Questions repeatedly returned to issues of development and allowing exceptions to the land development code during the Santa Rosa Republican Women’s county commissioners candidate forum Tuesday.
The questions were submitted by the members in attendance, and candidates for both District 4 County Commission, representing Navarre, and District 2 representing Milton were invited to answer. District 2 incumbent Bob Cole was unable to attend.
The line of questioning started with questions regarding the in-progress District 4 Master Plan championed by incumbent for District 4 Rob Williamson as a solution to piecemeal development in the Navarre area.
“This returns the power back to the community. This isn’t a politician driven plan. This is being driven by you…to me that is how you build a community,” he said.
Piech said a plan is not worth much if it is not followed, pointing to developments throughout the Navarre area that he said were not compatible with the community’s vision.
“We have to have the fortitude to stick to it and sometimes say ‘no’ to those developments…that’s the hardest part of a plan is having the integrity and fortitude to stick to it,” he said.
Further questions focused on the high rate of approval for variances to the land development code and rezoning requests in the county.
Once again Williamson took credit for asking the county to track the approval rates for variances and rezonings to illustrate the long-term trend.
But according to Planning and Zoning Director Shawn Ward there is currently no way for his office to track the approval rate for variances, special exemptions, conditional uses and rezonings. He said to track that a person would have to sit down and review the minutes from each individual meeting and calculate it based on that.
When asked if his department had sat down and counted the approval rate, Ward said no.
In April, Navarre Press, did go back and count the number of approved variances and rezoning. That figure has been used in previous questioning of the candidates.
Candidates for District 2 County Commissioner Tammy Jo Brown and Wallis Mahute both agreed that the number of zoning approvals was too high.
Brown said there are situations when rezoning is justified such as when the use of properties surrounding a parcel become different than what the property was originally zoned for. She gave the example of a vacant residentially zoned property being surrounded by commercial uses.
“Things change. Situations change,” she said.
But she said the approval rates are too high. She also said that those appointed to the Zoning Board, which votes on these matters, should undergo scrutiny.
“We should choose wisely who we want to sit on that board as our representative, and who we choose to sit on that board should not be basing their decisions upon people’s emotions,” she said.
Two Zoning Board members are appointed by each of the sitting county commissioners. Piech said he would urge his Zoning Board appointees to follow the code if he were elected.
“They should act as they do in the stead of our county commissioner, so providing them guidance and advice on which way the county is heading that is what I would do. I would appoint people who understand the zoning rules and give them access to the plans for the county,” he said.
Williamson praised his appointees and said he does not interfere in their decisions. Williamson’s appointees to the board include small business owner Colten Wright and realtor Robin Edwards.
“These folks get paid no money. They do the best they can. They volunteer and study, and I don’t think it is good leadership to be turning over and getting rid of a volunteer Zoning Board member every time they vote to approve a variance,” he said.
Piech said Williamson had fallen short on upholding the code in his own votes. He offered Creet’s Landing subdivision development as an example.
In December 2017, the Board of County Commissioners were asked to approve a zoning change that would have allowed increased density of housing in a planned subdivision. Dozens of residents along Whispering Pines Boulevard spoke out against the increased density citing concerns about congestion and overtaxed infrastructure.
Hundreds more signed a petition against the development, but Piech said Williamson wanted to approve the change.
“It took a commissioner from another district to stop the overbuilding in Navarre,” Piech said.
Williamson rebutted saying he did not vote in favor of the Creet’s Landing project.
But Piech retorted with the date that Williamson made the motion as well as paraphrasing exactly what Williamson said to the gathered residents.
“Integrity folks,” Piech said to the debate attendees.
A review of video from the Dec. 14, 2017 meeting showed that Williamson did make a motion to approve allowing additional homes in Creet’s Landing, but that motion failed due to a lack of support from the other commissioners. Williamson then moved to deny the request without objection.
However, it should be noted Williamson received $2,000 in campaign donations from one of the Creet’s Landing developers Bobby Killingsworth prior to the vote.
Piech also went after his opponent on previous comments he made about a storage unit complex to be built in the Heart of Navarre overlay district, a specially designated area for development suited toward a downtown feel. The request was to allow metal siding and storage units in that area.
In the March special rezoning meeting, Williamson said he needed to abstain from voting due to his business interest in the project, but following approval he said “I think this is going to be good for Navarre.”
Williamson argued that he has been critical of proposed rezonings, asking whether there was in fact a hardship to prompt the change. He said he has voted against more variances and rezonings than any other commissioner.
A review of county minutes for the past year that has been shared online revealed that Williamson only voted against one rezoning request, excluding the Creet’s Landing request that all commissioners voted against.
The candidates for District 4 County Commissioner will be decided on a universal primary ballot Aug. 28. The Republican candidates for District 2 County Commissioner, Brown, Mahute and Cole, will face off on the primary ballot Aug. 28. The winner of that race will run against Democratic candidate Kris Long in the Nov. 6 general election.
As seen in the July 26 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year!