Charlotte vs. FOCH will not have a hearing … for now

CHHABY JACK SHORT – In spite of at least a year of discovery and preparation for a hearing between Charlotte County and certain property owners, and local conservationists, all parties agreed to terms that prevented a hearing. Representatives of some parties seemed to consider the rescission of objectionable amendments more of a temporary obstacle, however.

On Tuesday, July 14, the Charlotte County Board of Commissioners voted to rescind five ordinances and the changes they mandated to the county’s Comprehensive Plan.

Approved in 2014, those changes in language related to density in Coastal High Hazard Areas, from restricting “density” to “net density,” would have allowed increased density in areas like Placida and Cape Haze, as long as average density across the county or a larger subsection of the county remained constant, according to plaintiffs. As a result, off-island development could have exacerbated what Friends of Cape Haze, a local nonprofit and one of the plaintiffs, believes are already high evacuation times.

The county originally removed some language it claimed was duplicated in state legislation.

Additionally, according to plaintiffs, the county failed to make adequate provisions for issues such as local mitigation banking or preservation of areas deemed environmentally sensitive, such as mangrove wetlands.

At the meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to abide by recommendations of the staff and the county attorney, Janette Knowles, to rescind the amendments.

During the public hearing preceding the vote, attorneys representing plaintiffs and intervenors spoke in support of the ordinance to rescind the 2014 amendments. However, the tone of support differed vastly among speakers.

Counsel for FOCH expressed support alongside a Placida resident who was also a member of FOCH. However, attorneys for intervenors Boca Norte, LLC (also known as Mercabo), and Caribbean Mortgage Lenders, Inc. characterized the county’s removal of the 2014 amendments not as an admission of wrongdoing, but a strategic step backwards, with steps forward to follow.

Charlotte County Attorney, Janette Knowlton, had said in an earlier interview with the Beacon that the changes originally approved in 2014 contained some “deficiencies,” but also said that the rescission would not necessarily mean a reversion to the relevant sections of the 2010 comprehensive plan.

County staff said at the recent hearing that they would craft “remedial amendments” in the future to address the changes approved by commissioners. They did not specify what those remedial amendments would entail.

Counsel for Boca Norte said that the current dispute arose from imprecise language in the 2014 changes, and that litigation was not the solution to resolve problems with language. However, he noted, once ambiguities in language were resolved, “if, at the end of the day, there are still divisive issues, the County should stick to its guns …”

Counsel for Caribbean Bay Mortgage said his client supported the “strategic decision” to rescind the 2014 changes, but emphasized that “development can still continue.”

Boca Norte and Caribbean Bay petitioned to intervene as “affected parties” earlier this year. Both corporations own property in the Placida area, including the former Mercabo testing facility and the former site of Grande Tours. FOCH objected to their intervention on the grounds that neither was an affected party.

That objection was overruled.