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03.23.07 -- REPORT: Rezoning public hearing raising concerns of fast-tracked rezoning

By CHER PHILLIPS

(This is the first of two stories on the upcoming rezoning public hearing. The first explores the basis for resident concerns, and the second is a Q & A Style e-mail interview with Council President Frank Ciotti addressing the issues.)

A rezoning public hearing planned for April 12 will be reconsidered after it came under scrutiny by the Mirror when concerns were raised by residents who feared the hearing was premature because it cut into the council's decision-making power and put a rezoning process on the fast track.

In February, the Land Planning Agency approved two planning reports belonging to the James and Marsha Strange, the town's mayor, and Howard Walkup, the town's council vice president. The proposed changes would rezone agricultural land to residential which would go next to the town council as ordinances proposing changes to the land development code.

Rezoning agricultural land to residential land was already a contentious issue before the public hearing was called into question. Two years ago, Walkup's request to rezone his land to a zoning classification that would allow him to put one house per acre on his nearly 10 acres was denied by the town council in 2005. The Strange's withdrew an application that same year. Both town officials are now seeking a zoning classification change for their agriculture property to two homes per acre, which would open up zoning for potentially 36 new homes on the two parcels of land.

After the LPA approved the planning reports on March 13, the committee's next step would have been to present their findings at the next council meeting in April. Then, the council would decide whether to have a workshop or hold a public hearing.

In an e-mail in late February, the town's hired planner Bruce Day explained the zoning process step-by-step to town officials at Council President Frank Ciotti's request. Day, who works for the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council, wrote that after the LPA approved the planning reports, "at the next town council meeting, the Council should decide if they want to set up a workshop or if they want to go ahead and go ahead and set a date for a public hearing at the first reading of the ordinance." (Day's e-mail)

But one day after the LPA meeting on March 14, the town clerk, Debbie Miller wrote to three council members EvaJo Callahan, Lee Deaderick and Ciotti, the mayor, LPA Chairwoman Charlsie Stott and Day. "The date of Tuesday, April 3 (7:00 pm) has been suggested as a possible date to schedule the first of two required Town Council public hearings on the AG - R1 rezoning," Miller wrote.

Miller said in an e-mail to the Mirror today that she chose April 3 because it was a good date for the planner, the Civic Center and town officials.

On March 15, Miller wrote another e-mail to the same town officials telling them she'd received the LPA reports and the council would need to schedule two hearings within 45 days.

"We need to schedule the first of two Town Council Public Hearings on the AG-R1 rezoning. I've been doing some research on this issue. Per Code Section 8.04.02 (g), 'If the Town Council does not act upon the LPA recommendation regarding a proposed change or amendment within forty-five (45) days of the date of its receipt by the Town Council, the application upon which the report and recommendation is based shall be deemed to have been denied.' I have received the signed recommendation from the LPA. Again, I will schedule Tuesday, April 3 (7:00 pm) as the first of two public hearings, unless I hear from you by this coming Monday, March 19, as the ad will need to be submitted to the Ocala Star Banner at the beginning of next week," Miller wrote.

In fact, Miller was correct that the Land Development Code out procedure for dealing with rezoning land in McIntosh.

The full text of section G of 08.04.02 says that upon receipt of the LPA's report, the Town Council shall hold a public hearing, with notices sent out to owners with property within 300 feet of the proposed amendment.

Ciotti pointed this out to Miller on March 16, saying that he did not think that the process began until the council received the report.

"I am not rushing this for any reason but I also see no reason to delay," Ciotti wrote. "I do believe that a hearing and a hearing, between Town Council meetings, appears hasty and will not schedule a public hearing before the next Council meeting. I think we need to have Scott present at the public hearing, and I don't want to expend additional attorney hours and money by having it on the 3rd, as we have done in the past we can have the meeting prior to the regular time on April 8th meeting, at 6 PM if Lee can make it, if not then start at 7 PM and have a short agenda."

Miller has not yet replied to a follow-up e-mail from the Mirror asking what the impetus was and who initially directed her to schedule the hearing before the LPA reported to the council at the April monthly meeting.

Council President Frank Ciotti answered questions from the Mirror in a Q & A style interview about how and why he made his decision to follow the town clerk's lead and schedule the public hearing before the town council meets. (Read interview here.)

In the Q & A interview, Ciotti said that he thought it was the council president or the mayor's duty to call a public hearing. Since the mayor's property is in question, he said he went ahead and planned for the hearing.

But the McIntosh Town Charter does not mention calling public hearings as a duty of any individual council member. The land development code contains the rules guiding public hearings, specifically for rezoning.

In a phone interview this evening, Ciotti said he did not realize his scheduling the public hearing may not have been correct. He said he's contacted the town's attorney and if it is necessary, the town can cancel the public hearing and reschedule it after the council can meet together.

Ciotti said he was not sure if the town had already arranged to run an advertisement in the Ocala Star-Banner for the meeting. If so, a cancellation and reschedule might cost the town more money.

But Ciotti's financial concern were similar to concerns brought to the Mirror by residents who asked to have their names withheld.

The council has never voted on who is paying for this rezoning process. The Mirror has reported and documented that the council actually voted to table this process in February, and the town officials seeking rezone have done it against the will of the council's recorded vote.

Further, the LDC very clearly says that "no application for zoning amendment shall be heard by the LPA until such fees and charges shall have been paid." (LDC 8.04.02, section A) If the council never determined what the fees should be for Walkup and Strange -- another duty the code gives the council -- then how can those fees have been properly paid?

Other concerns expressed were that the rezoning process has been taking place in a way that's contrary to the code, skipping steps and speeding up the wait time and perhaps shutting out time residents who oppose the rezone might have to garner support. In some cases, shutting out the council from making decisions in the process.

For instance, the LDC says that the town council has the role of sending zoning applications to the LPA when they receive them. (LDC 8.04.02, section A) That combined with the hearing being scheduled before the council meeting stands to shorten the wait time by one or two months.

However the council president said he does not feel the process is being fast-tracked since this is not the first time rezoning has been on the town's agenda. Read what Ciotti has to say about residents getting a chance to be heard in the rezoning process next.

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posted by Cher @ 1:09 PM,

2 Comments:

At   March 24, 2007 12:48 AM     ,    Blogger Cher    said...

The McIntosh Mirror welcomes your comments - even the anonymous ones. But please refrain from personal attacks on the town's officials, employees and residents, including me.

You can say you think someone or something is right or wrong without making it a personal attack.

I accept anonymous posts, because I hear people tell me they are afraid of repercussions if they say what they really think. Please take advantage of this and stick to the issues and not abuse the anonymity with personal attacks.

 
At   March 24, 2007 11:09 PM     ,    Anonymous Anonymous    said...

Well said Cher - the facts are all that are important. If personal attacks are put aside, maybe we all can be informed of the facts and then inform our elected officials how we want them to vote. This is the way American Government is set up - a representative Republic. When we have heard the facts, CALL and let them know what we think.

 

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Editor and Publisher:

I'm Cher From McIntosh, FL I'm a graduate student at the University of Florida working on a master's degree in Mass Communication. While I was finishing my undergrad degree in journalism last year, I reported on McIntosh, Fla. for an in-depth reporting class. I figured that the reporting and the public record files should go somewhere people can access them. Reporters don't report to keep the information they find to themselves. Some of that reporting is included here in a forum that allows response. McIntosh suffers because with no news coverage, the local government and the rumor mill have too much potential to run rampant over residents. I moved to McIntosh in the fall of 1999. My profile

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