Thursday, March 23, 2006

March 7 County Commission

March 7, County Commission

By Richard E. Noble

[This entry is for all you aspiring journalists out there. This is a sample of what I get paid to write here in Apalachicola, Fl. Don’t laugh, this could be you one day.]

Hubert Chipman – Superintendent of Roads

Mr. Chipman and his County Road Dept. were once again very busy. Between February 17 and March 3, 1264 tons of lime rock were hauled to various locations throughout the County; 63 loads of debris were removed; 261 yds. of road material were hauled – sand, yellow sand, black dirt and asphalt; grass was cut along hwy 98 and Wilderness Road; miscellaneous tasks were performed in all areas of the County with considerable attention being given to the Carrabelle Ball Park; several roads were graded in both Carrabelle and Apalachicola; culverts and ditches received maintenance in all areas of the County; a new paved parking lot was constructed at the Apalachicola Court House and two buildings were pushed down; and dozens of roads about the County received maintenance and needed TLC.
     The ball park should be ready to go for the ‘07 season. Mr. Chipman explained that he would be meeting with engineers with regards to the Lake Morality Rd. project – it should be getting under way soon.

Dave McLain – Feasibility Study Update

“I am here on behalf of your oyster/seafood task force,” explained Mr. McLain.” Mr. Putnal who is a member of that Task Force recommended that we give you periodic reports to let you know what we are doing. The Task Force met on February 22 to get the results of the trip to Washington which was to seek funding that had been set aside for the (damage from) hurricanes from this past year. I am confident that we have been successful in getting their attention. Though we don’t yet know what the number will be, I am confident that we will have additional funding to help us with the recovery process. We also received a briefing from Lampel-Herbert, experienced consultants best equipped to initiate the OTTED study (Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development  - $75,000 grant to fund Study). The Oyster Harvesters Association will be briefed by a Doctor Otwell concerning post harvest treatment of oysters. The Seafood Workers Association has recently met and selected new officers and approved new by-laws. Mr. Putnal participated in that process as well. They will meet again on the 20th of this month to discuss the planning for re-laying. Finally, Sen. Lawson’s Bill to replace the Bag Tax with a line item appropriation in this coming budget  will have its second hearing before the Agriculture Committee and the legislature tomorrow morning at 9: o’clock (March 8th, ’06). I believe Chairman Sanders and Commissioner Putnal will join me and a couple of others up there to speak in behalf of this particular piece of legislation. Are there any questions?”
There were no questions. Mr. McLain then informed the board that he or Grady Leavins would be giving an update at least once a month.

J. Michael Shuler – County Attorney

“ … to advise the Board the Comp Plan Challenge hearing ended last week in Tallahassee. We do not expect a judgment regarding the matter until May of this year … I want to advise the Board that General Electric has filed a claim against the County and I will be responding to that complaint.” Due to the involvement of other Counties in the GE action which concerns the Weems hospital situation, the complaint is being handled in Gadston County. Mr. Shuler explained that he is requesting a change of venue. Ms. Sanders asked Mr. Shuler if it would be better to join in with the other Counties involved with the suit. Mr. Shuler suggested that it would not. “I am more comfortable defending a case against Franklin County in Franklin County if, in fact, I am successful in this change of venue … They want to do two things. They (GE) are asking to set aside as a fraudulent transfer, the transfer of the Hospital license from DasSee to Franklin County because they are saying that insufficient monies were paid (for the license by the County); and secondly they are saying that the County has acted as a joint tort with Dasee (in combination with DasSee). You will remember that the only reason that GE is after DasSee is because they loaned DasSee money to operate the hospital. As security for that loan they took certain collateral … The real issue that we are fighting there is the Hospital license. I think that the license has no value but it will take an appraiser to determine that.” The case at this time is being heard by Judge Renoylds in Gadston County. “They made a bad loan (GE) and they haven’t managed it well and I think that they have some finance officers that need to be fired.”  Also at issue is the County’s liability in relation to the debts of the DasSee corporation. The County, of course, assumes no liability but GE sees it otherwise.
     Mr. Mosconis pointed out that the hospital license was issued, not sold as a commodity. It was his opinion that this then disqualifies it as a commodity with a cash value. “This is just a part of their (GE) strategy to get some money out of somebody.” Mr. Shuler then went on to explain that the hospital administrator (Mr. Mike Lake) may have obtained this loan from GE with questionable security – the County had no say in the matter.
     The license is important for many reasons. One reason has to do with Medicare payments. These payments amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars and the Federal Government will not forward this money until this issue is resolved and they have a legitimate payee.
     “Also there is the Wilson vs. Franklin County case. They are seeking to do away with the public beach on St. George Island. This suit was filed by a William Wilson up in Tallahassee. He is represented by two attorneys. That case is pending. My motion to dismiss will have a hearing on March 27 and 28th. Hopefully the judge will see it our way and dismiss the law suit. They are asking the court to reform the plats of units 1, 2, and 3 – St George Island Gulf Beaches.” This would turn the beach between the lots and the Gulf over to the property owners rather than being a part of the County’s public access/beach area. There had been a previous action similar to this issue which has since been settled to the favor of the County. This case was concerned with sections of the public beach and certain street endings.
     Mr. Mosconis then expressed an interest in the County being able to recoup attorney’s fee and court costs on the  contention that people trying to claim ownership of public beaches is an issue long ago decided on by the State of Florida. He considered these suits to be of a frivolous nature. “To me that was a bogus law suit and they ought to pay our taxpayers from this County for the debt they made.” Mr. Shuler informed Mr. Mosconis that he had a motion pending dealing with that very notion.
“This Wilson case is Franklin County’s first class action law suit. Franklin County has now hit the big time. Lucky us!” Mr. Shuler then commended Alan Pierce and Mr. Ken Osborne for their positive roles in the Comp Plan challenge case.
The new ambulance contract was then discussed. It was concerned with duration, maintenance of equipment etc. “Probably the most important part (of the new contract) deals with the ambulance service leaving the community during a time of disaster.” Language was added to deal with that negative happenstance. Mr. Shuler then recommended the contract for approval by the Board. The contract was approved.
Mr. Shuler then provided the Board with a proposed sales tax plan that had been suggested to him by the Board in past sessions. The bill is to assure that the monies collected within the County would go directly to subsidize the hospital and not to any city or County general expenses. This was for the attention of the Board and will be discussed in greater detail at the next County Commission meeting. This idea will be put before the voters next November.
The next issue dealt with the Revolving Loan program which was set up several years ago. The Apalachee Regional Planning Council had been contacted to collect bad debts from a revolving loan program which was enacted several years past. The Council states that since their contract has since been terminated they have no obligation to collect any past debts or delinquent monies. It seems that they think this is the County’s responsibility – of course the County feels just the opposite. Ms Sanders said that she would bring the issue before the Council at the next meeting of the Council.

Toronto vs. Roux

Ms. Toni Taronto and Delores Roux had a rather atypical confrontation at this week’s Commission meeting. The debate involved the interpretation of zoning requirements with regards to a property on The Bay City Road. “This is on the same property which the property owners last year wanted to place commercial boat storage units in an area zoned for ‘Single Family Home Industry’ R-4,” said Ms. Toronto in a prepared statement. “With so many of the neighbors objecting to this commercial business in this zone, it is apparent that the owners have changed their tactics. Last year, in March, the owners applied for and received a permit to build a 525sq,ft. heated area house. The site plan showed an area for approximately 33 boat storage units. When neighbors objected before the County Commission, Chairman Sanders requested that before any permits on this property be granted, that she wanted it brought before the Board. Alan Pierce stated that he…would. On March 23, 2006 the property owners applied for and received a permit to build a second 528 sq.ft. house on the property … next to the existing one. When the first house was completed a sign was installed in front of the building. The sign advertised weekend and weekly rental. It is apparent that the owners intend to have these two units used as transient rentals for fishermen and/or short time visitors. According to the zoning code handbook, the intent of the R-4 zone is for single family homes which maintain and support home-related activities associated with fishing which occur in or near the Family residence and for certain cottage industries.” It is Ms. Taronto’s contention that this type usage does not conform to the R-4 zoning and would be more suitable to the C-3 commercial zoning. She is also extremely unhappy that “the neighbors” were not notified when new site plans were submitted and building permits were issued - as was promised. This property is said to contain 19 acres. Ms. Taronto wants to know if this means that there will be 19 of these rental units eventually on this property – and if so, is this within the zoning regulations. She thinks not; and would like a stop-order/ and or fine placed on this second property. “I request that these property owners and any future owners of this property, be denied any further permits for either transient rentals, boat storage units, or any other building or facility that is not allowed in this zone according to the handbook.”
     At the last County Commission meeting Attorney Yonclas, who was sitting in for Mr. Shuler, was assigned the duty of bringing to the Board a legal recommendation. Mr. Yonclas found that he could not, due to a personal conflict of interest.
     Mr. Shuler was then given the assignment. Ms Taronto asked if Mr. Shuler would also meet with the neighbors as Mr. Yonclas had agreed. He said that he would.
     It was at this point that local resident and long time business owner Delores Roux came forward to speak on the issue. “It seems strange to me that you would use the County’s money and the County’s time for a personal vendetta. I don’t see where this Board has anything to do with this. I’m Delores Roux and I am the owner of this property. This lady (Toni Taronto) is the wife of my brother – and she hates my guts! And that is exactly why she is here.”
     “Ms. Roux at the last meeting,” Ms. Sanders explained in a very soft-spoken, respectful manner, “the Board decided, at that time, to have Mr. Yonclas look at this and see if Mr. Pierce followed proper procedure in issuing the permit for your land. That is what we are looking at here – to make sure that Mr. Pierce did follow proper procedure on R-4 zoning.”
“Well,” Ms. Roux offered in a very sweet tone. “I think that all of you should be commended for your patience, your time and everything that you have done to accommodate this poor mentally deranged woman …” Ms. Roux had turned her head in order to direct her remarks to her sister-in-law. Ms. Taronto sat with her hand to her mouth, pink-faced in what can only be described as total shock and embarrassment.
“Thank-you, Ms. Roux,” Ms. Sanders interrupted. “Thank-you very much … but…”
“Would you, Mr. Shuler, hand this to the Chairman,” Ms. Roux requested of the County Attorney, holding out a package containing a tube of Chapstick.
“No, I don’t think I can do that,” Mr. Shuler responded.
Ms. Roux then tossed the Chapstick towards the area in front of Chairman Sanders.
“Thank-you,” Ms. Sanders said courteously.
“You are welcome,” responded Ms. Roux in a contained, controlled voice, “I really want to thank-you because I think that you, honey, have …..”
My boss says that it would not be appropriate to express Ms. Roux sentiment in her exact words. So be it suffice to say, that it was Ms. Roux’s vituperative opinion that Ms. Sanders was in need of a Chapstick to sooth her lips because of her overly accommodating, gracious, understanding, community spirit.
Mr. Mosconis suggested that this was more of a family disagreement and something that could not be settled by the Board. He felt that it was a matter that could best be handled by a civil court or by the parties between or among themselves.
Mr. Crofton suggested a Public Hearing on the issue or to have Attorney Shuler study the issue and return with a recommendation to the Board as Mr. Yonclas had been advised to do at the previous meeting.
At the previous meeting and at this meeting, Mr. Pierce stated that it was his opinion that there was no violation of the R-4 zoning code by Ms. Roux and that other action should be taken by Ms. Taronto.       Ms. Taronto asked that the County Attorney be asked to examine the zoning code with special attention to page 66 where R-4 zoning is clarified. “If you can not see a difference between residences and rental units, then that is not my problem,” she suggested.
“Alan do you have a recommendation?” asked Mr. Mosconis.
“The County does not distinguish between short term rental and long term residential use,” answered Mr. Pierce. “A house can be built in R-4 – a minimum lot size is 450 ft, the size of a small mobile home. The county does not have a standard on how long a person has to live there or whether the owner has to live in the residence. The city of Apalachicola does distinguish between short term rentals and permanent residences - and they prohibit that sort of activity in certain sections of the City. So people get confused sometimes about what is allowed in the City and what is allowed in the County. The County does not have any guidelines about the rental of residential property.”
Mr. Mosconis then pointed out that the rental of residences was a common practice throughout the County and a common practice out on St. George Island.
“This Board does a lot of things, but we do not mitigate family squabbles,” said Chairman Sanders.
Mr. Putal suggested that this type problem was not solvable on the basis that a person has the right to do as he wishes with his own home – whether he chooses to rent it or live in it is his business.
Mr. Crofton offered the opinion that it was the rental signs sitting outside of the residential units that offended him. Some of the Board members chuckled and suggested that Mr. Crofton pay closer attention to the roadside in his Island district on his way home to the Plantation.  
Mr. Shuler agreed with and supported the argument of Alan Pierce, but yet the debate went round and round. It was finally decided to ask the county Attorney  to give the issue one final examination and return at the next County Commission meeting with his legal opinion on the matter.

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