Commission pulls back temporarily
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The Jefferson County Commission last week blinked, took a step back, and rescinded its vote on the controversial bike trail, in the process of calming the waters and avoiding a lawsuit.
Indeed, a lawsuit had already been filed earlier in the week, one that the litigator agreed to remove once the commission rescinded its vote.
Commission Chairwoman Betsy Barfield, the bike trail's main driver on the board, proved herself a stateswoman; a lesser politician might have dug in her heels. Barfield certainly appeared to have the three votes necessary to defeat the motion to rescind and move forward on the bike trail. From their comments, Commissioners Stephen Fulford and Stephen Walker both supported the trail.
Barfield, however, decided “to reset the button” on the issue, as she phrased it. No doubt the lawsuit played a part in her decision. But more critical to her, she said, was the community fragmentation that she saw the issue was creating.
“The lawsuit troubles me,” Barfield said after the opponents had had their says. “But I hate more to see our community divided. I would like to reset this. I would like the lawsuit to be retracted so that we can work this out together. I don't like to see strife in the community. I give my apology. I ask that you listen with open hearts and that we work together.”
“I believe the support is up here to move the bike trail forward,” Barfield continued. “It's not the lawsuit that motivates, it's looking in my neighbors' eyes and seeing daggers pointed at me. I'm doing this in the trust that we can work together on this.”
With that the board voted 4 to 1, with Walker the lone vote, to rescind the Jan. 3 vote approving the bike trail and go back to square one and hold workshops and public hearings on the issue.
The outcome was unpredictable at the start, the only known being that Commissioners Eugene Hall and J.T. Surles would vote to rescind the Jan. 3 vote.
The opposition to the trail was well organized. Driving into
town, rows of anti-trail signs decorated the side of US 90 west, as signs likely adorned other of the major roads entering the city. Several individuals wearing red T-shirts with the words “Stop the Duke Rail Trail” stenciled in white on them congregated on the courthouse circle, waving signs at passing motorists. Meanwhile, inside the courtroom, red T-shirt wearing protesters, as well as trail proponents, filled the space to capacity.
Faced with a largely hostile crowd, Barfield took the chairperson's reigns in hand from the start of the meeting, setting down the procedural rules and acceptable conduct for addressing the board. Comments, she said, were to be limited to three minutes, enforced by County Coordinator Parrish Barwick. Speakers were to address the board, not the audience. The comments, moreover, were to be kept brief, and personal attacks would not be tolerated.
Sheriff Mac McNeill, who had a couple of deputies present, emphasized the point. He asked the audience to be mindful that they would remain friends and neighbors after the debate and urged that each be courteous and respectful of everyone.
Hall and Surles had their says next, and ultimately offered a motion to rescind the Jan. 3 vote approving the trail. The two essentially said that Barfield had misrepresented the facts when she had argued for approval of the bike trail.
“I was told that all the property owners had been notified and due diligence done,” Hall said. “Then I found out that you all weren't notified.”
“I apologize,” Surles said. “This board was misled and the citizens were left in the dark.”
Barfield next asked Planning Attorney Scott Shirley to give a summary of the concerns that the property owners had expressed at the Jan. 31 workshop, as three of commissioners had not attended.
Shirley cited the numerous concerns voiced by the upset landowners. These included fear of trespassers, loss of access to their properties, loss of privacy and enjoyment of their lands, increased liability, improper notification and possible Sunshine Law violation by the commissioners.
Shirley responded to some of the concerns. He said property owner access would be maintained. No environmental impact study was required because no federal action was being taken, he said. The bike trail was considered a roadway facility, so it was not necessary to make special notification to the adjacent property owners, he said.
“Because it's a roadbuilding project within an existing right-of-way, it's exempted from a development and notification is not required,” Shirley said, adding that “didn't mean it (notification) shouldn't have been done.
“It would have been a better idea to notify the owners first,” Shirley conceded after the fact.
Again, because the project was a roadway and not a development, it didn't have to come before the Planning Commission as some argued, he said.
“It's exempted from the Planning Commission process because it's not a development,” Shirley said.
On two others of the concerns expressed, he said the engineers had affirmed the structural integrity of the bridges, and he vouched that the officials had not violated the Sunshine Law.
Following Shirley's comments, Barfield opened the floor to the audience, with about 30 speakers addressing the board, the majority expressing opposition to the bike trail. The speakers were too many and their comments too lengthy to present individually. But they overall emphasized certain basic themes and points.
On the opponents side, one of the major objections was the lack of notification to the adjacent landowners who were most impacted by the trail, which lack of notification several characterized as intentional in order to stack the field in favor of the trail's proponents.
“If you believe in fair play, the people most impacted should have been notified,” said Chip Beal, expressing the general sentiment.
“It's not the bikers I'm worried about,” said Lynn McGrady, another of the affected landowners. “It's that you're opening up a rural area to anyone.”
Others worried about the loss of privacy, the potential for trespassers, increased liability, and diminution of property values. They questioned also the project's supposed economic benefits, its projected $40,000 total cost (believing it would be astronomically more), and doubted the viability of volunteers maintaining the trail.
Attorney Michael Gay, of Foley and Lardner in Orlando, reiterated that his representation of several of the affected landowners.
“I said there would be a lawsuit,” Gay said, referring to his threat at the Jan. 31 workshop. “My law firm filed a lawsuit this Monday. Government needs to be open and transparent.”
Attorney David Collins agreed. Although he lives nowhere near the trail, he saw the issue in broader terms, he said.
“This is about fundamental fairness and due process,” Collins said. “No government should take action without notifying adjacent landowners.”
Wallace Bullock had a business-related concern. A licensed pyrotechnician for 32 years who is well known for his fireworks displays, he keeps high explosives on his property near the trail. Bullock said by law he must maintain certain distances between his storage sheds. Nor could he readily move his operation elsewhere on his property, he said. Which meant that the trail put him at risk of losing his business license, he said.
“You're wanting to throw me into the volcano as a sacrifice,” said Bullock. “I've put 66 years into Jefferson County. You're asking me to do something that I don't want to do. One day I'll do it, but I'd like to do it on my terms.”
Not all the trail's adjoining landowners opposed the trail. At least three spoke in favor of it. One noted that the trail had been listed on the county's visioning plan for many years; another argued that landowners were mere stewards of the land and the public deserved a right to equal enjoyment of the natural resources; and a third offered his services and equipment to help keep the trail maintained.
The trail's proponents, although not as numerous, argued equally passionately. They painted the trail as potential revenue generator and tourism attraction. They dismissed the idea that bicyclists and hiker would pose any danger or trespass. Bicyclists and hikers were people who wanted to exercise and enjoy nature, they said. It was also a safety issue, they said, as many bicyclists were injured or suffered fatalities on regular roads. They called for reason, compromise and coexistence to prevail.
“This is not a new concept,” said one impassioned bicyclist. “This is not a landfill or a shopping mall. If you're going to protest, pick a bad guy!”
“I think it's foolish that we don't want bicyclists,” said another, a self-described bicyclist and county resident. “We're not bad guys. We just want to ride our bicycles.”
As is usual in such debates where the stakes are high and emotions run higher, facts get lost in the fray, people hear what they're prepared to hear, and few if any are dissuaded from their original viewpoints.
When it came to the commissioners' comments, three of the board members' positions were clear: Barfield supported the trail, and Hall and Surles opposed it. The question was how Fulford and Walker stood on the issue.
“I'm for it,” Walker said upfront. “I've researched the legality and safety of the trail and I think it's a good plan. I don't see a problem.”
He for one was ready to vote for on the issue, he said. Or vote against the rescission motion, as it were.
Fulford was more nuanced in his response but no less supportive of the project.
He personally had looked forward to bicycling the trail with his four kids, he said. It clearly amazed him, he said, that some were accusing the commission of acting willy-nilly, when the trail had been on the county's visioning plan for numerous years and the commission was merely seizing the opportunity now that it arose.
“So, this is not coming out of nowhere,” Fulford said. “ I hate to say it, but it really didn't. Clearly, my eyes have been opened. Personally, I was excited about the trail. And yes, everything is personal to someone. But I don't like what this is doing to our community. We're talking about a bicycle trail, not another petroleum pipeline.”
He offered that hunters, bikers and hikers were all outdoors types and would do better to consolidate their efforts and worked against measures that harmed both, rather then expend their energies fighting each other.
He would never vote for anything that would harm Bullock's business, he said. But he believed that there were ways to address the concerns if everyone worked together, he said.
“I hate to do anything that brings people along kicking and screaming,” Fulford said. “The value of compromise is that everyone gives a little. I'm definitely in favor of hitting the reset button. But I want us to move forward with the work that we've been doing for 15 years.”
The commission plans to hold workshops and meetings in the coming weeks or months in an effort to get the property owners and project proponents on the same page on the project.