At a public hearing in November, 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 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.
At a P & Z meeting 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.
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.
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. 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 took issue with that accusation, and 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.
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.”
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.”