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HAPPI: Our fight for historic plat lives on

Bonnie Davis Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

Our Apalachicola forebears designed a wonderfully livable, human-scale city in 1836. Until now our historic plat has remained remarkably intact, one of the few places left in Florida in which the town’s original designs remains both visible and viable. It affords us a rich ambience of family- and community-oriented life, punctuated by an abundance of green space. Apalachicola’s historic design is also a key reason we attract so many tourists to our town.

Historic Apalachicola Plat Preservation, Inc., or HAPPI, as we have come to be known, was founded to advocate for preservation of the historic plat and to help resist developments that would harm it.

Obviously, we were disappointed by the outcome in the Denton Cove case. To trace the antecedents of this case would exceed the space limitations of this paper. In our opinion, the court’s judgment was legally flawed, imposing a Solomon-like solution that gave a portion of the historic plat - the streets and alleys running through a parcel of land owned by the school board - to Denton Cove, but forced them to pay the school board for them.

To reach this conclusion, the court had to skip over several important precepts of contract and real property law. Nonetheless, the judgment of the court is final and ends the case. HAPPI vigorously participated in this case from the start, and stayed to the bitter end, but could not, as an intervenor, independently appeal the trial court’s decision. We tip our hats to the school board for their courage and tenacity in pursuing the case to conclusion.

We should not forget the reasons why so many of us came together to participate in this lawsuit. The 52-unit project that Denton Cove will build on slightly more than three-and-a-half acres will have to exist for 50 years, and will obliterate the streets, alleys, and other green space running through it. Requests to Denton Cove to redesign the project to respect our city’s valuable design fell on deaf ears. HAPPI continues to believe that preservation of the historic plat is key to the current and future economic prosperity of our town, as tourism becomes more and more the basis of Apalachicola’s economy.

The historic preservation of Apalachicola has value in its own right. It gives this and future generations a sense of our history and civic identity, and protects the last remaining truly visible historic community on the upper Gulf Coast. These reasons are still valid and still worth fighting for. Remember, the historic plat will not crumble all at once, but rather will fade through death by a thousand cuts.

So, what are the lessons learned from this defeat? We, the citizens, must remain ever vigilant for decisions made by our local government about proposed development that would have a negative impact on the historic plat. If we had gotten involved before the first contract was signed in 2012, Denton Cove might not be turning a shovel eight years later. This is why transparency throughout the land use development process, at all levels of government, not just the final decision stage, is so critically important.

We all must be pro-active advocates on behalf of the historic plat’s continued viability, to make sure a development like Denton Cove never slips under our collective radar again. And we should not allow ourselves to be labeled as anti-development. Development that boosts our economy and preserves one of its key engines, our historic plat, should be encouraged by all of us. On the other hand, our land use code should bar any development that tramples on Apalachicola’s legacy.

The good news is that we, as a community, have shown that we can do this. We have been repeatedly characterized by Denton Cove and this newspaper, as “a core group of neighbors.” Far from it, community members came together from all parts of Apalachicola to stand up for our town and its heritage. In large numbers, we attended and spoke out at public meetings about the impact of Denton Cove. This community presence made a huge difference. We also raised an enormous amount of money, roughly $200,000, to fund our participation in the lawsuit.

Here is the key: the close-to-200 donors came from all areas of Apalachicola, and gave in amounts large and small. Many donors gave repeatedly, as one said, “until I bled.” Not one donor has expressed regret at their involvement in the battle. What does this say about our community? We are willing to fight long and hard, with our presence and our pocketbooks, to preserve our legacy.

HAPPI is here to stay. We will continue to advocate for historic preservation. The best way to protect our historic identity is to tighten our land development code so that development that respects the historic plat is encouraged, and development that does not is denied.

We will be proposing such changes in the near future. There is strength in numbers, in commitment, in tenacity. We’ve shown that as a community we have these assets. We invite you to join us to help the community grow in the right way, one that truly reflects Apalachicola‘s past and future.

Bonnie E. Davis is president of Historic Apalachicola Plat Preservation, Inc.