Talks on mine's rezoning halted

Hernando County's attorney tells an official they would be illegal.

Published March 12, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Jake Varn, a Tallahassee development lawyer, set up a series of meetings with Hernando County commissioners Thursday to discuss Florida Rock Industries' plan to build a subdivision on the grounds of its rock mine north of Brooksville.

But before the meetings could start, County Attorney Garth Coller advised Commissioner Rose Rocco that the rezoning of the mine is considered a quasijudicial matter.

He told her that meeting with Varn and other Florida Rock representatives would violate state law and taint her future decision, she said, just like the ruling of a judge who had discussed a case with a lawyer outside of court.

Coller, citing attorney-client confidentiality, said he could not comment on his advice to Rocco. But he did say his position has not changed over the years and that it is backed up by law.

"That statute speaks for itself. It's very clear," Coller said.

In practice, though, developers and their representatives routinely meet in private with commissioners to talk about projects, said Linda Shelley, a lawyer who works at the same firm as Varn and has been involved with Florida Rock's plans.

"Most local governments allow people to talk to local officials," said Shelley, the former secretary of the state Department of Community Affairs. "Theoretically, you could take it to an extreme where nobody could talk to an elected official."

At least on a future zoning case, she said.

By law, those cases are considered quasijudicial hearings, meaning the elected officials must cast votes based only on information provided at the meetings.

Florida Rock, which wants permission to build golf courses, shops and about 4,500 houses on its 4,282-acre rock mine, is also requesting a change to the comprehensive plan. Developers can discuss comprehensive plan matters with individual commissioners outside of public meetings.

That, originally, was Varn's intention, Rocco said, but Coller said it was impossible to separate comprehensive plan questions from zoning issues. Tom Barnette, who said he plans to work as a public relations consultant for Varn's firm, was also at the aborted meeting Thursday; so was Cliff Manuel, president of Coastal Engineering Associates, as well as Florida Rock officials.

Commissioner Diane Rowden said she was surprised Coller took such a strict line. In the past, for example, representatives of Sierra Properties LLC have talked with her about their plans for the Hickory Hill subdivision in Spring Lake. So have citizen activists who oppose the development.

But she also approved of Coller's advice and disagreed with a suggestion from Barnette, who was formerly a registered lobbyist for Sierra Properties, that the county pass a law allowing private discussions about zoning.

She did agree with him on one other point though: Both said they favored holding a workshop to allow residents and Florida Rock's representatives to talk about the future of the mine, which is nearly played out.

"The best solution to educating the commissioners is to hold a workshop so things are completely transparent and open," Barnette said.

"I think these decisions need to be based on the facts," Rowden said. "Lobbyists are always going to slant the information in their favor and make it sound wonderful."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or 352754-6116.