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Commissioner Betsy Barfield wanted feedback from the property owners whose lands adjoin the recently approved US-90-to-Georgia-line bike trail, and last week, she got an earful.
On Thursday evening, Jan. 31, about 60 people – the overwhelming majority property owners opposed to the trail – crowded the commission chamber, determined to have their voices heard.
The property owners, moreover, quickly upended Barfield's planned presentation on the bike trail, telling her in no uncertain terms that they hadn't come to hear “a sales pitch”, but rather to make their concerns known.
Chip Beal, who identified himself as an adjacent property owner and attorney, set the tone for the evening. Beal interrupted Barfield midway through her introduction of the presentation panel to say that he didn't care to hear a sales pitch, a comment that earned him applause.
An aggrieved Beal noted that notwithstanding the trail directly impacted him, he had received no notice of the Jan. 3 commission meeting when the board approved it. In fact, the adjacent property owners had been “conspicuously absent” from the meeting, he said.
“We should have been involved in this process from the beginning,” Beal said, a sentiment repeated
throughout the hearing.
Beal enumerated his concerns as potential trespassing by the trail's users, lack of access to his property on the other side of the trail, increased liability from potential trespassers, diminution of his land value, and the loss of quiet enjoyment of his land.
He characterized the idea that the trail would bring an economic boon to the area as a pipe dream, along the lines of, “If you build it, they will come.”
“I'm dead opposed to this project,” Beal said.
Lynn McGrady followed, saying that she “had about blown her stack” when she had learned after the fact that the trail had been approved, without consideration of how it would impact her and the other adjacent property owners.
“You haven't done your homework,” McGrady told Barfield. “I feel it was intentionally deceptive.”
Barfield, she said, had worked behind the scene for a year to bring about the trail without bothering to notify the surrounding landowners of the project. Nor, McGrady said, did she appreciate not being notified of the Jan. 3 meeting, although the bikers, hikers, horse riders and other proponents of the project had been well aware of the meeting.
“The fact that we didn't know about the proposal was grossly unfair to us,” McGrady said. “We didn't get any notification. This word-of-mouth thing was intentionally deceptive and downright deceitful. It was 14 days after the vote that we received the letter of notification. Why 14 days? We could have been mad a lot earlier.”
Mike Willis, another of the adjacent landowners, was no less harsh in his criticism. He called it “flagrant and rude” the way that the commission had “tried to shove this project down our throats.”
He also disputed that the bike trail would bring economic benefit to the community. His wife, he said, owned a store in Monticello and the reality was that she lost money during biking events.
Willis distinguished between want and need. The want of the bike trail was apparent, he said, but where was the need? Other parts of the county presented great opportunities for bicycling, he said. So why put the burden of liability on the adjacent landowners.
He disputed that $40,000 would be sufficient to upgrade and maintain the trail, offering that the true price tag would be closer to quarter million dollars or more. He also questioned the ability of law-enforcement to patrol the trail and EMS to respond to emergencies on the trail. He asked each of the officials present, including Sheriff Mac MeNeill, Fire Chief Derrick Burrus and County Coordinator Parrish Barwick how each would like a public thoroughfare running through their backyards.
“This is the first time that many of these people have ever come to a meeting,” Willis said, gesturing around the room. “That should tell you how close to our hearts this issue is. I commend you, Commissioner Barfield. I don't know how in hell you manage to keep this secret for so long.”
David Ward, the first to raise the issue of improper notification at the Jan. 3 meeting, basked in his vindication.
“I've been proven right,” Ward said. “The commission now has the option to rescind the Jan. 3 vote, start again, and do the proper notification. To have a planning official and Planning Commission sidelined during the process bewilders me. What's taken place so far is the wrong way.”
The onslaught of criticism continued, with speaker after speaker decrying and lambasting the board's decision to approve the trail, variously questioning the true cost of the project, the process's lack of transparency and disclosure, and the diminution of land value and quality of life.
One individual who identified himself as an Orlando attorney representing several of the affected landowners outright threatened litigation if the project proceeded.
“The clients I represent will make sure that the rules are followed, and if not, there will be litigation,” this individual said, calling the board's action a land taking. “I will tell you without hesitation that a lawsuit will be filed and the cost will be passed down to the taxpayers. So, before you make a hasty decision, you have to follow the process, which wasn't followed. And I will litigate.”
After a few more speakers, which basically repeated or augmented on the previously made points, Beal returned to the podium.
“This process has been insulting to me,” Beal said.
He asked for a show of hands. How many people present were adjacent property owners? he asked the audience.
A great many hands went up.
How many of those property owners supported the project?” he asked.
One hand went up hesitantly.
“I think we've said what we wanted to say,” Beal said.
With that, he walked out of the room, followed by the majority of the audience.
Several others spoke against the project subsequently, but by then their points were largely redundant, the passion moderated. The only one to express guarded support for the trail was Robert Daniels, a county resident and former officer of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
As a property owner who had recently been involved in a lengthy battle to keep a logging company from clear-cutting land adjacent his, Daniels said he sympathized with the upset property owners. But should the project come to fruition, he said, he would volunteer his services to patrol the trail under the auspices of the Sheriff's Office.
Planning Attorney Scott Shirley suggested that all the public comments be summarized and presented to the full commission for consideration. After which, the bike trail proponents proceeded to give their prepared presentation. The exercise, however, appeared pointless, given that the intended audience had departed the building.
The bike trail is scheduled to come up again for discussion on Thursday evening, Feb. 7. Commissioners Eugene Hall and J. T. Surles requested the issue be put on the agenda. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the courthouse annex on Water Street.