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Legislator develops a little relief for builder

Sometimes it helps to have friends in high places.

On Thursday, it helped Tallahassee developer Kent Deeb in his battle to get permission to build an 11-story office building across the street from the Capitol on a corner where buildings of more than two stories are prohibited.

The highly placed friend is state Sen. Winston "Bud" Gardner, D-Titusville, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Gardner said he filed the bill for his friend, lawyer-lobbyist Jack Skelding, who is Deeb's partner and lawyer. Gardner said he believes theregulations being imposed on Deeb are unfair.

The fact that Skelding is one of the lawyers who is representing Gardner on criminal charges is not related to his decision to sponsor the bill, Gardner said.

The Senate Governmental Operations Committee voted 6-3 for Gardner's bill. It would strip authority from a planning commission that determines what can be built near the state Capitol.

Officials in Tallahassee who oppose the measure are livid. "The Legislature might as well go parcel by parcel throughout the state and rezone it," said Toni Riordan, lobbyist for the city.

The bill also was opposed by the Capitol City Planning Commission, which was created in 1972 to review all construction in the area that surrounds the Capitol.

Several members of the Government Operations Committee said they had reservations about the bill and may not vote for it when it goes to the Senate floor. But few senators want to publicly oppose Gardner, who, as appropriations chairman, has his hand on the budget.

Gardner and 23 other legislators were charged with failing to report trips and gifts they accepted from lobbyists. All of them have pleaded no contest and paid fines, but Gardner has appealed to challenge the constitutionality of the law. His lawyers on the misdemeanor charges have been Skelding and his law partner, Bill Corry.

Gardner said he's not sponsoring this bill to help his lawyer. "It sure as hell didn't affect his legal fees," Gardner said when asked about the connection after the committee vote.

Gardner said he paid Skelding $22,000 and had to sell a piece of land in Brevard County to raise the money.

Appearing before the committee Thursday, Gardner acknowledged that it might seem odd that a legislator from Central Florida was filing a bill that affects construction in Tallahassee.

But it shouldn't be questioned, Gardner said, because the chairman of the Capitol Planning Commission is from Miami.

Gardner said the commission unfairly requires those who want to build more than two stories to include retail and residential space that is economically unfeasible in today's market.

Skelding said he doesn't want to abolish the planning commission but wants the Legislature to force it to be more reasonable about approving development plans.

Deeb has the commission's approval for an 11-story building if he is willing to include condominiums and retail space.

Skelding, Deeb and Gardner argued that the area is unsuitable for residences.

"Do you think there is a bank in the world that would loan money on space that can't be rented?" Deeb asked after the meeting. He said he already has invested $1.2-million in the project, which has been stalled by the planning commission and the city for years.

Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, asked why the commission would refuse to approve the project as an 11-story office building when it is willing to take it with residential units.

"Once the authority has determined that a certain height is acceptable, shouldn't we have some interior flexibility?" McKay asked.

Betty Steffens, spokeswoman for the planning commission, said the rules are designed to allow taller buildings only when a builder is willing to include incentives like on-site day care, residential units or retail space.

"We're trying to create a quality downtown use," Steffens said. "Maybe residential development is not practical today, but it might be in five years. We're not willing to grant height without some value back to the community."

If legislators want to restrict the planning commission's authority, they should abolish it, Steffens suggested.

The object of the commission's rules is to bring people back downtown after 5 p.m. when Tallahassee becomes a collection of empty state office buildings and parking lots, Steffens said.

"We never envisioned tall buildings here," Steffens said. "The purpose was to pay homage to the Old Capitol with a district similar to the one in Washington, D.C."

City officials say the bill would sabotage the community's comprehensive plans.

Deeb said he's been waiting for the city to complete its downtown planning since 1978.

"The city has always been on the verge of coming out with a downtown plan," Deeb said. "Am I supposed to sit on my duff and wait?"