City looks at role of public vs. developers

The City Commission may alter the role the public plays in the process used to approve new development.


Published: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 12:08 a.m.
It's a process few Gainesville residents know about, and fewer still have actually gone through themselves.
But with city officials pondering changes to the steps required for new development to be approved, the role and participation of the public in process of approving new development is taking center stage.
Tonight, the City Commission will debate a series of recommendations spurred by commissioners' spring trip to Norfolk, Va., and New Haven, Conn., that could "streamline" the process by which new developments are approved. Two city committees have produced separate sets of recommendations, each of which tweaks the delicate balance between public participation and the needs of developers in the approval process.
"What we were after when we started looking at this process was not to remake it," said John Fleming, a partner with Trimark Properties and chairman of one of the subcommittees that wrote the recommendations.
But some worry changes to the process will reduce or eliminate the ability for residents to participate and impact the development process.
Even if the City Commission reaches a consensus at tonight's meeting, changes to the development process would still take months to implement.
The primary focus for commissioners and developers is the class of midsized projects that don't require changes to city's land use or zoning, and which currently are approved by the city's Development Review Board. The recommendations would allow a greater number of projects in this category to be approved by city staff and would limit the number of projects whose developers would need to meet with neighboring residents near the beginning of the approval process.
These changes are necessary to deal with what developers see as inefficiencies and uncertainties in the existing process, said John Hudson, a Gainesville developer.
But though developers say the review process is in need of adjustment, they insist that the average resident won't notice the changes.
"I do not believe there will be a large impact to the general Gainesville population through this process," Fleming said.
Problems with the Development Review Board stem from its function as a body designed to approve plans but not set policy, a role similar to that served by staff, Hudson said.
Though the board should be a "final check-off" for city staff's recommendations, Fleming said the board often holds up projects, sometimes because of resident's concerns that fall outside of its jurisdiction. This not only costs developers, but puts the city at risk of a lawsuit, he said.
Eliminating some of the uncertainties in the process would allow developers to use money that they often save to address concerns raised at Development Review Board meetings earlier in the process, Hudson said. This would allow the money to be used more effectively to build better developments, he said.
Fleming agreed, and said by making some concessions to developers the commission would also reduce concerns if it decided to strengthen development regulations in some areas of the city.
"If I could save developers money and time in doing development, I could put pressure on them to do a better development," Fleming said.
But while developers may see the Development Review Board as costly and redundant, James Higman, the board's secretary-treasurer, said it provides valuable oversight in the review process.
"I believe there should always be a process where a decision made by a bureaucrat is reviewed by an unbiased panel," Higman said.
Higman said residents often make use of the board to voice concerns about projects, and that occasionally the board will differ with staff about an interpretation of the city's codes and require "minor changes" to a project.
"It's a question of trying to balance the interests of some individuals with the interests of others," Higman said. "If there's something that meets the comprehensive plan we should do everything we can to ensure it moves forward."
Others say citizen oversight is an important part of ensuring development regulation is done properly.
"All environmental laws rely heavily upon the involvement of citizens and citizen organizations in the implementation, monitoring, enforcement and public use of laws and environmental protection procedures," Karen Orr, political committee vice chairwoman of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, wrote in an e-mail.
"It's dismaying that the city commission seems determined to cut citizens out of the decision making process when a proposed development affects their neighborhood."
Jeff Adelson can be reached at (352) 374-5095 or adelsoj@ gvillesun.com.

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