At a pair of public meetings Tuesday, county commissioners brought to a halt for at least six months all applications for new construction permits in the business district on St. George Island.
During the first hearing, acting as the local planning agency, commissioners listened to a parade of island residents and local business owners comment on the proposal to place a moratorium on consideration of proposed new construction on St. George Island for six months while county staff drafts an ordinance to create an overlay district with rules governing the appearance of structures located there.
Throughout the proceeding, audience members displayed signs supporting the moratorium. More than 100 people attended the hearings.
The hold on development applies to an area from Third Street East to Third Street West and from the Gulf beach to the bay shore.
David Theriaque, a consulting attorney for the county on land use, began the meeting by reading the draft of a proposed ordinance. He said the moratorium would allow county staff time to draft an ordinance dealing with the appearance of inhabited structures within the designated area.
“One goal (on St. George Island) would be to capture properties you would see coming over the bridge,” he said. “You only get to make one first impression,”
Theriaque said he had just drafted a similar ordinance for Alachua County. He said such moratoriums were a well established tool communities use to create overlay districts to define a brand through landscaping, parking areas, architectural themes and the like, and that the result is increased property values.
“I can defend this in circuit court. There are no grounds for a Bert Harris claim,” he said.
Residential properties in the proposed overlay district will be exempt from the moratorium, and repairs to mitigate attrition due to fire, storms or other natural occurrences would be allowed.
Theriaque said if the draft was not completed in six months, the moratorium could be extended but he was optimistic the process could be completed in less than a year.
Commission Chair Smokey Parrish said he hoped to balance property rights with the wishes of island residents. He asked speakers to limit their comments to three minutes.
The first speaker was gallery owner Joyce Estes who said the lack of zoning oversight on the island is problematic. She said Sea Oats Gallery, which she has owned for 30 years, is a $300,000 investment which now sits between two derelict and abandoned buildings.
“I’m sitting in the middle of derelict buildings that need zoning,” she said, and distributed pictures of the disused structures to commissioners.
Olivier Monod, owner of Anchor Realty which has traded on the island for decades, volunteered to serve on a committee to draft the proposed ordinance. “St. George Island provides enormous revenue for the county,” he said, “The issue is countywide.”
Two other businessmen spoke against the moratorium.
Dave Duncan, who owns a construction company, said the county already has a planning and zoning advisory committee. He urged commissioners to evaluate individual projects on a case-by-case basis.
Veteran island realtor and community leader Mason Bean agreed with Duncan. “I vote no. We have existing zoning,” Bean said.
Perhaps the strongest voice against the moratorium was George Kirvin Floyd, who hopes to build a 54-unit RV park adjacent to the causeway from the mainland. “I appreciate everybody being here and I think we all want the same thing,” he said.
He began to lecture on the history of the area, urging those present to visit his webpage and view his half-page ad in a local magazine for information on his project. Parrish cut him short.
“We aren’t here for a history lesson,” Parrish said. “If I let everyone here tell the history of their property, we’d be here for a week. And please speak to the board, not the audience.”
The audience erupted into applause. “I think a little bit of history is appropriate especially to newcomers,” Floyd responded.
He then asked if repairs to existing structures were on hold as well as new construction. Parrish said they were not.
County Attorney Michael Shuler said he believed Floyd was looking at an early draft of the proposed ordinance. Theriaque presented Floyd with a copy of the latest version.
Floyd questioned other specific points of the proposed law but Parrish stopped him. He said Floyd was over the three-minute limit for speakers and asked him to yield the floor. Floyd appeared stunned as he returned to his seat while the audience applauded.
The majority of speakers spoke in favor of the moratorium including Anna Carmichael, owner/ operator of Dail’s Seafood, who said she represented the St. George Island Business Association.
Retired Army Gen. James Donald, an island resident, said he supported the moratorium. “I paid quite a bit for my property. I really want to be part of the discussion,” he said.
Turtle Patrol volunteer Tara Wah asked commissioners to consider the environment when creating rules for development on the island. She questioned why growth on the island has so far outstripped development in Eastpoint.
Martha Hodge, who said she built the third house on the island’s east end said, “I’ve paid you almost $1 million in taxes over the years and it is a privilege. I hope you will include both new and seasoned homeowners in planning.”
Bunnie Ison offered pictures of the island. “Many of us have moved here from many places because of the beauty of the island. I am voting against the RV park,” she said.
At the second hearing commissioners reconvened as the board of county commissioners.
Commissioner Ricky Jones, who represents the island, moved to establish the moratorium.
“I want to make it publicly known that issues like this are no small matter to consider,” he said. “I think that we would best be served by a moratorium. There has never been a plan in place for St. George Island. The future is happening. Change is happening. I am not opposed to change but I am opposed to change for sake of change.”
His motion was seconded by Commissioner William Massey, and passed 4-1, with Cmmissioner Noah Lockley opposed.
“I’m not for high-rises, but I’m not for telling people what to do with their property,” Lockley said. “I’m for property rights.”
Shuler said he would await instructions from the board but recommended county staff take the lead on creating the ordinance and seek feedback from the public through hearings.