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Condo foe noted for her views and her vows

The wife of a county commissioner tries to keep the two roles separate.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Ron Miller and Joanne Bartell want to block development of the Halls River Retreat condo project on the land behind them.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002


HOMOSASSA -- More than 2,900 residents signed petitions against the project. Another 800 sent letters of opposition, and dozens spoke against it at public hearings.

Name the first Halls River Retreat foe who comes to mind, however, and it's likely to be Joanne Bartell.

She has raised some of the most compelling arguments against the 54-unit time share complex, challenging the logic behind the property's high-density zoning and pointing to Comprehensive Plan provisions that are supposed to block major development in the coastal zone west of U.S. 19.

And, as the wife of County Commissioner Gary Bartell, she has drawn more attention than the average objector.

Though they have strived to keep their roles separate, both Bartells have emerged as public figures on Halls River Retreat: Commissioner Bartell as a dissenting vote in the board's February decision, Mrs. Bartell as the leader of the Protect Our Waterways group that is appealing the 3-2 commission approval.

"I'm just a resident of Homosassa. I live on the Halls River, and it's an issue that concerns myself and my kids greatly," Mrs. Bartell said. "The implications go way beyond 54 condos. Gary made his decision. His role is done, but that doesn't mean my role has to be."

"We were extremely sensitive to the fact that she is my wife and the possible perception if she got involved," added Commissioner Bartell. "But after I analyzed it and considered it, I recognized that she is a citizen and she does have the rights to be able to voice her opinions on it.

"I laid out the ground rules, and made sure the understanding was that what she did was hers, what I did is my job," he said.

Those rules included avoiding any discussion of the project before the Feb. 12 hearing, a quasijudicial proceeding in which the commissioners acted as judges of the proposed Halls River Retreat.

The Bartells each did their own research on the property and growth management regulations, including separate visits to the state Department of Community Affairs in Tallahassee to review state and county records before the Feb. 12 hearing.

State law allows commissioners to visit the site, examine documents and receive expert opinions on the project before voting on it, as long as they disclose that information at the public hearing.

"I think that would be very appropriate preparation for a hearing," said Cari Roth, general counsel for the state Department of Community Affairs.

Ron Miller, president of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance, a group that is also appealing the commission approval of the project, said Mrs. Bartell has been a key player in the condo fight.

"(The river alliance has) been attacking it from an environmental point of view. She's been attacking it from a legal point of view: Is the zoning right and appropriate in a Coastal High Hazard Area," Miller said, referring to the area where the Comprehensive Plan limits development to one home per 40 acres.

"I think what she's doing is just fantastic," he added. "A lot of people would cower at the task because of the relationship, but the fact that she's stepping up, I'm impressed."

But the Bartells' actions have caused heartburn in other circles.

Although county Commissioner Josh Wooten said Mrs. Bartell has every right to participate in the public hearing process, he said her extensive involvement still could make some county officials uneasy.

"I think it puts the Board of County Commissioners in an awkward situation, and I certainly think it puts our staff in an awkward situation," Wooten said. "Our legal staff serves at the pleasure of the board. Can you imagine our attorney having to depose his boss' wife?"

Wooten also expressed concern that Commissioner Bartell, a notary public, notarized five of the plaintiffs' signatures in the Protect Our Waterways appeal to the county. Mrs. Bartell's signature was notarized by someone else.

"There's an appearance of conflict," Wooten said. "With the notary and with his close relationship with (Protect Our Waterways attorney Carl) Bertoch, I just feel like it defies logic that he's not advising and consenting on the activities."

Bartell said his job as a notary is simply to verify the identity of the person signing a legal document. He did not read through the lawsuit at that time, and he was not indicating support of the lawsuit by notarizing the plaintiffs' signatures, he said.

He said the five plaintiffs -- a man who had just returned from the hospital with his family, and an elderly couple -- were unable to seek out another notary before the filing deadline for the appeal passed.

"Had it not been for the extenuating circumstances, for the time deadline and the fact that one family was sick and another one was an elderly couple, I would have preferred to stay out of it," Bartell said.

And he said the legal challenges are his wife's fight, not his.

"We have been very, very careful not to mix my County Commission job with her involvement," Bartell said.

* * *

Project foes say the buzz about the Bartells has created a distraction from the real issues of the Halls River Retreat case.

After visiting the site with Miller a few weeks ago, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reopened its review of the condominium project. The agency is one of several that signed off on the developer's request for an environmental resource permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a permit that also faces legal challenges.

"It's sort of like instant replay on a football game. They have to look and see if it's really, really wrong," Miller said. "They have looked at this and said we really need to evaluate it."

The river alliance has also raised about $23,000 for its legal fund, garnering support from the Felburn and Sam Shine foundations and about 365 local contributors. Lewis Ranieri, a tycoon with a vacation home on the Homosassa River, has pledged to match every dollar the river alliance raises.

At the same time, Mrs. Bartell and her attorney, Bertoch, faced a setback earlier this month when the Department of Community Affairs declined their request to review the project's alleged inconsistencies with the county's Comprehensive Plan.

DCA community planning director H.E. "Sonny" Timmerman noted that the project is already in litigation.

When someone believes a local government has violated its Comprehensive Plan by approving a project, state statutes steer the challenge to the circuit courts, not the Department of Community Affairs.

But as the agency that oversees the county's Comprehensive Plan, Bertoch said, DCA should be concerned when a county violates it.

"This is an interesting case from the standpoint of, does the Comprehensive Plan mean anything?" he said.

In the case of Halls River Retreat, the 54-unit project would fall in the Coastal High Hazard Area, a region where the Comprehensive Plan limits development to one home per 40 acres and discourages infrastructure expansion for new projects.

"If you don't care if people don't live up to the Stipulated Settlement Agreement (part of the Comprehensive Plan), that's your problem," said Bertoch, who has worked on the case pro bono, except for a $1,000 donation from the river alliance to help cover his expenses. "We'll continue on with what we're doing."

For Mrs. Bartell, that means more research on growth management, coastal development regulations and local zoning history -- anything that will strengthen the opponents' case when the Halls River Retreat foes get their day in court.

"This is not about me. This is about an entire community," Mrs. Bartell said. "This project would be a precedent-setting project with impacts that will cascade throughout the entire river system."

"That's why I'm involved in it," she added, "one of the many people involved in it."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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