At a public hearing Monday night packed with the project’s opponents, Apalachicola’s Planning and Zoning Commission gave a resounding no to a proposal to relocate the city’s Family Dollar store to a wooded site on U.S. 98 on the western edge of town, adjacent to the Best Western Inn.
By voice vote that sounded unanimous, P and Z decided against granting a special exception to the existing C-3 zoning so as to allow Panama City Beach’s Brett Woodward to construct a more than 8,300-square foot store on 1.16 acres at U.S. 98 and Clairmont.
Woodward, whose limited liability corporation acquired the property in Oct. 2012, was accompanied by his attorney, Bob Hughes, of Panama City. It didn’t take long for the attorney’s comments to spark anger among some members of P & Z.
Chairman Tom Daly asked Woodward to speak, and when Hughes sought to accompany his client to the podium, Daly declined, telling Hughes the hearing was not “quasi-judicial.”
Woodward told P & Z he had provided a full set of plans for the project in Nov. 2012, when he came for site approval to put in the Family Dollar store. “We want to relocate from the existing location because of poor visibility and more convenience associated with it,” he said.
Woodward said he submitted the project through the proper city channels, “tweaked the plan multiple times based on comments we received,” and now sought a special exception for specialty retail.
That category had invited much concern among the community when it was determined last year the project had to go through a special exception process, since it was not a permitted use under C-3. “I think you have to be careful how you construe specialty retail,” said Daly.
Hughes was given time to speak and the attorney began by saying he felt something was wrong with the process.
“I am surprised that we are here tonight at all,” he said, noting that P & Z in April 2012 had voted unanimously “to confirm that this project would fit into C-3 zoning.”
City Administrator Betty Webb followed up on that meeting five months later with a Sept. 19, 2012 letter to Woodward summarizing P & Z’s actions. Later, a more thorough reading of the land use regulations indicated that the project needed vetting through the special exception process, and by then community opposition, led by contiguous neighbors, had begun to gel.
Hughes told P & Z the nearby areas to the parcel in question were full of commercial businesses, including the Best Western, Rancho Inn, a closed service station and an open one complete with a convenience store, a closed restaurant soon to be reopened, and the NAPA auto parts store.
“This site was the site of a motel before this happened,” said the attorney.
Hughes said his client spent a little more than $300,000 thus far on the project, about $245,000 for the land and the remainder for legal costs and other fees. He then summarized the legal doctrine of estoppel, which could enable a judge to require the city bear Woodward’s costs if it is determined he acted in good faith based on official actions.
“This board in April 2012 told Mr. Woodward that his project fit in the C-3 zoning and Ms. Webb confirmed that in a letter,” said Hughes. “The doctrine of estoppel says this board can’t back up on that now.
“If the board does not do what is right tonight - to go ahead and grant the special exception - if you don’t, we’re going to end up in court,” said the attorney. “The judge can say ‘Board, you should have confirmed what you did before, you can’t back up.’ Or the judge could say the board had some reason and they had the right to do what they did, and they denied the special exception.
“But if the court does that (rule against the city), the court can order the city to pay Mr. Woodward’s company the $300,000 he spent.”
Daly interjected that “we said at the time that it was consistent, we didn’t tell him to go forward.”
It was Daly’s colleague Geoff Hewell who voiced his strong displeasure. “I thought he had the cart ahead of the horse when I saw he brought the property,” Hewell told the attorney. “Don’t threaten me.”
Former mayor speaks against plan
Speaking on behalf of neighbors to the property, Sandy Howze, a former mayor and building inspector, asked P & Z to pay attention to specifics required of special exceptions. He said a dollar store, which is not mentioned anywhere in the land use code, would require a determination of specialty retail.
“Dollar stores are a higher intensity use than what’s allowed,” he said. “I don’t know of a convenience store in the county that has 44 parking spaces. This does not comply with the purpose and intent.
“Be careful what you’re doing,” Howze said. “I don’t think this thing should ever have been heard in the first place.”
He also noted the April 2012 P & Z meeting item, when it was voted to determine the proposal was consistent with zoning, was on the agenda for the issue of signage.
“They ended up adding an important request as an afterthought,” said Howze. “They started out asking for a sign, and ended up sliding in this dollar store.”
Several other audience members, when they rose to speak, accused the developer of this apparent subterfuge. In an interview following the meeting, when he voiced disappointment with P & Z’s decision, Woodward said he took issue with that accusation.
He said he came to P & Z in earnest because he thought a possible limitation on the size of signage would kill the deal from the outset. He said he had not intended to ask for a zoning decision at that time, but that after P & Z unanimously endorsed the overall plan, he assumed the matter was resolved and asked Webb to put the determination in writing, typical of developers who may need such documentation for financing.
Howze also said he believed the wording in the legal advertisement was both inaccurate and misleading. “There’s supposed to be sign markers on that property,” he said. “The site plans did not show enough detail to evaluate. How can anybody make an intelligent decision on what should be done or what shouldn’t be done?”
Woodward received support from former Apalachicola resident Randy Butler, now of Panama City, who said that the developer had invited him to speak “because he knew I grew up here. I wish this many people had shown up in April.”
But, beginning with Apalachicola attorney Steve Watkins, who represented project opponents Jim and Patsy Philyaw, and Beverly Coxwell, the consensus of speakers was in firm opposition to the project.
“They have taken and misconstrued the minutes of what you guys decided,” said Watkins. “It was obvious to know what they’re doing is trying to ram this down your throat. They are saying ‘Hey, we got this approval to say it meets the intent of C-3.’ That is not a right, that determination has not been made at this point.
Watkins said a specialty store would require “appropriate conditions and safeguards. At this point I think you’re right on track and do the right thing.”
Susan Mackin, a nearby resident on Shadow Lane, said she shops regularly at the existing Family Dollar store. “It’s in a fine location as it is,” she said. (Our neighborhood) is in a period of revitalization. The noise, the bright lights, the traffic - my fear is that traffic is going to be overwhelming, and the potential that it has on drainage issues.”
Apalachicola resident C.J. Weyrich said the site includes some oak trees, and numerous longleaf pine trees, which she said were classified as endangered. “We are all striving to keep the natural flora and fauna alive for future generations,” she said.
Weyrich’s daughter, Merrill Livingston, also spoke against the proposal. “On behalf of the younger generation, we live her and we want to live here in the belief the town will always have the charm,” she said. “Right now it’s a great location, one of the last beautiful properties on 98. It’s untouched.”
City resident Liza Brown said she was concerned about the effect that deliveries would make, with “noisy trucks all the time day or night.”
‘We don’t think it’s a good fit’
Daly asked city zoning consultant Cindy Clark about what effect flood regulations would have on developing the site. Clark said it was her understanding that the elevation of the first floor would have to be at least 11 feet above sea level.
City resident Fran Bauer said she had several concerns, noting the existing store, adjacent to the Gulfside IGA, “is very well situated for a lot of traffic in and out. The proposed site does not have great visibility on 98, and there could be possible accidents,” she said. “With 44 parking spaces, you’re talking about a huge amount of concrete. Everything is going to flow downhill which is going to be Philaco Shores.”
Bauer said she found Hughes’ threatening remarks “highly offensive,” prompting the attorney to speak out. “I want to apologize to the board for something I didn’t do,” he said. “If I insulted or threatened, you, if you took it that way, that was not my intent. I was only conveying the information.”
Carrie Kienzle, who heads the board of adjustment, said P & Z’s actions in April 2012 were in keeping with a tradition of being accommodating. “When people come to us, we don’t want to jump the gun. They try to be nice, they try to be genteel,” she said. “It was my understanding the discussion was about a sign. This is a slippery slope to a cement ghetto.”
Once P & Z returned to the regular meeting, action on the item was swift.
Webb said infrastructure aspects of the project passed a preliminary site review, and that her office had sent out 66 letters to neighbors within a 500-foot radius. She said returns showed 23 against (and four more nays that came in after the deadline), seven in favor and two undeliverable.
In response to a question from P & Z member Sally Williamson, as to why he had purchased the property without stipulation the sale was contingent on necessary government approvals, Woodward said the parcel was “a foreclosure piece of property that the bank needed to get off their books by a drop-dead date.”
P & Z member Lynn Wilson said the area in question is “not really an intense district, it’s more of a residential area with some commercial on a low scale. Port St. Joe and Apalachicola have integrated comfortably business and residential, in an atmosphere that is special in Florida. We want to stay unique. We’re not going to open our borders to any old thing that comes along.”
Just before the vote, Daly said that “it’s unfortunate that we’ve created this back and forth. We voted on something very quickly without thinking it through at that time. Bet we never did approve a special exception.
“The bottom line is we don’t think it's a good fit, a specialty store would not generate the kind of traffic that a Family Dollar would. I don’t think it’s right for this community; it creates more traffic in a place that doesn’t need more traffic.”