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Proposed rules draw on Halls River lessons

County attorneys draft an ordinance to guide hearings like the one on the condos.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 25, 2002


LECANTO -- The maps, photographs and documents piled up faster than commissioners could digest them. Opposing attorneys couldn't question the developer's experts. And at times there was confusion about what was supposed to happen next.

If the Feb. 12 Halls River Retreat hearing offered any lessons, it showed the need for detailed rules governing "quasijudicial" hearings, in which the County Commission sits as judge and jury on the fate of a particular piece of property.

County Attorney Robert Battista and Assistant County Attorney Michele Slingerland have recently drafted an ordinance spelling out such rules. Commissioners will consider the proposed ordinance at a July 9 hearing.

The measure won't affect the 54-unit time share condominium project that won narrow approval nearly five months ago, but it should ensure fairness when future projects come before the County Commission, Slingerland said.

"Case law had evolved that this was something that needed to be looked at," Slingerland said. "A case the magnitude of Halls River Retreat helped bring it forward."

The new rules would require project supporters and opponents to turn in their reports, exhibits and petitions at least three days before the hearing, giving commissioners time to review them.

Carl Bertoch, an attorney for the Protect Our Waterways residents' group now fighting the condo project in the courts, applauded the idea.

"There was an awful lot of documentation thrown into (the Halls River Retreat hearing) and I was concerned whether the triers of fact, the commissioners, had the ability to review these materials," Bertoch said. "It would have been a real plus to have all the stuff presented before the hearing. That would have helped the board handle the information in a better fashion than how we went about the thing."

The proposal also spells out the order for county planners, the developer and opponents to make their cases. The rules allow attorneys to cross-examine the experts and rebut one another's arguments.

At the Halls River Retreat hearing, by contrast, attorney Denise Lyn said she was unable to question the developer's experts because they testified under the "public comment" portion of the hearing, after the quasijudicial part had closed. That complaint is one of several raised by Lyn, attorney for the Save the Homosassa River Alliance, in a pending legal challenge claiming the Feb. 12 hearing was procedurally flawed.

Finally, the proposal would allow commissioners to hear residents' views, read letters and conduct their own research into a project as long as they disclose all of their information when the public hearing starts.

Before the Halls River Retreat hearing, commissioners had been wary of getting any input outside the public hearing, a stance they thought quasijudicial rules required.

But Slingerland said state statute allows officials to get outside input, as long as they publicly disclose it.

"The purpose is to not provide a cooling effect to the public who would like to be able to talk to their commissioners," she said.

Although the county and the opponents disagree about the due process afforded at the Feb. 12 Halls River Retreat hearing -- and they'll have their day in court to argue it out -- they agree the proposed rules should provide fairness to future hearings.

"I'm glad to see they're addressing it because the Halls River Retreat hearing demonstrated the need for a better process than we had at that time," Bertoch said.

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

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