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Mining lawsuit to come

A lawyer for Florida Rock Industries says the lawsuit he filed against Citrus County last week alleging Sunshine Law violations is "just the forerunner" of another suit claiming that his client's right to due process has been violated.

"I want to do a little discovery before I file," said attorney Clark Stillwell.

Such discovery is likely to include requiring county commissioners to give depositions about their July decision to rezone the 720 acres near Heatherwood that Florida Rock would like to mine.

Stillwell has written a letter to the county's Development Services Department posing a series of questions about the process that led to the July vote.

"The county has treated this application different from day one," said Stillwell.

"Day one" was in April, when the County Commission voted to deny Florida Rock permission to drive heavy off-road vehicles on a county road. Later in the same meeting, the board directed the staff to begin the lengthy process to change the zoning on the property Florida Rock hopes to mine.

By then, Florida Rock had already had a "pre-application conference" with county staff, putting it on notice that the company was about to apply for permits to begin mining lime rock.

Stillwell's letter asks whether the county paid a filing fee for its application to change the zoning; whether the application met an established deadline for the year's second cycle of proposed comprehensive plan amendments; whether the Technical Review Committee reviewed the application as required by the Land Development Code; and several other questions.

He said he believes "no" is the answer to all of his questions, demonstrating that his client has not been treated properly.

In the suit filed last week, Florida Rock is asking a circuit court judge to overturn the zoning decision, claiming that the Sunshine Law had been violated.

The suit maintains that the commission delegated policy and decisionmaking authority on the matter to its staff. The staff acted as an ad hoc committee, the suit claims, and therefore was required to meet in public.

He said a recent opinion out of the 5th District Court of Appeal supports his contention that when a specific piece of land is being reviewed, an affected party has a right to be involved from the beginning.

One thing Stillwell may ask commissioners about in their deposition interviews is a series of meetings each commissioner had with staff members to discuss the mining issue.

"By (staff) walking up and down the hall and meeting with (commissioners) one at a time, if the intent is to avoid the (Sunshine) law, the case law says that that subterfuge doesn't work," he said.

The county staff has been somewhat bemused by Stillwell's claim of Sunshine Law violations because Stillwell often can be seen wandering in and out of private meetings with staff and individual commissioners.

Assistant County Attorney Richard Wesch said he and other staff members met with Stillwell last week about a package of proposed zoning changes on U.S. 19.

Stillwell said that since April, he has purposely avoided having any private meetings with staff or commissioners about Florida Rock.

At the commission meeting Tuesday, County Attorney Larry Haag said there were no violations of the Sunshine Law. He theorized that by filing suit, Stillwell is trying to delay a final vote on the plan to rezone the Storey mine.

The state is reviewing the plan; for the rezoning to be final, the commission must vote on it one more time after the state review.

Haag said he would file a motion this week seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. He said he would also file a motion demanding that Florida Rock produce its lease with the owner of the Storey property, General Portland Cement.

Haag said that he has seen the first and last pages of the lease, but that that is not enough to convince him that Florida Rock has legal standing to challenge the county's actions regarding the property.