Freeport City Council hears public comment on proposed hotel, denies application

ATTORNEY GARY SHIPMAN spoke for developer Reeshab Realty, LLC, for the proposed hotel in Freeport.

Story and photos by ADRIANNE WALLINE CAMPBELL 

The Freeport City Council held its regular meeting on July 27, 2023, at the Freeport City Hall. There was a large number of people present to comment (as well as protest) on the upcoming agenda item for a new hotel (application name “Freeport Hotel”) proposed on the property (North side of Marquis Way W., behind Publix). Most said that they live in the La Grange Landing development.

Gary Shipman of Dunlap & Shipman spoke as the attorney for the developer, Reeshab Realty, LLC. The project agent is David Forstrom, PE. The hotel was to be a Main Stay/Sleep Inn (by Choice Hotels) and was to be 42,621 sq ft, with 83 rooms, and 92 parking spaces. It met all the zoning and comprehensive plan requirements. The residential development adjoining it was an exception back in 2000, to a commercial area. Certified Planner Melissa Ward also spoke about the development. She said that the area is considered a “stacking zone,” as the residential/neighborhood commercial is stacked into the general commercial zone, and a hotel is acceptable in this zone. 

Amelia Beard, Managing Attorney of Moorhead Law Group’s Santa Rosa Beach office spoke representing the La Grange Landing Homeowners Association. Between her clients’ neighborhood of 108 homes, and another residential neighborhood, about 400 people would be affected by this project. The hotel reportedly poses significant burdens on these people, privacy, devaluing their property, quality of life, one family won’t be able to adopt because of the distance to the hotel. Gary Shipman responded, saying these things are not acceptable to be considered, only whether or not it complies with the land development code and the comprehensive plan. 

Those who spoke were Steve Bilger, who said he had tried to sell his home but lost the deal because the prospective buyers found out a hotel was planned. Thomas Goodson spoke next, then Mr. Weller who said he was told 0.2 acres of wetlands would be destroyed. He believed that those wetlands fed the pond that his kids fished in. Kai Lazarus, a previous manager of a small motel in Fort Lauderdale, said he had been attacked at that motel and was permanently disabled as a result. Next was Bethany Walker who said she was a mother of three small children. Her main concern was security. She also asked what the buffer should be between the residential homes and a commercial project. Jan Heatherly was also concerned with safety, asking if they would they build a wall that was three stories high? 

Bruce Merrill expressed concerned about the traffic increase, particularly when Marquis Way is the new bypass for U.S. 331 and SR-20, when a hotel is added to that. Mathew and Nellie Patton spoke about were safety and taxes. A Mrs. Ferrel spoke next, wonderinf why the hotel couldn’t be built somewhere else on U.S. 331. Mr. Ferrel compared the project to a pig: “You can’t put lipstick on a pig”. 

Another citizen commented that the Sleep Inn was low rated and of poor quality. Wendy Bilger said that when she moved in she understood the property was residential, but now they are finding out it is actually commercial. Kevin Loughain, who moved in in 2008, said he understood the zoning change was made in 2002 to change everything there to commercial. That the original developer came in and didn’t change the zoning so obviously mistakes were made. He said the MLS listings actually state commercial. 

City Planner Latilda Hughes-Neel responded to the questions posed by the citizens that spoke. 

• The first question was when the property was zoned commercial. It has always been commercial. 

• Would there be a difference in buffers if it was rezoned to residential? No, it would not make any difference. They are based on actual use not zoning. 

• Are the property taxes charged based on residential or commercial? Property taxes are based on actual use. Assessment of the property has nothing to do with zoning of your property. 

• Was the neighborhood considered when the plan was made? The Freeport land use plan predates the La Grange Landing plan development project. There were 2 phases of the plan: La Grange Landing Phase One, and Lafayette Creek Landing subdivision. It was first considered by the city council in 2003. They were asked by some developers to do a residential PDP (Planned Development Projects) even though it was zoned commercial. Under the code that was in place at the time, applicants were allowed to pick any type of PDP they wanted and get approval of it. She said she did not believe that the council in 2003 had any concept of how this city was going to grow, or get the amount of development that it has now. The Freeport plan was in place prior to the La Grange Landing development project plan. 

• The property was commercial back in 2000. The residential development came later as an exception. 

• If any citizen is looking on the county website for the city of Freeport, they will never find it. Freeport has its own website, comprehensive plan, land development code, and its own maps. 

Gary Shipman responded that this is not a budget motel or a small motel on Miami Beach, this is a national chain of business hotels. All the evidence presented complied with the land development code. 

Council member Elizabeth Haffner spoke that she was concerned with safety, traffic, and encroachment concerns. 

Council member Eddie Farris said he hears both sides. He made the motion “to deny the Freeport Hotel Major Development Project Application.” Council member Haffner seconded, and the council voted unanimously to deny the application. 

It was reported that there had been a spill at 4-Mile Creek of 390 gallons and a spill out of a manhole at Lafayette Creek, someone had put a plug in the line. After testing, the E coli counts were found to be within an acceptable range. They are currently shorthanded and are actively pursuing new employees. The Saw cross sewer upgrades are 70% complete. They hope to complete the next phase of the project around the end of October. It will open up an additional 250,000 gallons per day. The entire project of 1.5 million gallons should be completed by the end of March 2024.  

Ryan Hooks, a school resource officer with the Sheriff’s Department, spoke of the upcoming Back-to-School Bash Backpack Giveaway that is planned for July 29, 2023, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Freeport Regional Sports Complex. They plan on giving away 750 back packs stocked with school supplies. It had previously been held at the Wee Care Park in DeFuniak Springs but the number of vendors they have this year prompted them to move to a larger location. They handed out 1,000 hot dogs, water, and chips; and there are four food trucks planned for the event as well as four water slides, their new helicopter is to be there. 

SCOTT JENKINS presented the Alaqua Business Park Major Development to the council.

City Manager Mark Martin received approval to purchase a new work truck to replace one that had been involved in a traffic accident and totaled. He also received approval for their updated employment application, and to send out an RFQ (request for quote) for professional engineering for the Marquis West Connector Road. 

Finance Officer Sara Bowers requested a date to discuss the tentative millage rate. It was requested that the millage rate stay the same at 4.7302. It is to be on Sept. 13, 2023, at 5:01 p.m. A budget workshop was also set for Aug. 8, 2023, at 5 p.m. 

Latilda Hughes-Neel discussed the working waterfront projects. She said the city became part of the Waterfronts Florida program in 2012 and is the 26th community to be named a Waterfronts Florida Partnership Community. They do training and work with waterfront communities that have small ports every year by bringing in state agencies from all over the state that work in water traffic, water freight, transit, environmental concerns, coastal concerns, and it’s basically a training on how to find the money for people that have small ports. They actually received the designation from the department of economic opportunity. There are three projects that qualify under the working waterfronts projects. 

• Refurbishment of 4-Mile Bridge boat ramp. At the turn basin, there are a lot of boats with big motors that churn constantly. There is an undermining of the boat ramp that is used primarily by the citizens and local fishermen. They want to take a moveable boat ramp and come in with filter cloth and rip rap, underlay that and come in with supports all the way around and have a sheet pile retaining wall. The estimated cost is $200,000. 

• Turn Basin mooring fields within 4-Mile Creek and La Grange Bayou. Commercial boats are waiting in line to get fuel at this station and anchoring to whatever they can causing problems with not only the ecosystem but also vegetation. The plan is to put in seven mooring stations at the turn basin adjacent to property that the city already owns. They figure it would take about 45 pilings for seven boat slips. Many are aware that during the time of a severe storm in the gulf they have a steady stream of boats looking to moor in the protected creeks. They have a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Destin Co-op, that built fisherman’s boat yard, and they will bring their customers from Destin to the boat yard. 

• The third project under consideration at is Marsh Landing. For years there was a port authority there at Shipyard Road and the city took offloads of materials there and were picked up by trucks and the city would receive fees for that. With the changes to the park it is not practical to do offloading anymore. Commercial uses need to be protected. Staff has come up with a project to extend the bulkhead 200’ to the north and add additional mooring piles, put in some staging areas for trucks where offloading could be done. The cost of that project is about $400,000. 

ATTORNEY AMELIA BEARD of Moorhead Law Group’s Santa Rosa Beach office spoke on behalf of La Grange Landing Homeowners Association.

There are some fund sources under consideration to finance these projects. The Triumph Gulf Coast is one, and they want to work with Liberty Partners to go after all sources of funding. What they want to do is:

• Add all three projects to the Capital Improvements Program list. 

• Staff to work in conjunction with Liberty Partners.

• Add matching funds to next year’s budget.

• Issue a written request to Department of Transportation (DOT) for money for water ports and add to the TPO list for water freight and transit projects.

• Staff to pursue reactivation of 4-Mile Creek Port Authority, would allow a seat at the table at the TPO. 

DeFuniak Springs City Council member Tony Vallee spoke about the TPO, as he is on the board there. He recommended adding a seat to the TPO, even though it would not be as a voting member, but would be able to have discussion. He said they were not aware of how much fuel was transported by trucks through residential neighborhoods, emphasizing the importance of a working waterfront. All the projects that Hughes-Neel presented were approved. 

Scott Jenkins presented the Alaqua Business Park Major Development to the council. It is located on 83A and consists of office and warehouse space in six buildings. Wyscape, LLC is the developer; the project was approved.