Following a lengthy public hearing Tuesday morning whether to rezone for commercial use a roughly six-acre parcel along U.S. 98 in Lanark, county commissioners thought it best to wait two weeks and consider the matter again.
Following a lengthy queue of Lanark residents who spoke against allowing a Dollar General store to be built on 5.88 acres currently zoned single family residential, and an equally robust argument made by legal and engineering professionals working on behalf of developing the project, the commission tried three times to vote on motions regarding the land use change.
And three times the motions died for lack of a second.
Following a series of questions from Commissioner Bert Boldt, in whose district the project would be built, Commissioner Ricky Jones moved to approve the change sought by Port St. Joe attorney Clayton Studstill on behalf of applicants Timothy and Christina Saunders.
No second was forthcoming, and then Boldt took his shot, moving to deny the change, and again no second was voiced.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen this in my whole 16 years up here,” said Chairman Noah Lockley.
“When you move to a place, it’s not going to stay that way forever,” he said, addressing the views of the many neighbors who argued it was their love of peace and quiet that prompted them to retire to that undeveloped stretch of the county.
“People want to develop their land, they got a right to do it,” said Lockley.
Jones told the audience he moved for approval in part because “we (Franklin County) have had a black eye as far as businesses are concerned.
“There’s no better place than along a state highway,” he said. “There’s no way the entire county can be residential only. That is a fundamental problem. Right now tourism is the only industry you have.”
Boldt, too, defended his motion, arguing he is seeking “continuity and consistency” in business development, and that such growth belongs in areas, such as inside of Carrabelle’s business district, and not in a sprawling patchwork.
In an unusual, but not unprecedented move, Lockley then handed down the gavel to Jones, the vice chair, and made a motion to approve the land use change. It too died for lack of a second and commissioners turned to County Attorney Michael Shuler for advice.
“The third option is tabling,” he said. “You can’t just let it sit in limbo procedurally.”
Lockley then moved, and Smokey Parrish seconded, a motion, approved unanimously, to revisit the matter at a public hearing set for 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 3.
Neighbors voice strong objections
The public comment that opened the hearing was, without exception, opposed to the project.
Mike McCload opened by passing out to commissioner’ photos of the newly built Dollar General in Carrabelle.
“That’s what your new store looks like last Saturday,” he said. “This is what your tourists are going to see when they come in from the east, a trashy store. This is going to open up ‘zoning creep,’ from Putnal Road east to St. James Golf Course. The most pristine part of the county and you’re about to trash it.”
Noting he too had worked as a developer, McCload questioned what would be done with the remaining portion of the acreage, since the store itself would cover about 10,600 square feet.
Mark Hopkins, who has lived across the street from the property for the past 17 years, reminded commissioners that planning and zoning had not recommended approval of the change.
“I’m just worried about what comes later,” he said. “In effect we’ll have a strip mall after five or 10 years along US 98. I hope you will all join with our neighborhood residents being against this request.”
Tonya Putnal, who along with her husband James, a lifelong resident, own the former Putnal Lanark Station property to the east, told commissioners “we do not want any commercial development in Gulf Terrace.
“Please honor our wishes, and continue to keep our community as peaceful as we can,” she said
Deborah Scanlon, manager of the Lanark Market, said her business and others will be hurt by the creation of another Dollar General store.
She said her research shows the company is owned by KKR, a global investment firm, and Goldman Sachs, also a global financial company. “They have over 1,000 factories in China,” she said. “The working conditions are nothing we would put up with. (Workers) are treated badly, are paid unbelievably low wages, (amid) grueling working conditions.”
Scanlon said her tiny store pays better wages, and that the company’s customer estimates may be overstated since in Lanark Village “one third of homes are empty all of the time.
“It’s a sensitive environmental area,” she said. “The underwater aquifers that run year round will be affected by the compression and buildup.”
Bill Mickler, who lives across the street from the property, said the presence of a dollar store will disturb the sensitive area. “We listen to the mullet jump, we have stars we look at without the effect of ambient light,” he said. “ I can show you pictures of bears and foxes and bobcats and turkeys and deer, and bears and bears.”
Mickler said he had provided the county with a lengthy list of signatures of residents opposed to the project. “There’s quite a few,” he said. “It might even approach the population of Lanark Village itself.”
Developer says they are in full compliance
Christina Saunders opened up comments on behalf of the development, noting she and her husband have owned the property for 40 years, and during that time, have seen the closure of at least 11 businesses, including the adjacent service station, Martha Ann’s, the Village Shopping Mall and others.
“We are asking to change zoning, so Dollar General can bring jobs into the community and support citizens,” she said. “It’s a good tax base for the county and revenue for Carrabelle water. I think it’s time to see a commercial business to replace what we have lost.”
Chris West, general counsel at Teramore Development, LLC, out of Thomasville, Georgia, handled the lion’s share of the case on behalf of the Dollar General.
“We have worked to meet code, met with residents to see if we can have a project that meets their concerns, and fulfills the needs of shoppers in the area,” he said, noting the proposed store will bring 10 jobs, four of which would be fulltime.
He said retirees with a nest egg have flexibility with their time and travel, “but for that single mom who maybe has two kids, she doesn’t want to drive five miles to get a gallon of milk.
“Our constitutions, both federal and state, protects people’s rights to life, liberty and property,” West said. “It’s an individual right, and it protects the single mom and those who are struggling.
“The board has determined what the code is and if we meet it than we have the opportunity, to exercise our rights with your property.”
He noted the adjacent property is zoned commercial, and estimated about 3,400 vehicles a day cross U.S 98. West said developers have made a $1 million investment in this property, and are planning upgrades, such as facing lighting downwards so as to not offend the neighbors.
“We’re trying to be good neighbors,” he said. “This project is going to drive extensive tax benefits, about $80,000 a year in taxable revenue.”
Walton County attorney Mark Davis then introduced Allara Mills Gutcher, a land use planner who served as an expert witness on Teramore’s behalf. She said the project would meet all the county’s land use requirements regarding wetlands, flood zones, and soils.
Gutcher said the nearest bald eagle nesting location was five miles to the east, and that since the adjacent land is zoned commercial, the project was not spot zoning.
She said the project would not exceed service standards for transportation, and that its height, as well as impervious surface, are well below the allowable maximum, and its setback greater than what would be allowed. Engineer Joseph Alday, out of Marianna, said the proposed change in land use meets the requirements of the code.
Boldt offered a series of questions of the developers, noting that the drawings he had looked at were in error in that they showed the Putnal station to the west of the project.
“Has petroleum seeped and creeped from that Putnal mark which you showed at the wrong side?” he asked. “I’m worried if there is pollution on that site.”
West said environmental studies showed the entire parcel within its boundaries was clean.
“I’m just wondering if they read what I read,” Boldt said. He also noted a manhole construction on the western end, about 100 feet landward of 98, with a bricked-in aperture, and two rusted ladder rungs going down four feet.
“It’s a storm drain pipe that’s stubbed into that ditch,” said Alday.
“It seems like a real antique relic that’s there,” said Boldt.
The commissioner also asked how ingress and egress would be handled, and Alday said a conference with officials with the Florida Department of Transportation determined standard driveways would suffice, without having to add additional lanes.
Boldt asked whether the applicant had done due diligence with the Putnal family regarding acquiring the existing, adjacent commercial property.
James Lawrence, a retail market manager for Teramore, said the family refused to sell the property. “The local real estate agent approached them and they said no,” he said, noting that Mr. Putnal had at one point “fired an AR 15 over our head.”
In Oct. 2019, James Putnal was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill, and discharging a firearm in public. He allegedly fired about 14 warning shots, from a black Del-Ton Inc. 5.56 caliber rifle, in the direction of surveyors doing work on the property.