Friends of Cape Haze vs. Charlotte County may not go to hearing

south-west-florida-mapBY JACK SHORT – A dispute between Charlotte County and nonprofits Sierra Club and Friends of Cape Haze that originated prior to 2011 may be resolved at the next board of county commissioners’ meeting.

After discussions with FOCH and others, Charlotte County staff and the county attorney’s office is proposing the rescission of five ordinances that changed the Future Land Use, Natural Resources, and Coastal Planning elements of the county’s comprehensive plan.

During the July 14 BCC meeting, commissioners will decide whether or not to rescind objectionable portions of amendments, made in 2014, to Charlotte County’s comprehensive plan, which challengers feared would allow high density development in the Cape Haze area (affecting evacuation times during emergencies) and leave no protections in place for sensitive local ecosystems. If commissioners approve the ordinance rescinding those amendments, plaintiffs and defendants have agreed to consider the case settled, and the case, administered by the Division of Administrative Hearings, would be dismissed.

According to Charlotte County Attorney, Janette Knowlton, the proposed ordinance was the result of conversations held during the last few months with both FOCH and the Sierra Club.

“We recognized that there were some deficiencies …,” she said.

According to the motion to stay proceedings filed on July 2, all parties involved agreed to allow Charlotte the opportunity to change its comp plan, which will in turn allow “… all parties (to) avoid the unnecessary expenditure of time and resources to prepare for the currently scheduled hearing.”

That hearing was scheduled for July 27, though it had been moved at least once in the last year.

According to the ordinance that will come before the commissioners on Tuesday, it is the result of months of discussions with plaintiffs, defendants, and intervenors (property owners and a mortgage lending company), and its adoption will result in the DOAH hearing being dismissed.

That conditional dismissal is concurred by language in the motion to stay proceedings.

According to the ordinance, the county plans, after rescinding the adopted portions of the comp plan, to “… (resubmit) plan amendments to revise the previously adopted revisions to the County’s Comprehensive Plan; …”

Newly proposed amendments would be presented to the board for consideration at future public hearings, according to the proposed ordinance.

When asked whether or not the county would simply revert to the plan in place before the adopted amendments, Knowlton said she couldn’t say the result would be “… a carbon copy of what was in place before.”

Percy Angelo, a director of FOCH, said her understanding was that Charlotte County would rescind the changes they made and hence return to the language of the 2010 ordinance. In 2011, FOCH successfully challenged Charlotte County’s comp plan changes through the DOAH. Part of the charges in their current challenge include the allegation that Charlotte violated the terms of that judgement with their 2014 amendments.

Angelo said if the ordinances agreed upon are rescinded, “… that would be a positive result …” and would reflect the changes they’ve been arguing for.

“We do think the 2014 changes were not justified,” she added.