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Developer's gold win has no silver lining

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

O Canada, we share your pain.

While you anguished over being robbed of gold at the Olympics last week, we in Citrus County mourned the loss of something even more precious, our coastal waterfront.

Who would have thought that pairs figure skating and riverfront development would have so much in common?

On Monday, a scandalous vote in Salt Lake City cost your countrymen a piece of history. The next night, an equally absurd vote in Lecanto cost our citizens a piece of their future.

The audience at the Olympic venue booed the obviously errant decision, but were told by five judges that their views don't matter. The crowd in Lecanto booed the decision to allow a flawed development to go forward and were told by three county commissioners that their opinions are meaningless.

A worldwide audience, admittedly armchair skating experts, still knew enough about the sport's technical aspects to recognize that obvious skating flaws were overlooked. The audience at the commission meeting, admittedly self-taught in development details, still knew enough about the technicalities to see that whopping problems were ignored.

In figure skating, performers get a second set of scores based on subjective elements such as looks and choreography. It's called presentation, and it often determines the winner in close competitions. In development approval, those subjective points are called compatibility, and they're supposed to be the litmus test for controversial projects.

Some of the Olympic judges apparently were seduced by the costumes, swivels and reputation of the Russians. In Citrus, our commissioners fell for pretty pictures, slick maneuvering and glad-handing by a developer and his lawyer.

After the Brink's-job heist of the gold, you Canadians had to endure arrogant and boneheaded assertions by the Russians that the correct decision was made. In Citrus, we had to listen to moronic gems like this, from Commissioner Roger Batchelor: "This thing is more compatible with that area than some of the things that exist there today."

That kind of muddled thinking makes your brain hurt.

You folks in Canada are right to suspect that some quid pro quo was at work. Immediately after the ludicrous decision, speculation began that there was a deal cut among the judges to favor the Russians. Statements about a French judge being "manipulated" by outside forces to decide a certain way have given merit to those fears.

In Citrus, the rumors began even before the pivotal vote. Several people involved in the development made healthy campaign contributions to Commissioner Josh Wooten, raising questions about his objectivity and allegiance. When Wooten cast the deciding vote to approve the project, he fueled the inevitable speculation that his vote was for sale.

As much as these two travesties are alike, there are some significant differences.

Higher authorities at the Olympics investigated the mess and on Friday changed the outcome of the event by awarding duplicate gold medals. Justice prevailed.

In Citrus, appeals are being made to state agencies to review the development decision, and the commissioners' vote could be overruled. It remains to be seen if the citizens will prevail.

The judges' decision directly hurt only two Canadian citizens, and eventually they were made whole. Months from now, when the controversy fades from the headlines, they will go on with their lives and probably profit from being wronged by becoming the darlings of the professional skating circuit.

The decision by the commissioners, however, has done permanent harm to all of the citizens of Citrus County. Months from now, if the bulldozers roll on the property, only the developer and his associates will profit.

Unlike the Olympics, however, there are no silver medal consolation prizes in development decisions. The developer got the gold, and the citizens got the shaft.

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