Suwannee Democrat

February 7, 2014

Suwannee commissioners reject LDR amendment adding a public hearing process for uses at the catalyst site

Bryant Thigpen
Suwannee Democrat

Live Oak —

The Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday night to deny the planning and zoning board’s recommendation of having two public hearings before commissioners, prior to a company seeking to locate at the catalyst site. The board could have also voted to allow just one public hearing which was previously proposed in a resolution. 

Currently, if a company seeks a piece of property at the catalyst site, no public hearings would be necessary since the board voted unanimously to allow businesses to locate at the catalyst site “by right,” which would waive certain requirements companies would have to adhere to, including obtaining county permits.

However, two public hearings are required for the county to enter into a development agreement with any company that wishes to locate on county-owned property at the catalyst site, as required by Florida Statutes. 

According to a county official, current language does not give the commissioners the authority to deny or approve a company’s rights to the site. Allowable uses would remain unchanged which was adopted in the “by right” regulations. If a company meets the broad requirements of allowable uses, the commissioners technically cannot approve or deny the land. They can, however, ask they company to seek elsewhere, as was the case with a medical waste incinerator facility that sought land on county-owned property at the catalyst site. 

Local resident Lori McCraney asked Chairman Phil Oxendine why have two public hearings anyway when no action could be taken.

“What kind of weight does this amendment have in terms of having authority on land use approval?” McCraney asked.

“If something comes before us and we vote against it, it won’t go through,” Oxendine said.

“Isn’t that in conflict with the ‘by right’ clause?” McCraney asked. “Is there any authority given to the board by this amendment?”

“No, not by that amendment,” Oxendine said.

“You’re not accomplishing anything, but you’re trying to appease the public with an amendment that has no legal authority,” McCraney said.

“An additional hearing, you’re right Ms. McCraney,” Commissioner Wesley Wainwright said. “It does nothing but appease the public. It does nothing to accomplish anything towards what you’re calling, safeguarding the public.”

Suwannee County resident Debra Johnson asked County Attorney Jimmy Prevatt if a company could sue the county if they denied the company.

“Does the commission have the right to refuse a business with the ‘by right’ in place without getting sued, without anything?” Johnson asked Prevatt. 

While Prevatt gave a round-about answer, Johnson provided Prevatt with a scenario.

“We have an industrial site and IWMS (Integrated Waste Management Systems) decides they want to come here. All of you guys say no, what happens?” Johnson asked.

“That company can choose not to locate here. Like any other legal situation, this company could challenge the decision,” Prevatt said. 

“Do they have the right to sue if they (the board) say no?” Johnson pursued. 

“Everybody has a right to sue,” Prevatt said, stating he would advise the board on each circumstance as it happens. 

Commissioner Jason Bashaw said he is not for removing “by right”, however, he would like to see the allowable uses section of the text amended. 

“I don’t think this is the proper way to do things,” Bashaw said. “I voted against it once, I’ll vote against it again. But the proper way to address this is, there’s a way with the ‘by right’ that everybody can leave the table with something. That is, by figuring out which businesses we want to locate at the catalyst site, and amending the ‘by right’ so that we can have the types of businesses we want.”

Commissioner Ricky Gamble said he, too, would like the “by right” amended.

“I’m still in favor of the ‘by right’, but I also thought on this as well. The board 4-1 decided (consensually) there was an industry they didn’t want here. So there has to be something that we can agree on as far as revising the (land usage) list or going back and removing the ‘by right’ because we as a board said we did not want a medical waste incinerator,” said Gamble. 

“If that’s the direction we’re going, then we have to have something in place to back that up,” Gamble said. “The public hearings, with no action being able to be taken by the board, is just a waste of time. Not saying that listening to the public is a waste of time, but for you to come up here and speak your voice on something that we can’t act on is pointless.”

Wainwright said the public has a voice with “by right” in place, referring to IWMS, a medical waste incinerator facility, that sought to locate in Suwannee County. 

“It’s so blatantly obvious the public had an input. Four commissioners voted against it (IWMS), to not invite them here. I’m not chastising them for that, that’s their belief and they’re representing their constituency, and that’s fine. I’m representing mine,” Wainwright said. “The no-bio group was successful in keeping IWMS from locating here with the ‘by right’ provision in place.”

Wainwright added, “Once we get into that boat and start selecting and eliminating businesses from coming into this community, we’re sealing our fate and shutting the door on the growth in this community.”

Wainwright then made a motion to disregard the proposed amendment for public hearings and leave the land development regulations unchanged. A second was made by Bashaw. The board voted unanimously 5-0.