Emails needed to defend Community Plans
Update: See the next post for the county commission’s solution to this issue.
Ruskin’s Community Plan is under attack, and ALL Community Plans could be next! Please help stop this attack before it spreads!
This Thursday, the County Commission will consider whether to keep or discard an essential piece of the Ruskin Community Plan—the Plan’s “Guidelines for Land Use, Density & Lot Sizes for Neighborhood Areas” (p. 20, Ruskin Community Plan). These Guidelines have been enforced for the past 8 years, but are suddenly on the chopping block because some developer has now convinced the county attorney to see a legal loophole. (We MAY be able to put the Guidelines into the Land Development Code LATER, after a lengthy process in which the Guidelines could get changed drastically or discarded entirely, after all. And even if we do that LATER, the Guidelines will be in the trashcan until then, allowing development contrary to the Community Plan.)
For more details, see the message below which I sent to the county commission, and see this Tampa Tribune article.
Commissioners will be addressing this issue at a meeting this Thursday, with no opportunity for public comment, so it’s important that they receive LOTS of email from citizens before Thursday. If one developer can gut the Ruskin Community Plan this way, it will start a feeding frenzy of developers finding “loopholes” in ALL community plans.
Please send an email prior to the commissioners’ meeting on Thursday morning (NOW!).
Here’s a sample message:
To: Mark Sharpe <email@example.com>, Kevin Beckner <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Ken Hagan <email@example.com>, Sandy Murman <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Victor Crist <email@example.com>, Les Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Al Higginbotham <email@example.com>
Subject: March 6 BOCC Agenda Item K.1: Ruskin Community Plan Guidelines
Dear County Commissioners,
Please continue applying the Ruskin Plan Guidelines to zoning cases, with no interruption, as has been done for the last 8 years.
When Ruskin citizens finished the 2-year process of creating the Ruskin Community Plan in 2005, everyone was led by the county to understand that these Guidelines would be enforced after the Plan was adopted, and indeed they have been ever since then—until now. County staff is now proposing that you throw out the Guidelines while you make Ruskin citizens re-do the lengthy process of workshops and hearings, just to re-write the Guidelines into the Land Development Code. This would betray the trust of the community in our government.
If the county has made some clerical error in the way the Ruskin Plan was written into the Comprehensive Plan, that needs to be fixed by the county without making Ruskin citizens do without their Plan’s Guidelines for any period of time.
This issue has ramifications beyond Ruskin, and threatens the integrity of all Community Plans. If someone wants to change a Community Plan, they can do so in the county’s regular public processes such as the Community Plan Updates—not by convincing the county staff to find some loophole, with no public process. If you let one developer gut the Ruskin Community Plan this way, it will start a feeding frenzy of developers finding “loopholes” in ALL community plans.
your name & address
Want more detail?
Here’s my message to commissioners, complete with reference material:
Dear County Commissioners,
After 8 years of using the Ruskin Plan’s Guidelines (p. 20, Ruskin Community Plan) to ensure development fits into the character of our community as planned, a county attorney has suddenly issued a new opinion of the legal standing of those Guidelines, and decided that they can no longer be used the way they have been used to guide development for 8 years! This county attorney now says we can’t enforce the Ruskin Plan’s Guidelines until we go through a lengthy process of amending the Land Development Code (LDC), to include the Guidelines in the LDC.
However, this county attorney was present and made no objection when county staff stated to the County Commission & the public, on the record, that the Guidelines in the Ruskin Plan Documents would be immediately implemented upon the adoption of the Comp Plan amendment as it was written, and that they do not need to be codified in the LDC in order to be applied to zonings. This was officially stated at the public hearing when the County Commission approved the Ruskin Community Plan Comp Plan Amendment — see captioning excerpt.
Furthermore, county attorneys have made no objections as these Guidelines were applied by the county to every rezoning in Ruskin throughout the past 8 years. Where applicable in these rezonings, county staff has cited the Guidelines or even literally spelled out the Guidelines into the Staff Findings & Recommended Zoning Conditions, noting that they are required by the Ruskin Community Plan. (see example zoning case MM 06-1340)
The Ruskin Plan Guidelines ARE the law NOW.
They have been applied in every zoning case in Ruskin for the past 8 years.
The quasi-judicial process of zoning hearings has established the case-law precedent & policy of applying the Ruskin Guidelines in case after case, over the last 8 years. We don’t need to codify them into the LDC to make them law—they ARE law.
The fact that these Guidelines are not specifically written into the Comp Plan or the Land Development Code (LDC) is not new—everybody knew this from the beginning, including staff, the public, county commissioners and the county attorney, and we were all assured that this was no mistake, and it would not stop the enforcement of our Plan’s Guidelines. At the time our Plan was crafted & approved, (1.) citizens asked about including the Guidelines in the Comp Plan, and (2.) a county commissioner asked about including these details in the LDC, and in both instances the county told us on the record that the Guidelines did not need to be spelled out in the Comp Plan nor in the LDC in order for staff to apply them to rezonings.
1.) County told citizens that the Guidelines do not need to be spelled out in the Comp Plan:
Prior to citizens agreeing to support our Plan’s adoption into the Comp Plan, I asked county staff, in an email, about the fact that the Guidelines were not included in the Comp Plan Amendment, and county staff told us—in writing—that the Guidelines were included by reference, and they quoted the language in our Comp Plan Amendment’s Goal 5 which “directly linked” the Guidelines, so they would therefore be used by staff to review rezonings.
We would not have supported that Comp Plan Amendment as is—we would have insisted that the Guidelines be literally spelled out within it—if we had not gotten this assurance, in writing, by the county, that the Guidelines were linked to our Plan by reference, and that the county would enforce those Guidelines in future zonings.
2.) Staff told County Commission & public that the Guidelines do not need to be in the LDC:
On the record at the public hearing on Feb. 17, 2005, when our Plan was approved by the County Commission, County staff explained how the Guidelines would be implemented in zonings, without the need for any further changes to the LDC, or anything other than the adoption of the Comp Plan Amendment before them. The county attorney was present and made no objection. Ever since the Board approved the Plan and this policy, EVERYONE (staff, commissioners, developers & citizens) has understood that these Guidelines were being applied in the way staff described at that hearing.
(see captioning excerpt)
If a county attorney feels he has discovered a county error at this late date, the county needs to figure out a way to fix the county’s error while maintaining enforcement of the Ruskin Community Plan, consistent with the 8-year-old county policy, precedent and case law, throughout the process of fixing the county’s error.
Problems with the staff’s new proposal:
(Agenda Item K.1, March 6 BOCC Land Use meeting)
It is unfair & inconsistent to allow some rezonings to slip in during a no-rules period created by the county, during which time our Guidelines are not enforced at all, while we work through the lengthy process of amending the LDC. To be fair, and avoid a no-rules period, we would need a moratorium on rezonings in Ruskin until the LDC amendment is done.
It is a waste of public resources, staff time & citizen time to go through all the workshops & hearings of the LDC amendment process for this one part of Ruskin’s Plan, when the whole Ruskin Plan will soon come up for review anyway, so we can move the Guidelines into the LDC then, while we review and move several elements together from the Comp Plan into the LDC at one time.
The county should fix its own mistakes, while continuing to uphold our Plan, without making the citizens grind through an unnecessary, wasteful do-over of all the workshops & meetings we did 8 years ago.
Possible ways to fix the county’s “error”
to conform to the county attorney’s new opinion:
a.) Fix the scrivener’s error in the Comp Plan so the text matches the intent which led the county staff to tell the public that the Guidelines were included by reference. According to the county attorney’s 2/13 email, this should be a simple matter of including the document name in the wording that references the Guidelines, and including a footnote as to where they can be found in county records.
b.) The 8-year-old policy could be formally adopted by the Board now, with a reference to where the document is publicly available. So the Board could direct staff to continue applying the Ruskin Guidelines, as policy, in the same way staff has been applying them for the last 8 years (at least until the next update of the Ruskin Plan). Because the Guidelines apply only to PDs, they can be applied as policy, the way PGM staff originally intended.
FIRST we need to ensure that the county continues applying the Ruskin Community Plan’s Guidelines to zonings without interruption in the same way as they have done for 8 years. THEN, during the next update of the Ruskin Community Plan, we will review several elements, including these Guidelines, and consider moving them from the Comp Plan into the LDC.
If a developer wants to change the way the Ruskin Plan has been applied for the last 8 years, they need to go through the public process of amending the Comp Plan or LDC. To let a developer affect change in a longstanding BOCC-adopted zoning policy by convincing a county attorney to find a loophole, behind the scenes, with no public process, sets a terrible precedent.
I hope the County Commission will direct staff to continue applying the Ruskin Plan Guidelines, without interruption, as they have for 8 years, and as we were all assured—on the record—that they would do when the Ruskin Plan was adopted. The county attorneys can make this longstanding policy legally defensible, without any period of no-rules, if they are directed to do so by the county commission.