After a brief retreat from the lines, Port St. Joe and county officials appear poised to engage again, in court a significant possibility, over a proposed housing development in Highland View.
County Administrator Michael Hammond acknowledged Tuesday the receipt from the city of intent to advertise and take up Aug. 6 for second reading and adoption ordinances to annex roughly nine acres into the city and rezone the land to increase permissible building density.
That receipt was a critical step for the city.
And the Board of County Commissioners reiterated the board’s position that should the city approve those ordinances next month, the county will sue to stop the development.
“They have to take that affirmative step” to trigger county action, said county attorney Jeremy Novak.
The certified letter notification was one of the “dots” city staff and attorney Adam Albritton wanted to fill in to ensure the city was adhering to state law pertaining to a voluntary annexation.
That is integral to the city’s position pertaining to an interlocal agreement which county officials have argued provides them a mechanism to stop the annexation.
One of the original components of the 2005 agreement was a prohibition against annexations by the city into Highland View without a referendum of citizens.
That provision remained in the version amended in 2013, county officials noted.
However, city officials have countered that in a subsequent section of the amended interlocal agreement, the city pledged to follow “all state law in the case of voluntary annexations” and hold a referendum in the case of any “involuntary annexations.”
One of the questions county officials posed early on concerned proper notification: the certified letter was the answer.
City commissioners also held a public workshop on the project at the request of the county and moved ahead with a first reading of both ordinances despite the county’s threat of legal action.
Reflecting a sharp divide on the city board, commissioners voted 3-2 at a recent meeting to move ahead, ultimately deciding to set Aug. 6 as decision time.
The commissioner who made the motion to deny the annexation, Mayor Bo Patterson, has since been replaced due to the results of the May election.
And, as a workshop and city meeting demonstrated, any forward movement on the proposed 170-unit long-term rental apartment development has come against headwinds not solely emanating from the county meeting room.
“We need to Barney Fife this and nip it in the bud,” Doug Kelly, a Highland View resident and vocal critic of the development, told the BOCC Tuesday.
Not a single person identifying as a resident of Highland View has spoken publicly in support of the development, which would be built on the former Highland View Elementary School site at U.S. 98 and Redfish Street.
Developer Zach Ferrell has proposed building what he labeled “workforce housing” on the site, with a build-out to 171 multi-family units.
The city’s position is the development addresses critical housing shortages.
The major issue for opponents is less the site as the density of the rezoning, allowing up to 30 units per acre.
And those additional people would bring more vehicles and more trips back and forth over an already busy artery, and evacuation route.
Hammond contended a turn lane will be required after a mandated traffic study and argued there would be no place to construct one.
“It doesn’t seem fair to me,” said Highland View resident Suzanne Lyon.
Another portion of the county’s argument against the development is that the impacts are enough to trigger specific state laws.
“They are changing dramatically the geography and population of the community,” Novak said, adding the development would add at least 500 new residents to a city of less than 4,000.
The zoning change, altering allowable density to increase from 7 to 30 units, would be “setting precedent,” Novak has said.
City commissioners wondered, meanwhile, whether saying no to a voluntary annexation request would set a negative and separate precedent.
Public safety is also an issue for residents, with Highland View Fire Chief John Strayer stating in each meeting held on the development that his department lacked the equipment and resources to handle fires in the proposed four-story structures.
Novak reiterated Tuesday the BOCC’s role as the advocate for Highland View residents, who lack legal standing against city action.