Friday, April 20, 2018
Politics

St. Leo commission postpones decision on controversial warehouse project

ST. LEO — Seeking to end the month-old fight over its warehouse project, Saint Leo University sent its lawyer to town to lay down the law.

Land use attorney Joel Tew joined university engineers at a St. Leo town commission meeting Monday to ask for approval of a plan to build a 16,000-square-foot plant operations facility that would bring daily truck traffic to a residential road. About 30 residents packed the commission chambers to oppose the project, saying it will make conditions on the local road unsafe.

But a Florida Supreme Court ruling makes it clear, Tew said, that the commission must base its decision only on whether the plan meets the town's property development requirements.

"The court said, 'It's not a popular contest,' " he said.

For two hours, Tew and the engineers presented changes to the plan, originally introduced in February, and evidence intended to show that all requirements have been met.

But of the more than 30 residents in attendance, few were convinced, and neither were the town commissioners. "We're not ready to confidently make a choice," Commissioner James Hallett said.

They decided to wait, voting unanimously to continue the hearing until a July 14 meeting.

All four commissioners — former Commissioner Donna DeWitt was voted back into a vacated seat at the meeting's start — said they weren't qualified to interpret the engineers' reports, especially a traffic study the university said proves it's safe for the facility's trucks to access Pompanic Street.

The commission voted to have the town hire its own traffic consultant to settle the issue before its July 14 meeting.

Still, even if a consultant verifies the university's study, it likely won't satisfy residents and officials in neighboring San Antonio.

St. Leo and San Antonio share Pompanic; its midline is part of the border between the two towns. Though no one's sure they can stop the plan once approved, San Antonio officials and residents told the university in February they didn't want the facility's driveway to access Pompanic.

At Monday's meeting, San Antonio residents and the city's mayor, Tim Newlon, made it clear their minds haven't changed. They heard the traffic study data at meetings before.

"Let's take time to examine what we need to do to make the safe choice," Newlon urged.

San Antonio opponents think the street is too narrow for cars to pass, let alone the facility's trucks. But the trucks would be few, university officials say.

If the street's width is already a problem, Tew argued, the university shouldn't have to pay to widen it.

Pompanic is a general use street with no traffic restrictions. When residents urged the commission to restrict access to Pompanic, Tew pointed out that the land on which the facility would stand is zoned for business. The university is entitled to use the street like anyone else, he said.

"The university wants to be an institutional good citizen," he said. "But it's also a property owner and it has rights."

Overlooking Lake Jovita, the 12-acre field where the facility would stand also borders State Road 52. Some residents asked Tew, why not have the facility's driveway access the highway?

"52's not happening," Tew said. "It doesn't work for us."

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