Circuit Judge Terry Lewis orders county to grant a new site plan review

St. George Island businessman Walter Armistead has won his suit against the county, after Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled Jan. 16 that county commissioners denied him due process when they decided in April not to approve a site plan for an RV park on St. George Island.

In his five-page decision, rendered three weeks after a Dec. 28 hearing, Lewis quashed the commissioners 4-1 decision last April to deny approval for a 10-slip RV park on an undeveloped parcel of land across Franklin Boulevard from the Piggly Wiggly Express and adjacent to the St. George Island boat ramp.

Lewis noted in his ruling that he was not addressing any view on the merits of putting in an RV park, but only on the process conducted by the county in handling the site plan put before them by Armistead’s company, Franklin Boulevard Development LLC.

“The record reflects that the (county commissioners) made a motion on (the site plan) before it afford (him) an opportunity to present evidence on the matter,” wrote Lewis. “The record establishes that the (commissioners) failed to properly conduct a quasi-judicial hearing on the (site plan).”

The judge ordered the county to grant Armistead a site plan review within a “reasonable” period of time.

In an interview after the court’s decision, Armistead said that he intends to resubmit the site plan, and would be willing to discuss modifications with county staff prior to that.

“Most of the merchants on the island supported my request. I felt like I wanted to do something different that didn’t compete with existing businesses. I saw it as a positive thing,” he said.

Armistead said the suit had been expensive but he wanted to exert his legal rights as a landowner. He said he believed the county had spent considerable funds hiring outside counsel David Theriaque to defend it.

In his argument before Lewis, Armistead’s attorney, J. Patrick Floyd, argued that in May 2016 commissioners rezoned Armistead’s land from C-2 commercial business to C3 commercial recreational, knowing full well that Armistead intended on an RV park. The Planning and Zoning advisory board had reviewed Armistead’s plans earlier and unanimously recommended the project be approved.

“The county even states in its brief…(Armistead’s) expressed desire to ultimately operate an RV park on the property, emphasizing the proximity of the water, the property to Apalachicola Bay and the oyster beds, aesthetic issues, traffic impacts, and other concerns,” Floyd told Lewis, “He could have, under the (C-2 zoning) built restaurants or hotels (but) the only thing, because it’s not on the water, he could get the benefit of by reducing it down to C3 was, in fact, the RV park.”

The commissioners, by a 4-1 vote, with commissioner Cheryl Sanders opposed, granted the rezoning.

When Armistead returned nearly a year later to the county with a commercial site plan for an RV park, numerous St. George Island residents spoke against it, saying it would lower property values and would be an unsightly addition to the island business district.

In his argument before the judge, Floyd contended the only thing that had changed during that year was that Ricky Jones had replaced Rick Watson as county commissioner over the district, and that neighbors had risen in opposition.

“Basically, they went and got a lawyer and said ‘Look, we don’t want it.’ It’s not politically expedient for us maybe at this time to do it.,” Floyd said. “We got a new commissioner and maybe some of the RV park owners said ‘Hey, we need to challenge this, but it’s not politically expedient now, and so we need to find something, whatever we can, and they’re straining to find something.”

In his rebuttal, Theriaque disputed Floyd’s contention that county staffers had indicated to commissioners that all the site plan requirements had been met. He said the burden was on Armistead to prove the project complied with both the land development code and the comprehensive plan.

“An owner of a company simply showing up and saying ‘I meet everything’ is not competent substantial evidence that he has met everything,” argued Therique. “He is just simply not qualified to provide expert opinion on whether or not he has met the engineering and planning requirements.

“You have no staff report here,” he said. “You had no presentation by staff taking the position stating that everything has been met.”

At the April site plan hearing, Commissioner Noah Lockley’s motion to approve the plan died for lack of a second. Armistead returned to his seat but stepped back to the podium 10 minutes later and urged commissioners vote on the issue.

Commissioner Cheryl Sanders moved to deny permission to build and the motion passed, with Commissioners Smokey Parrish and Lockley opposed.

“If this is denied I will not be able to use that property,” Armistead said. “Based on your commitment to rezone, I went before P&Z and met all qualifications. The P & Z board approved it unanimously. I think it’s unfair if you now tell me I can’t use it for that.”

At the same meeting, commissioners voted to hold a public hearing to discuss creating an overlay zone on the island to control the type of construction allowed.

At a September meeting, commissioners engaged Theriaque to draft an ordinance creating the zone. They also ordered a halt to new construction in the commercial district at island center for at least six months.

At last week’s Jan. 16 meeting, Theriaque unveiled a proposed ordinance which, among other stipulations, would ban the construction of RV parks in the island business district.

At the December hearing, Lewis responded to a request from Floyd that, in light of the moratorium, the judge stipulate that a site land review “takes place in the proper time.”

“I’m sympathetic to anybody who can’t get a decisive and final answer in a reasonable period of time, but this idea about moratorium, I have absolutely no idea what that is,” Lewis said, “I have to deal with that if and when it comes up. If that’s part of the problem, it would be part of the obstacles.

“You say ‘Well, we’re not even going to get a hearing because of this moratorium,’” the judge told Floyd. “I think you would have to challenge the moratorium, and I’m not going to tell you how to do it, but if you think it’;s unlawful, and that’s not unheard of in in any kind of situation where people don’t agree, that they raise procedural obstacles on both sides.”