Hearing for RaceTrac project in Sparr continued

Neighbors, Horse Farms Forever pack county commission meeting to oppose multi-pump fueling station eyed for Farmland Preservation Area.

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Posted December 27, 2023 | By Belea T. Keeney belea@magnoliamediaco.com

A routine request to continue a hearing on a proposed RaceTrac convenience store and big-rig truck fueling station in Sparr turned into an extended Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) discussion before a packed audience on Dec. 19 as lawyers for three sides debated the nuances of due process and whether the request had sufficient “good cause.”

The board ultimately voted 4-1 for the continuance until March 19, but not before one commissioner labeled one lawyer’s reasoning for the delay as “flat-out bogus.’’

Attorney Rob Batsel, representing the applicant who wants to build the project in the Farmland Preservation Area (FPA), gave a three-pronged argument. First, his key witness was not available; next, that since 2010, Marion County has always allowed a continuance at first request; and finally, that the county’s traffic data wasn’t available for his team to analyze.

“Making me move forward today without a witness, with that data, under the circumstances that I’ve just described, is a violation of procedural due process. And it is not good policy,” Batsel stated.

Commission Chair Michelle Stone countered with, “How long has it been since you knew you were coming back here today?”

Batsel replied, “Eleven days ago, we requested the continuance.”

The Planning & Zoning Commission heard the request at its Nov. 27 meeting and recommended the BOCC deny it. The staff report showed the BOCC hearing was slated for Dec. 19.

Commissioner Carl Zalak said Batsel’s lack of a key witness was not sufficient good cause to delay the proceedings.

“I’ve done a lot of these,” he said, acknowledging that sometimes lawyers and witnesses are unable to attend a meeting. “But … if people really want that person to testify, and (they are) not be able to call in, to Zoom in, do something to get their data or information to us. Quite frankly, in today’s world, I’m not sure there’s an excuse for someone not being able to show up. Why can’t we Zoom him on in?”

Commissioner Kathy Bryant, however, was sympathetic to Batsel’s position.

“In fairness to all, there’s never been a moment that I’ve been sitting on this dais, even with a packed room … that an applicant has asked for a continuance and we haven’t granted it,’’ she said. “We just did it for the Jumbolair project.”

County Attorney Guy Minter then discussed due process, good cause and cautioned the board about having to go to court over the issue. There was also discussion about Signal Four Analytics, a software system the county used to develop traffic information. The program is proprietary and the database cannot be shared with outside parties, such as developer’s attorneys.

The discussion went on for nearly 30 minutes, and Bryant ultimately asked Minter, “As the board’s attorney, what would you recommend the board do?”

Minter said, “Based on what I’ve heard … they would suffer potentially an injustice by” not being able to present a full case to the board. “It’s better to grant the continuance.”

Zalak responded with some vehemence.

“I think some of these attorneys take advantage of these continuances,’’ he said. “With all due respect, the witness thing is just flat-out bogus. These are professionals, this is a huge company.”

He went on to mention that the project itself wasn’t being changed into “some revolutionary plan that the applicant is putting forward. I have a hard time with that. We’ve got a lot of people in the crowd, we got a ton of emails. I think that due process outweighs the fact that they (the applicant) can’t get their person on Zoom. “

The crowd erupted into applause at that point, and Stone reminded the audience to maintain decorum.

Zalak was the only dissenting vote in the 4-1 decision. Bryant and Stone both stated that this was the only continuance that would be granted for the application.

Passionate public comment

The RaceTrac hearing initially drew more than 90 audience members, with over two dozen signed up to speak to the board. The project also received 61 pages of emails in opposition. Once the continuance was voted on and announced, many audience members left but several remained to address the commissioners.

Their concerns focused on the intersection of County Road 329 and the US 301/441 merge and it already being dangerous; the mix of horses close to big trucks; the nearness of the schools; and the lack of demand for more gas stations. Two people, both of whom are related to the property owner, spoke in favor of the project. Both mentioned the property rights of the parcel owner and the ability to use and profit from their investment.

Lonny Powell, CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, spoke passionately against the RaceTrac project.

“Obviously, we’re opposed to this project and there’s no such thing as a rework,’’ he said. “The applicant had all these months to get ready. We all know that. Let’s not kid each other. I totally agree with what Commissioner Zalak said, and I’m glad he had the courage to say the right things.

“Your Growth Services and your Zoning has said no,’’ Powell continued. “I don’t know what else you need. On the surface, this is just a noncompliant, inappropriate, disrespectful, disruptive and destructive use and development of the Farmland Preservation Area. Below the surface, it sets a dangerous precedent that would allow developers from far and near to come and do the same thing.”

Bernie Little, president of Horse Farms Forever (HFF), pointed out that the online agenda and printed one provided at the meeting read, “Continued until March 19, 2024.” He questioned whether it was a predetermined decision and asked the commissioners and staff about how the wording.

Little said this type of error, implying that the continuance question was already decided before the meeting, makes people “distrustful of government. This doesn’t sit well.”

Assistant County Administrator Tracy Straub took responsibility for the error, saying the staff had not used proper terminology and promising it would not happen again.

Growth Services staff are explicitly not permitted to allow a continuance; those requests are only granted by the BOCC after an applicant shows good cause. The board reiterated this policy multiple times during the discussion.

In contrast, during the Dec. 5 BOCC planning and zoning portion of the meeting in which the Jumbolair project was slated to be heard, a Growth Services staffer announced the “postponement” of the hearing, and based on review of the video, the board did not take a formal vote.

That hearing, too, was so crowded that Stone admonished people to either sit down or listen to the proceedings from the lobby. Once that continuance announcement was made, the majority of the Jumbolair audience left the hearing. At the end of that meeting, the board decided on Feb. 20 as the new hearing date.

An email query to Minter and Stone for a more detailed explanation about the differences between the two hearings and the votes for continuances received no response by press time. The “Gazette” was told Minter was out of the office for the holidays and would not be available for comment until early January. The “Gazette’s” request for emails pertaining to the Jumbolair postponement is in progress, according to county Public Relations Manager Stacie Causey.

HFF opposition received before and after meeting

After becoming aware of the Batsel’s Dec. 4 request for continuance, on Dec. 8, HFF sent a letter opposing the request for continuance that read, in part, “Horse Farms Forever and many Marion County residents have already made arrangements to be present at this public hearing. Horse Farms Forever requests an opportunity to speak in opposition to the requested continuance (separate from and in addition to speaking in opposition to the Rezoning Application).”

In an emailed statement to the “Gazette” after the hearing, the group maintained its opposition: “Horse Farms Forever looks forward to presenting competent and substantial evidence that the application to rezone the parcel located deep inside the Farmland Preservation Area from agricultural to an intense commercial use fails to clear any of the legal hurdles for rezoning as the proposed use is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan, not compatible with surrounding properties, and adverse to the public interest.”



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