Time for Manatee County to educate public on land-use laws for clarity's sake

Manatee County government would be wise to follow commissioners' desire for forums to educate the public on land-use policies, legal restraints to official action and other restrictions on how an elected body can act. This comes to the forefront in light of opponents to a development near Parrish who attempted to convince commissioners to reconsider the approval of Trevesta.

Their frustration is borne out of the idea that the commission is free to do this, but that presents a host of issues. State statutes are strict on such matters.

Plus, there's the misunderstanding that the county commission is bound to follow the recommendation by Planning Commission, which is only a citzen advisory board, not an elected body.

While we commiserate with Trevesta foes, there's a community-wide lack of knowledge about these kinds of political and legal proceedings. Florida law outlines in detail that county commission actions are governed under two categories -- quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial.

As county attorney Mickey Palmer informed this Editorial Board, all land-use applications for rezoning and site planning fall under the quasi-judicial category. After the required public advertising, that means witnesses must testify under oath, and the permit applicant can make a presentation. That occurred on Jan. 8, and all citizens who wanted to comment were permitted to do so.

Five days later, however, project opponents wanted another opportunity to convince the commission to review their decision, which came on a 5-2 vote for approval.

Commissioners are only allowed to consider pubic testimony and evidence presented at the first public hearing, and they are not legally allowed to "consider matters that are outside of the record in the public hearing setting," Palmer wrote in his opinion.

State law requires an advertised public hearing with the public comments under oath. The project's developers had not been advised of the request to revisit the commission approval, amounting to a denial of their right to rebut critics.

The county commission can indeed revist a vote -- at the very next regular meeting, as Trevesta opponents sought -- but this is a quasi-judicial proceeding that would have been "highly irregular to invite a new round of public commentary" and would invite a circuit judge to overturn a different commission decision. This would have violated procedureal due process.

Per a quasi-judicial proceeding, commissioners must act more like judges than administrators -- but their decisions can be challenged in courts. In Trevesta's case, the 30-day appeal period began last week.

The board of commissioners acted on sound legal advice in denying Trevesta foes from talking specifics about the project in the followup meeting on Jan. 13. A quasi-judicial hearing only lets decision-makers apply policies and laws already in place.

Should that follow the will of the people in opposition to a project, then so be it. But in such proceedings, officials must consider the project applicant's agreement with legal requirements in the proposal, else a lawsuit ensue.

That is a confounding, difficult concept, especially when citizens seek redress for a perceived wrong -- even just by commenting at a public meeting.

Long Bar Pointe is a good case study on this issue. Commissioners had a strong legal foundation for rejecting one of the key requests from developers, a point that conflicted with the Comprehensive Plan's ban on certain construction along the shoreline.

And, to the commissioners' credit, they scheduled a public hearing in a venue that could accommodate hundreds of people. More than 1,000 residents attended that hearing at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in August 2013, with testimony and comments lasting around 12 hours.

Manatee County should indeed pursue a public education program to inform citizens of the law and their rights on land-use topics since development is such a hot-button issue.

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