Flood of condos keep this board on its toes
The gatekeepers of the Environmental Development Commission recall less urgent times.
By PAUL SWIDER
Published March 19, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - With city development booming, especially downtown, the historically quiet Environmental Development Commission has been gaining broader attention.
"There's just a ton of condos coming before the commission right now," said Charlie Canerday, the EDC chairman for almost a year now. "We're there to consider the effects these will have on all aspects of the environment in St. Petersburg."
The "environmental" in the commission's name is a legacy of its 1970s birth, said John Hixenbaugh, the city zoning official who acts as the prime staff representative to the EDC. In fact, the city's new land development regulations would change that name to Development Review Commission, a more apt title for a board that considers larger projects and their specific interactions with nearby properties and residents.
The EDC is made up of volunteer members appointed by the mayor to supply specific expertise and experience, such as architecture, like Canerday, or landscaping, environmental issues, real estate, engineering and so on. Among the seven members and three alternates are also members with more general experience, such as Ben Fisher, who was the chairman before Canerday and served 11 years on the EDC.
"It was boring at the start, but it got much more interesting as the city started to grow," said Fisher, a former financial professional who now is executive director of the Academy Prep Foundation. He said the EDC used to hear a lot of street and alley vacations, then got into the more controversial cell phone towers before the more recent high-rise developments.
EDC approval is required for special exceptions to a zoning district, for large or tall site plans, variances and even boat docks. Small projects like homes don't come to the EDC; they go the Board of Adjustment, which will likely take on a historic preservation role under new regulations. Large or prospective issues like rezonings go the Planning Commission, soon to become the Planning and Visioning Commission.
Most EDC actions zip quietly through its monthly quasijudicial hearings with little fanfare. Most of what the board hears gets approved, an indication of prep work, not pro-development bias, Hixenbaugh said.
"It might appear to the public as though everything is getting rubber stamped," he said. Staffers work with applicants to prepare supportable proposals before submitting them to the board. "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work going on."
There can certainly be controversy within the EDC, as exemplified in the Wal-Mart case last year, the last meeting over which Fisher presided. Neighbors around the Gandy Boulevard site where the store wanted to build organized substantial opposition and, over the course of a long public hearing, defeated the project.
"Neighbors were up in arms over that, and they should be," said Canerday, who added that the company still owns the property so the project may return. "We listen closely to neighbors when they come out en masse."
EDC decisions are binding but can be appealed to the City Council. One such appeal is coming up in April as neighboring property owners challenge a condominium project at 601 Central. Attorney Don Mastry is representing the developer on that, one of the many times he has appeared before the board.
"Sometimes I've won and sometimes I haven't," said the renowned land-use lawyer with Trenam-Kemker. "What they do is important work. I admire the amount of time they give as volunteers."
Fisher laughs when he thinks about his beginnings on the board. Mayor David Fischer, who had served on the EDC, joked that it would be "a nice easy job for you." After his decade, though, Fisher said he has a lot of respect for the board members and the EDC process.
"It takes a hell of a lot of pressure off the City Council," he said. "But the right questions get asked, so it serves a good purpose."THE EDC
Charles S. Canerday, chairman
David Punzak, vice chairman
Diane M. Friel
William E. Klein
Alternates: Thomas Whiteman, Calvin B. Samuel and John McQueen