by Jeremy Morrison
Escambia County’s long-range planning vision for the central portion of the county may be destined for dismantling, after Commissioner Wilson Robertson’s request to have a piece of property he owns removed from the Mid-West Sector Plan triggered a larger discussion about the plan’s overall value.
During last night’s meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, Commissioner Steven Barry said Robertson’s request would be repeated by other property owners dissatisfied with the plan’s more-restrictive zoning, which would result in a “swiss cheese” effect and rob the plan of its intended purpose.
“It seems like as things go, we’re going to see more and more of these,” Barry said, referencing Robertson’s request.
Barry allowed that the planning effort, which maps out future land uses and zoning designations in an effort to guide development in the central portion of the county, was a well-intentioned exercise, but one fraught with the unintended consequences of depriving owners of small parcels the ability to sell their property at reasonable rates due to zoning limitations. He said he’d been hearing complaints about the plan’s limitations from his constituents.
“I just don’t see the value of holding onto things that don’t work,” Barry said, suggesting the county explore scrapping the plan altogether.
The commissioners eventually decided last night to direct county staff to assess the potential of tossing the sector plan, but also to explore what valuable portions of the plan — such as measures put in place as environmental safeguards — could be carved out and salvaged.
Staff will be getting back to the commissioners by Nov. 22. The board also decided to delay any decision about Robertson’s individual request until that meeting date.
Robertson’s original request pertained to an 8-acre piece of property he owns with a partner. It’s located on the corner of Highway 29 and Neal Road, and under the sector plan would see its zoning designation change from industrial/commercial to the ‘conservation neighborhood.’
The commissioner contended the designation would greatly limit his property’s development potential, as well as his ability to sell the property for a decent price. And he said he hoped his request set a precedent for such matters, so that property owners in similar scenarios could also be released from more restrictive zoning designations.
Robertson singled out and championed one such property owner, Cottage Hill Baptist Church. The church owns property neighboring Robertson’s own.
“I was told they really want to sell the property, and they need to sell it.” Robertson explained to his fellow commissioners, stressing that any broader discussion of the sector plan shouldn’t hold up an in-the-pipes request from the church to have its property removed from the ‘conservation neighborhood’ designation.
Representing the church, attorney Buddy Page said that his clients — the pastor and some parishioners were in attendance at the county meeting — understood that the county wanted to tackle the overall issue rather than start doling out individual exemptions.
“They’re not real happy with delays,” Page told the board, “but they understand the issues at hand.”
Throughout the meeting, Robertson had stressed that the church needed to sell its property. Page — who was separately representing Robertson in his request — told the board that the church planned to sell the property and put the funds toward building another facility.
Commissioner Doug Underhill asked Page if the church was actively pursuing buyers.
“Have they been in negotiations with anybody, any purchasers at this point?” Underhill inquired. “Has anybody indicated an interest in purchasing the property?”
“I’m not privy to that,” Page replied.
At this point, Commissioner Robertson interjected.
“Well, let me disclose,” Robertson began, “I told’em back a year or so ago, since it was adjacent to mine — and I’d never ever want this to be uncovered later — I told them when they were trying to sell, I’d only buy it if it was commercial, and it was contiguous to mine, so I’d be interested.”
It was a late-in-the-game revelation. The sprawling sector plan conversation, with Robertson’s multiple allusions to the church, had been going on for nearly an hour and a half.
“And they needed funds,” Robertson continued, “so I said yes, if you get it rezoned commercial, I’d be interested in it. They didn’t have any luck, so I withdrew my offer, so I would never want to — I mean, if they’d got it rezoned commercial I’d been interested in it, because it was adjacent to mine. So, I wouldn’t want that to be something that came out later, I’d certainly disclose that in a heartbeat. And all those folks know that at the church, they voted on it and I was in negotiations with them and would’ve probably bought it. Now, since it didn’t go commercial, and I found out that mine wasn’t even commercial, I told’em I had no interest in it.”
“Thank you,” Underhill said slowly, chewing on the awkward pause blanketing the chamber.
Chuckles scattered themselves about the gallery. Page walked away slowly and quietly from the public lectern.
Robertson brushed aside any raised eyebrows.
“I mean gaw-lee, that’s something that occurred about a year ago,” the commissioner said.
Escambia County Attorney Allison Rogers said Friday that Robertson was under no obligation to disclose that he had been, and could be again a potential buyer of the Cottage Hill property. The matter on the agenda concerned only the commissioner’s request, and he had made the proper disclosures and recusals on that issue.
“The Cottage Hill item was not on the agenda and for my immediate purposes, I don’t think it’s relevant one way or another,” Rogers said.
The attorney said that while “some might consider that an interesting development,” there was nothing inappropriate about the stalled revelation.
“That’s an interesting comment, but that doesn’t get me too concerned,” she said.
Rogers also said that by the time Cottage Hill’s request made it to the board, the issue would be moot because Robertson is leaving the board next month. Robertson’s own request, as well as future discussions concerning the sector plan, will also be handled after he is no longer a sitting commissioner.