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A Times Editorial

Public opinion, rule of law swayed Halls River project

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

Even the most optimistic opponents of the Halls River Retreat project couldn't have seen this coming.

After reviewing the county's actions on the most controversial land-use decision in recent memory, a judge on Friday gave two citizen groups total victories in separate actions against Citrus County. The organizations had sought to protect the Halls River area from a project fraught with dangers that were obvious to everyone except for three of the five county commissioners.

Circuit Judge Jack Springstead said in his ruling that the three commissioners who voted to approve the time share project -- Jim Fowler, Josh Wooten and Roger Batchelor -- royally botched it.

The three "had predetermined their decision . . . disregarded evidence and testimony provided at the public hearing . . . created a bias in favor of the applicant . . . violated the due process rights of the petitioners . . . failed to observe the essential elements of law by carefully considering all evidence . . . and appeared to totally ignore much of the testimony presented."

The bottom line: Springstead ruled that the proposed project is inconsistent with the county's comprehensive plan, something the residents have been saying all along.

The project now goes back to the County Commission, with the caveat that the commissioners must now actually look at the evidence and listen to the people who have raised legitimate questions about its viability.

What a turn of events.

It has taken a groundswell of public opinion, including a petition with more than 3,000 signatures; an expensive legal battle, in which the public has had to pay not only its own attorneys but also the salaries of the attorneys defending the county; and a judge from Hernando County, to undo the damage wrought by three Citrus commissioners.

Springstead's ruling that the three commissioners had made up their minds before the crucial hearing goes to the heart of complaints voiced by a core group of Homosassa residents during the recent County Commission elections.

The residents have complained that the three commissioners are too cozy with the county's business and development interests and that when projects such as Halls River Retreat come before them, they are predisposed to favor the developer.

Springstead said that, in this case at least, those concerns were justified.

Another key point that the residents have made repeatedly is that they should have been listened to at the public hearings and that the evidence they presented should have been considered.

Fowler said at the February hearing, and since then, that what the residents offered was mere opinion, as opposed to the facts presented by the developer. Legally, Fowler said, he was only obliged to consider facts, which was why he only listened to one side of the argument.

The judge blew that fallacy out of the water.

Springstead cited a District Court of Appeal's decision in a Marion County case that said "citizen testimony was perfectly admissible and, because it was fact based, could constitute substantial competent evidence."

He spelled out much of the evidence that the citizens offered, and the commissioners ignored, in the Halls River case. Far from mere opinions, the information the citizens presented detailed problems such as the lack of fire equipment suitable to handle a project that size, a roadway too narrow to handle the increased traffic, a long list of environmental disasters waiting to happen if the condos were to be built, a lack of fresh water to supply the project's residents and many other issues.

In contrast, he said, the applicant "basically indicated he felt his amended proposal . . . was a good project . . . and that if (the opponents) wanted to shut the door on other future projects, that was fine, but this project should be approved."

He added that those who spoke in favor of the project focused on the money it could generate, while offering "little or no fact-specific evidence . . . certainly nothing regarding the projects's compatibility with the comprehensive plan."

There's that word again, compatibility.

All along, opponents have said the comprehensive plan gives commissioners the final say on such proposals for a good reason. Even if a plan meets all of the legal requirements set out by the county, commissioners, sitting as representatives of the people and not as simply the final step in the development process, can still conclude that it just isn't a good fit.

The three commissioners who approved the project said, in their opinion, it was compatible with what already exists there. That's irrelevant, the judge said. The standard should be: Is it compatible with the comprehensive plan. The answer, he said, is clearly no.

While the ruling is a striking repudiation of his actions, it does offer Fowler a golden opportunity. He has felt the most heat from opponents because he chaired the crucial public hearing and blew them off, and because he happened to be the only one of the three commissioners to face the voters this year.

Following his victory on Tuesday, Fowler said he needed to reach out to those opponents, the most vociferous of whom live in the area directly affected by the Halls River project. As the project will now come back before the board, Fowler has an opportunity to show that his statements were more than just post-election hyperbole.

The same could also be said for Wooten, who this week insulted those same people by saying, "Most of the garbage the citizens of Citrus County have had to endure for the last year have come out of a very small hole in Homosassa."

On Friday, the judge indicated that Wooten should have been paying attention to the noise coming from that "small hole."

Whether the three commissioners wake up and, at long last, live up to their sworn duty to protect the county is anyone's guess. The judge has peeled away the fig leafs they have used to conceal their actions, leaving them little room to maneuver.

One thing is certain, however. For the moment, plans to build the Halls River Retreat are in full retreat.

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