,000 acres.
Nancy Payton, a field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, likewise said the RLSA “constitutes the zoning of the land” and that Tom Reese, the group’s attorney, is also of the opinion that no supermajority vote is needed within the RLSA.
That’s in contrast to the opinion of County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow, who said the record is silent on the issue when the RLSA was created and so he points to the state law, which says a super majority vote is needed on rezonings.
“This is all about Jackson, in my opinion,” Klatzkow said, who added that he talked with Passidomo months ago about how the question needed to be resolved and now the Ave Maria amendment is looming. Klatzkow had suggested the county go to court directly for a ruling but none of the commissioners jumped on the idea.
Henning said an official interpretation is needed even though he said the law is clear that rezonings require a supermajority vote. If the county wants to change course to a simple majority, then the county needs to do it for everyone looking for rezonings.
“If it’s not about Jackson Lab, let’s do it right, let’s get an official interpretation,” he said.
Commissioner Donna Fiala made the motion for an arbitrator even though Klatzkow suggested again going directly to court for a ruling.
“I think it’s going to stretch out and it will be challenged,” Klatzkow said.
Passidomo said the issue needs to get to arbitration quickly because a cloud hangs over the rural landowners rights.