by Jeremy Morrison
It looks like Escambia County may be ready to scuttle the sector plan established for a more than 15,000-acre area of the county, as a sitting commissioner requests that a parcel he owns be removed from the plan and its more restrictive zoning designation.
“Ideally, what I hope to do is completely scrap the sector plan,” Commissioner Steven Barry explained to his fellow commissioners during this morning’s (Oct. 6) agenda review session.
Barry’s suggestion came as Vice Chairman Wilson Robertson’s request to remove his 8-acre parcel that fronts Highway 29 from the plan — effectively allowing it to retain its commercial/industrial zoning, instead of the planned ‘conservation neighborhood’ designation — served to shine light on a wider issue: the Mid-West Sector Plan might not be necessary, or even desirable.
“The idea may have been a fantastic, million-dollar idea,” Barry said, “but it just hasn’t come to fruition that way.”
The sector plan was established, after several years of planning, in 2011. It’s purpose was to map out a long-range plan for the central portion of Escambia County. The sector plan also served to satisfy Department of Community Affairs regulations at the time.
In requesting a removal from the sector plan, Commissioner Robertson is contending that he was unaware his parcel would be part of a conservation area, and thus have its market potential severely limited. He has said that he considered the sector plan as pertaining primarily to larger tracts of properties and the large-scale owners who might have a hand in shaping the area’s development track.
“Most of us thought it was the 100-acre, 1,000-acre property owners,” he said.
Robertson said that he, as well as other owners of smaller parcels, were not aware that their properties would be zoned more restrictively. The commissioner said he hopes to set a “precedent” and predicted other property owners, who would like to sale or develop their property, will also seek to be removed.
Barry seemed to agree.
“I don’t think this is something that is going to be an isolated request as we go forward and we start seeing some growth,” the commissioner said.
Barry said that many of the visions laid out in the sector plan, particularly costly infrastructure projects with no committed funding, were likely not to happen and that coupled with the potential of mass requests for opt-outs perhaps the plan should be taken off the table. The notion found a warm reception with Commissioner Doug Underhill.
“That’s exactly where I’m landing,” Underhill said.
Chairman Grover Robinson was less ready to summarily kill the sector plan. He cautioned that the plan had been drawn up with “a lot of smart intent” and that it contained valuable planning tools and environmental safeguards.
“And perhaps we figure out how to keep the good and get rid of the bad, if that’s the way we go,” the chairman said, allowing that some aspects of the plan should be up for discussion.
Underhill, too, wondered what impact scrapping the plan would have on the environmental protections it contained, such as the conservation areas. He said that allowing property owners to opt out, even justifiably so, would mean that “every bit of the sector plan that protects the environment is hogwash and has no teeth to it.”
Commissioner Barry told his fellow board members that he wanted to take action later today, during the afternoon meeting, and move toward scrapping the sector plan. The move would be made in tandem with Robertson’s removal request.
“I’m gonna ask you to vote tonight,” Barry told the chairman.
“I don’t know if we can do away with the sector plan, here, tonight,” Robinson said, looking to the county attorney for backup.
“You certainly can’t just do it tonight,” attorney Allison Rogers confirmed that a separate meeting would need to be scheduled.
Commissioner Berry, instead, said he would put forth a “three-pronged motion” that involved requesting that staff begin the sector-plan assessment process, that staff identify the “handful of very good infrastructure items” contained in the plan and that, in the interim, property owners with requests similar to that of Commissioner Robertson be given a blanket approval.
The commissioner emphasized that Robertson’s requests only amplified concerns he was already hearing from his constituents. And that he couldn’t deal with the vice-chairman’s request without tackling the overall issue of the sector plan.
“I can’t willingly allow us to vote on this without doing the other at the same time,” Barry said. “I mean, I have to.”
The commissioners will address both Robertson’s request, as well apparently as the possibility to getting rid of the sector plan established for central Escambia County this afternoon at 5:30 p.m., at the county’s downtown complex.
To read about Commissioner Robertson’s request, see “Escambia Commissioner Looking to Pull Property from Conservation District.”