Thursday, October 4, 2018

Groundhog Day: Why the Rush to Rezone Parcel #3?

When James Gabbert proposed building heavy industrial waste operation last year on a parcel of public land near the Celery Fields, the Board got a bellyful from the people. No industry, they said. It’s wrong on so many levels -- bad for the roads, for the birds, for the entire eco-system, for property values, for the future development of the area.

Since then, instead of taking a fresh look at the area and seeking alternatives to industry, the Board hired a Miami consultant to rezone one of the “Quad Parcels” at Apex and Palmer Blvd. -- parcel #3. And lo and behold, the consultant has returned a recommendation that the county allow an 80,0000-square-foot industrial facility on this parcel. 

On October 10, the Board will listen to the consultant, and if it likes what it hears, it can initiate the public process to rezone parcel #3 for industrial use. The parcel is currently zoned OUR - Open Use Rural. To rezone for industry, having no actual client or developer, the Board would send the Lambert recommendation with staff notes to a Neighborhood Workshop, then a Planning Commission hearing, then a final Board hearing. 

On our public lands, it's Groundhog Day all over again.

Parcel #3 is the smallest of the Quad parcels - nine acres in all, but two acres are reserved for a permanent fire station. The remaining seven acres are what the consultant, Lambert Advisory LLC of Miami, was asked to rezone for sale.

Lambert began work in June and completed its “assessment” of parcel 3 in mid-August.

Below are some of the questions and concerns raised by this rush to rezone.
  • We have yet to hear of a publicly beneficial reason why the County wants to sell this public parcel to a private developer. When the idea was originally presented by Commissioner Al Maio last November, the motive was to sell public lands to reduce a budget shortfall. Mr. Maio has since stated that the county is in excellent fiscal condition (3 1/2 min. audio), and that "there is no shortfall" (17 sec. audio) facing the County in the near future. Mr. Maio has also never explained why he wants to sell all three Quad parcels. He simply has said he wants to.
  • Note: “Highest and best use” (HBU) is land-use code for “ignore every consideration except sale price.” Rather than consider uses beneficial to the community for parcel 3 -- uses which certainly exist -- the Board is seeking to sell to the highest bidder. An HBU assessment looks only at sales price. The tactic allows the consultant to ignore virtually everything residents consider important to their quality of life:
    1. Environment - bird sanctuary, water, air
    2. Roads - traffic, large trucks (already to be augmented by James Gabbert's six-acre Waste Transfer Station at Porter and Palmer).
    3. Community - homes, schools, amenities on Palmer Blvd. and Cattlemen
    4. Economic potential - eco-tourism at the Celery Fields, retail along West Palmer.
    5. Macro-trends - moving toward residential, recreational gateway features (visibility from highway).
    6. Future possibility - a citizens group has offered a wide variety of uses and synergies for the the four quad parcels, supported by the community: everything from athletic resources to a history archive to shops, affordable housing, a cafe, a market, the educational potential of a YMCA with programs tied in with Audubon’s nature center. 
Lambert submitted its recommendation for industry in a 49-page report. It recommends industry, arguing that this would bring a markedly higher sale price than office, commercial, or residential uses. An 80,000-square-foot industrial facility could be an example of highest and best use, the report states.

Restaurant Depot, Tampa

The recommendation raises additional questions:
  • If “industry” would assure the highest value, why is no one coming to the nearby Fruitville Initiative to buy land there to use for Industry? The Initiative’s parcels lie just to the north, along Apex Rd., which turns into Coburn Rd., near I-75. All 200 acres are designated MEC, just like parcel #3. At the Fruitville Initiative, it's another story:
    • The landowners are not getting inquiries from developers about industrial uses.
    • They’re mainly receiving proposals for multi-family residential with some interest in office and commercial uses. 
    Can Lambert or our Planning Dept. or the Board explain this contradiction between Lambert’s finding and actual market activity?

  • A citizens group working to find alternative uses for the public quad parcels ("Fresh Start") sought to communicate with Lambert Advisory, but was told by County staff not to attempt to contact the Lambert group. Staff responded to Fresh Start on July 3, 2018:
Out of an abundance of caution to the process, I would not be comfortable with a private group directly communicating with a consultant on an item that will culminate in a quasi-hearing on a Board directive that was decidedly different from your own.  The consultant has been made aware of the efforts of Fresh Start and the dynamics and sensitivities of the area, but because we have reached out to an independent expert on this matter, it is best to limit the influences on the data. 
  • The task given to Lambert came with scoping instructions -- a to-do list -- from the County:
Scope of Consultant Task #4
How did preventing communication with the community facilitate the task of developing “a general understanding of the community and its residents”?
  • Fresh Start asked why Lambert Advisory’s assessment of parcel #3 contained no reference to the traffic and road constraints, which weighed heavily in hearings of the Planning Commission and the Board last year on the Gabbert Waste Processing Proposal. Residents were emphasized the fragility of Palmer Blvd. and Apex Road, and the poor Level of Service. 

  • Here is the Consultant’s response, forwarded by county staff:
By definition (Appraisal Institute), highest and best use represents the reasonably probable and legal use of vacant land or an improved property that is physically possible, appropriately supported, financially feasible and that results in the highest value.  It takes into consideration any known constraints to development such as environmental or traffic/roadway capacity issues (documented through an applicable public agency). At the time of the study, we were not aware of  any documented issues related to development constraints, including roadway capacity. (emphasis added)
Road conditions were a hugely important determining factor at the Gabbert hearings. Would the County not have been advised to address the roads before hiring a consultant for $61,209 to recommend industry at the Quads?
  • In preparing a briefing paper for Commissioners on the Lambert Report, staff originally seemed willing to accept the Lambert recommendation. But now it does not support it:
  • Given the astonishing pace of approved housing development in the area, why would the Board go full speed ahead with rezoning this parcel for industry?
The Board has been happy to rapidly approve several developers' proposals for new residential communities in the area:
1,080 new homes within walking distance, and
2,390 more homes within a few minutes' drive from this intersection
3,470 new nearby homes
Where's the logic:  Do the Commissioners have some way to reconcile their multiple approvals of residential development on the one hand with zoning that burdens these essential roads with industrial uses and truck traffic on the other? We'd love to hear it

How can the Board rezone to industrial use on the basis of a "study" that in fact did not:
  • Consider the impact of a large industrial facility upon the ecology, the community, the economy, and property values?
  • Look at the existing and trending uses of the area by residents and tourist visitors who walk, jog, hike, bird, kayak and fish at and around the Celery Fields?
  • Have any county transportation data on the road and traffic conditions at Apex and Palmer?

Groundhog Day

In short, the hiring of a Consultant who has brought in a recommendation to industrialize parcel #3 brings us back to February 2017, when Restaurant Depot sought to put a giant warehouse sales operation on the same parcel, and encountered strong opposition. Again, roads and large trucks were the main issue.

For ten months -- from December 2017 to September 2018 -- the Fresh Start group attempted a dialog with the Board, but as of yet, it's still waiting for responses to its proposals and answers to its many questions.

Perhaps it's time for the Board to respond to the public. They might start with answering these questions: 
  1. There is no budget crunch, no shortfall. What's the benefit to the community in selling any of our public lands here? 
  2. Why pay a consultant to rezone to Industry before addressing the roads? 
  3. Why withhold from the consultant the basic known facts and studies of the roads?

Image from the Fresh Start presentation of 9.12.18, courtesy of the Fresh Start Initiative.

On Oct. 10, sometime about 9:30 a.m. or a little after, the Board will discuss the Lambert Advisory recommendation. Let's be there, to remind them we're still here, and we still care.
Commission Chamber Ground Floor
1660 Ringling Blvd.

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