By REID TUCKER
The DeFuniak Springs City Council put in nearly a full day’s work at 2014’s first regularly scheduled meeting, which lasted until well past 10 p.m.
The biggest item on the agenda, and ultimately the reason behind the lengthy Jan. 13 meeting, was a quasi-judicial public hearing regarding a request for a small-scale zoning amendment brought forward by COPE Center, Inc. and property owner Ohio Investments, Inc. COPE requested the land use and zoning changes with the aim of moving its Magnolia Terrace assisted-living facility to a 2.09-acre parcel just off State Road 83 North, a move necessitated by the fast-approaching U.S. 331 widening project. The board members listened to several hours of public and professional testimony before voting 4-1 to deny the request, with Councilman Mac Carpenter casting the lone nay vote.
Though he alone voted against the motion to deny to the request outright, Carpenter was among the most vocal of the board members when it came to grilling the legal representatives of Ohio Investments and the engineering firm responsible for planning the project. Carpenter contended the Council should not move forward with the rezoning request since the developer had not provided the full extent of the information relating to project compatibility (soil samples, historic and natural resources, etc.) required for small-scale land-use amendments under Florida Statute. He said his opposition came down to a concern that the requested amendment, if granted, would not withstand a legal challenge given the circumstances.
“I don’t think we received adequate information to consider this approval,” Carpenter said. “I don’t think there’s been a demonstration of compatibility, but at the same time I think there could have been. I think assisted living is very, very important to Walton County and DeFuniak Springs. We all may wind up there one day if we’re lucky enough to live that long.
“I think a case could be made for this location. I don’t think it was.”
The DeFuniak Springs Community Center was packed with individuals who came out to either support or oppose the proposed land use – that being the eventual relocation of a proposed 24-bed Magnolia Terrace – despite that not actually being the expressed purpose of the public hearing. The decision before the Council at the meeting was only to consider the proposed land-use change from low-density residential to medium-density residential and a zoning downgrade from C-2 general commercial to R-2 multi-family residential, which would allow a 34-unit housing complex at maximum.
Several of those in attendance vehemently spoke against locating the assisted-living facility in their neighborhood due to concerns over Magnolia Terrace housing a limited number of mental health patients. Examples of 911 calls resulting from Magnolia residents subject to involuntary examination under the Baker Act were provided by those opposed to the relocation. Furthermore, the proposed facility’s close proximity to Harbeson Field, the site of numerous youth programs throughout the year as well as the local Boys & Girls Club, was a point of contention among most of those in the opposition camp.
Another major agenda item returning a less-than-unanimous vote from the Council was discussion following the apparent decision of Crim and Associates, an Atlanta development firm, not to move forward with plans to purchase the City Hall property. The developer’s position, as outlined in a letter received last week, was that inspections of the site revealed topographical issues that would impede the firm’s plans for construction on the property, which included three new buildings housing four national retail chains. Therefore, Crim elected to back out of the agreement to purchase the property for a little more than $3 million, as proposed to the City Council at its last few meetings of December 2013.
A slew of motions inviting Crim to come back to the table to further discuss the potential land sale failed for lack of a second, and Councilman Henry Ennis asserted his belief that the land purchase was effectively dead. Councilman Kermit Wright was similarly displeased that the city, in the process of pursuing due diligence had spent upward of $13,000 in land studies and legal fees, only for the developer to back out on the cusp of sealing the deal. Councilmen Carpenter and Mac Work cast the only aye votes on a final motion to authorize the mayor to continue a dialog with Crim and Associates.
Carpenter put forward the idea that the city could conceivably sell the Wayside Park property as well as the City Hall property as a means of attracting developers, but the general consensus of the Council was to take up the matter again at a later date.
Aside from the discussion on the aforementioned topics, certainly not the least of the decisions before the Council on the night was to hire longtime DeFuniak Springs Police Lt. Tillman Mears as the new assistant city manager and public works director. The board swiftly cast straight votes in favor of hiring Mears to the two positions, which were vacated by the untimely death of Bill Holloway, who died in late November of a sudden illness.
Even after all that, the Council still wasn’t finished. A request to close Circle Drive for a Black History Month parade on Feb. 15, a proclamation establishing Jan. 16 as Snowbird Day, the plans for the upcoming 2014 Chautauqua festivities and an interest-free promissory note from FDOT for roadwork in the city were all unanimously approved.
By REID TUCKER