CHIPLEY — The Washington County Planning Commissioners were very accommodating to longtime Vernon business Somsri’s Restaurant, but it was a different story for Scott Henderson and his requests on behalf of the Sunspace PUD.
Both requests were the subject of a public hearing Tuesday night in Chipley.
Panama City attorney Martha "Sister" Blackmon Milligan and architect Winston Lee of Winston Lee and Associates in Monticello, Fla., were on hand to discuss the plans for Somsri’s new restaurant and to request setback variances for the construction.
The widening of Highway 79 by the Department of Transportation took a large portion of the restaurant’s frontage, and the new construction will bring the restaurant back up to where it was pre-construction.
“The owners want to stay where they are, but they need some relief,” Milligan said.
The Vernon City Council has already approved the proposed construction, and the commissioners were being asked to approve reducing the setback requirements from 50 feet to 10 feet.
“This is a case of the property owners facing a hardship because of the highway taking their property,” said Michael DeRuntz, senior planner for the county. “These variances will put back what is existing currently.”
Lee said he is working with a number of property owners in Vernon. “I can tell you that most of them are not rebuilding,” the architect said.
“We definitely want Somsri’s to stay in Vernon,” said Commissioner Mike Park. “I know from the school district’s perspective, the staff needs a place to eat lunch,” he said, referring to the Vernon schools. Park is director of transportation and maintenance for the school district.
Commissioner Roger Hagan asked how granting these setbacks might affect the county in the future. “If we grant these requests, what do we say to the next person who wants the same setback?” He asked if the hardship caused by the highway widening made a difference in their decision.
“They did not just get up one day and decide to do this, their property was taken from them,” Commissioner Nan Thompson said. “it’s not their doing. They’re doing their best, and this is their livelihood.”
Following the public hearing, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the restaurant’s variance request.
Next up was Scott Henderson, representing the developers, Sunspace Planned Unit Development (PUD).
A PUD is a mixed-use development, and Sunspace is requesting the county to change the Future Land Use Map designation of a 35-acre tract of land from school property to a PUD designation which would allow commercial and residential, including townhouses, to be constructed on the site, which is located in Sunny Hills.
“The school district has told us they have no intention of using the property as a school site,” Henderson told the commissioners. Sunspace would like to use the land in a mix of 29 acres of residential, five acres of commercial and one acre dedicated to storm water retention.
“We’re asking you to make a decision on the Future Land Use of the property, even though your staff recommends denial,” Henderson said.
DeRuntz and County Attorney Jeff Goodman have interpreted the county codes in a manner with which Henderson and his client Sunspace disagree, Henderson said.
Commissioner Jim Ackerman asked if the proposed townhouses would be individually owned or would be managed properties, and Henderson said he did not know.
Henderson disagreed with Goodman’s interpretation of the codes when the county attorney said the comprehensive plan amendment not predicated on PUD application, but the codes call for a PUD being approved upon plan designation; in other words, a plan is needed for an area to be deemed a PUD, said DeRuntz on Thursday.
“You need to have a plan associated with that district zoning, DeRuntz said. Furthermore, the standards call for a PUD to demonstrate “innovative and unique” features in design that define the development.
Henderson said he had no such plans to present to the commission.
Along with the future land use map change, the developers were asking for approval to build the first 50 homes using a waste lift station in lieu of septic tanks, Henderson said.
Ackerman asked if the developers had detailed plans for the development the commissioners could see.
Henderson said the developers were not going to spend the money on more detailed plans until the future land use of the property was clarified. “No one is going to spend the kind of money it would take to work up all the details on a property they don’t even know if they can use or not,” he said. The developers are also proposing that they be allowed to build the first 50 units using a sewage lift tank as a storage tank, to make development more affordable.
“It is going to take over $500,000 to build the first house,” Henderson said. The plan is for the first 50 homes to be connected to a lift station that would be pumped out by tanker then taken to the Sunny Hills waste treatment plant. “When the 51st home is built, then the developer will make the lift station operational and connect it with the treatment plant.”
Vice Chairman David Morris was chairing the public hearing, since chairman Al Keown was absent on Tuesday.
In the public participation segment of the hearing, things turned confrontational when Morris’ wife, Karen Morris, asked why there had been no progress on the Rhythm project, which was approved after much controversy in 2012.
The proposed Rhythm development is a 1,883 acre Active Adult Retirement Community in Washington County approximately 3 miles west of US 231, according to the website genesisgroup.com.
The proposed development includes 3,200 residential units, a Village Center with retail and office space, central water and wastewater treatment plants, and numerous civic amenities. These amenities include an extensive trail network, a grand lawn, an equestrian facility, community gardens and parks, according to the website.
“The Rhythm DRI is moving forward at a slow pace,” Henderson said. The developers have finished their initial studies, and have engaged engineers and met with Gulf Coast Power Electric Cooperative to begin discussing utilities.
Karen Morris asked why the Rhythm property is being advertised as for sale. “We need jobs in our community, not just developers coming in and flipping property.”
Henderson told the commissioners he thought the questions and comments about the Rhythm project were inappropriate, but he took a dressing down from David Morris.
“There are no inappropriate questions,” Morris said. However, Morris cried foul a few minutes later when Henderson asked for a “straw poll,” seeking individual opinions from commissioners on whether or not the property in question should be developed.
“I think it is highly inappropriate of you to ask that question,” Morris told Henderson.
Later, in the regular meeting, Ackerman made a motion to table the Sunspace request until the next planning commission meeting, at which time the county attorney can be involved in the discussion. The commissioners unanimously voted to table the requests.
“As a board we are constantly hit with developers wanting to develop the outlying areas of the county,” Commissioner Morris said. “I don’t understand why they can’t develop in the central hubs, the cities where we already have these utilities in place.”