Accusations of paid votes but no decision on Immokalee master plan

Dania Maxwell/Staff
- Immokalee residents Fred Thomas stands near his wife, Cherryle, in the audience of the Collier County Commission during a break from debate of the proposed Immokalee Master Plan on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012.  After four hours of debate and public commentary, Collier County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to continue the master plan amendment vote to the commission meeting on Sept. 25.

Photo by DANIA MAXWELL // Buy this photo

Dania Maxwell/Staff - Immokalee residents Fred Thomas stands near his wife, Cherryle, in the audience of the Collier County Commission during a break from debate of the proposed Immokalee Master Plan on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. After four hours of debate and public commentary, Collier County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to continue the master plan amendment vote to the commission meeting on Sept. 25.

Commissioner Tom Henning listens to discussion of the proposed Immokalee Master Plan during the Collier County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. After four hours of debate and public commentary, Collier County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to continue the master plan amendment vote to the commission meeting on Sept. 25.

Photo by DANIA MAXWELL, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Commissioner Tom Henning listens to discussion of the proposed Immokalee Master Plan during the Collier County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. After four hours of debate and public commentary, Collier County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to continue the master plan amendment vote to the commission meeting on Sept. 25.

— One more time.

Four hours of debate, filled with accusations of paid votes and one Collier County commissioner breaking his silence, ended without a decision on the Immokalee master plan amendment. Commissioners voted 3 to 2 Tuesday to continue the vote on the future of Immokalee at the their next meeting on Sept. 25.

“I cannot see anyone changing their mind,” said Commissioner Fred Coyle, who dissented on the vote along with Georgia Hiller. “The four votes needed cannot justify currently debating this issue. I think this is finished unless someone brings it back for a rehearing.”

The decision means the master plan amendment will get one more discussion before the state imposed Sept. 27 deadline. The master plan requires a super majority, or four of five commissioners, vote to pass and be sent to the state for final approval.

The move came after a motion by Commissioner Tom Henning to add eight changes to the plan, which left Commissioners Jim Coletta and Donna Fiala frustrated. Henning’s motion failed.

Coletta made the motion to continue the hearing, saying he could not stand to see another obstacle thrown into the path of the master plan amendment.

“It’s been eight years, $500,000 and you have been sold down the river,” he said to the supporters of the amendment in the audience. “This sells you short all for business. They are trying to pay back a debt.”

Coletta’s comment referred to the support Henning and Hiller have from several detractors of the Immokalee master plan. Those detractors have said Henning and Hiller have listened to their concerns where others have turned deaf ears. But Coletta and Fiala suggested something more nefarious.

“There are rumors going around that this doesn’t have the votes because some people in Immokalee bought and paid for them,” Fiala said.

Tuesday’s vote revolved around Henning, who was considered the swing vote for the master plan amendment. The master plan amendment is a document that lays out the Immokalee community’s goals in terms of development, including land use, recreation and housing. The plan addresses the urban area of the community.

Henning abstained from voting for the amendment in December, saying he had a conflict because he owned property in the community that would be “greatly affected” by the master plan change.

He changed his mind this time. Henning said he discussed the matter with staff and learned that his property would still have to go through the zoning process before it could be affected by the master plan change. He said the state of Florida has two statutes that discuss the ethics of voting when there is a conflict of interest.

“One deals with perception and one deals with reality. Staff has determined there is no reality, but there is a perception,” he said of the conflict and his decision to vote.

Henning’s motion for the master plan included removing language about a bypass and language about the Immokalee Airport. It also included a proposal made this spring to the Immokalee CRA by mobile home park owner Robert Davenport that would allow non-conforming mobile home parks, which are mobile home parks in areas that are not zoned for such residences.

Henning’s motion also said there could be no change to State Road 29 in the Immokalee urban area that would result in a reduction of capacity until an alternative route and funding for said route is identified. That change came after Henning expressed concern about how the plan would affect State Road 29, which is an evacuation route for the community.

Many who spoke about the master plan said they didn’t think it was perfect, but pointed out it could be changed. Immokalee resident Fred Thomas said the community has to find ways to get industry into the community. The master plan amendment, he said, gives Immokalee a sense of direction about where it wants to go.

“I am not happy with everything in that master plan,” he said. “But we need the plan approved. And then you can amend it whenever you want.”

CRA board member Jeffrey Randall agreed, saying the community spent a lot of time and money developing that plan. He urged commissioners to adopt the plan with the caveat that before it was implemented, it should be amended.

But Hiller said changing zoning and then amending it to change it again amounts to a taking. She also questioned the cost of implementing the master plan and said the infrastructure costs were “astronomical.” She questioned why the master plan would include plans for a $150 million loop road, which would not be financially feasible.

“This makes Jackson Labs look like nothing. (It looks like) a cheap deal,” she said. “If I know today a project isn’t financially feasible, why would I accept a plan that has it in it?”

Penny Phillippi, executive director of the Immokalee Community Redevelopment Agency — the organization that has been spearheading the master plan amendment’s development, said she will hold an emergency meeting of the Immokalee CRA in the next two weeks to discuss Henning’s list of changes. She will come back to the commissioners with a response to those changes on Sept. 25.

“This is what we have to do to move forward,” she said. “But we’re disappointed. We’re bitterly disappointed.”

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