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Accusations fly at BB dune-parking lot public hearing

By Mark Young, Islander Reporter

A parking area at the BeachHouse Restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N., is posted for valet storage. According to a P&Z finding, storage of cars is a code violation in the designated preservation zone, although the city moved forward May 3 with a plan to expand the existing parking lot and construct a dune. Islander Photo: Mark Young

A trial-like atmosphere prevailed at the May 3 public hearing to decide whether or not Bradenton Beach would move forward with the proposed dune/parking lot project across from city hall, 107 Gulf Drive N.

The joint development agreement between the city and ELRA, the corporate entity of Ed Chiles’ BeachHouse Restaurant, to construct the dune and expand parking was signed in late March. On April 10, the plan went before the Bradenton Beach Planning and Zoning Board, and was rejected.

Bradenton Beach commissioners took up the matter at their May 3 meeting, which stretched out more than three hours.

Previously, at a joint May 1 land-development code meeting between P&Z and the city commission, commissioners suggested P&Z members attend commission meetings to better explain their recommendations.

Three P&Z members complied with that request, restating their reasons for rejecting the plan, which P&Z had concluded violated some eight land-development codes.

But they were met with accusations from commissioners that they were presenting tainted findings.

“It was clear during the (May 3) P&Z meeting from the onset that at least two members were predisposed to deny this process,” said Commissioner Ric Gatehouse. “Some things were said that were inappropriate. P&Z must remain above personal bias in order to render a fair decision based on the compatibility of the plan.”

Gatehouse acknowledged the board’s extensive knowledge of city codes, but called their April 10 decision “colored and tainted, and not something we can count on as being factual.”

P&Z chair Rick Bisio said the board did not arrive at their decision lightly.

“In our research, P&Z found (the plan) was in violation of these governing documents,” he said referring to the city’s land-development code and comprehensive plan.

Bisio cited several other determining factors in the P&Z decision.

“These are primary issues that can’t be ignored,” he said.

City attorney Ricinda Perry suggested the recommendation wasn’t being ignored, but rather, it was wrong.

“P&Z made a number of findings with no factual evidence,” Perry said. “I can say the sky is green, but it doesn’t make the sky green.”

Perry counter-argued P&Z recommendations and discounted Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring executive director Suzi Fox’s claims the proposed development site is sea turtle nesting habitat.

“That statement should have been stricken from the record as false information,” said Perry. “Miss Fox did not present a single photograph or documented evidence of a sea turtle nesting site” in the project area.

“I’ve been on record that there’s been a conflict of interest,” said P&Z board member Jo Ann Meilner, who read into the record some of the 2008 commission meeting minutes that stated Perry was working for Chiles on a project that was a gateway to the current proposal.

Meilner has been outspoken in her belief that the city attorney should not participate in the process due to her previous and current affiliations with Chiles.

P&Z recommended the project be rejected as well, Meilner said, with Perry representing ELRA at the commission meeting, asking commissioners to disregard P&Z recommendations.

Perry said that was factually inaccurate.

“That statement was made in front of P&Z and I have an express agreement with Bradenton Beach where it has waived my representation with ELRA,” said Perry. “It is a true statement when CIP was looking at this project we had discussions about me jointly representing Mr. Chiles and the city to lower costs.”

Perry reminded the commissioners that she has repeatedly volunteered to withdraw from the project if they doubted her ability to represent the best interests of the city.

She insisted during public comment on gaining a consensus from the commissioners for her to continue to work on the project and she received that consensus.

“In 2008, (Perry) was speaking for this very proposal,” Meilner said. “You can wave a piece of paper saying there is no conflict of interest, but your citizens think there is.”

For every argument presented by P&Z board members and each objection to the project from citizens attending, Perry and city staff offered a counter argument.

While it is the job of P&Z to interpret, know and, in some instances, write the codes, Perry argued that the state of Florida does not recognize the qualifications of anyone other than those who have degrees related to their field of expertise.

Perry said, for that reason, commissioners should ignore the P&Z recommendations and side with city staff, who she claimed were more qualified.

Referring to staff testimony at the P&Z public hearing, Perry said, “P&Z completely disregarded their professional opinion at that meeting. People who are credentialed means something and can be outweighed by other evidence. I would certainly hope this commission would give consideration to the great weight of your experts.”

Meilner reiterated her argument of eight violations and said, “Your job is to protect our codes. If you do not, you set a dangerous precedent.”

Gatehouse moved to approve the project with stipulations. Those stipulations include that the city and ELRA will each provide a conservation easement, ELRA will not use the city parking spots, landscaping will be enhanced, and a covenant will be provided to prevent future development of the site.

Perry said she would need to draft an order for the development prevention. While both sides — the city and Chiles — tentatively agreed to the stipulation, the project would not officially be approved until both sides agreed to the language.

Gatehouse, Commissioner Jan Vosburgh, Mayor John Shaughnessy and Vice Mayor Ed Straight voted for the motion. Commissioner Gay Breuler voted against it, saying she was in favor of the project, but wanted to eliminate all of the city parking spots with the exception of one spot for handicap access.

“I want to thank you for your consideration throughout this whole process, because it’s been going on for years,” said Chiles. “What I’m appreciative about is how city staff has worked with a private landowner to do something that is a win for everybody.”

The city has designated $46,000 of CRA funding for the project. ELRA will pay more than $200,000 toward the project, which will begin after sea turtle nesting season in early October.

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