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Land talk highlights officials' allegiances

It's a relatively small piece of land, but the ongoing debate about its fate speaks volumes about the competing philosophies of the county commissioners and how they are making land-use decisions that affect us all.

The vacant 9-acre tract along Regina Boulevard in Beverly Hills has been a focal point of controversy since February, when developers unveiled plans to shoehorn a strip of stores and five three-story apartment buildings into the site.

Neighbors, not surprisingly, immediately raised a howl about everything from traffic and drainage problems to concerns about safety and whether the transient population typical of rental units would mesh with the surrounding community of homeowners.

The commissioners back then heeded the complaints and sent the developers away to work out the problems. The developers met with citizens and county staff, tweaked parts of the proposal and returned to the commissioners Tuesday seeking a green light.

During the nearly two-hour debate that followed, the plan went from nearly being killed outright by some commissioners to almost being approved totally by others. In the end, a compromise crafted by county staff was approved to allow part of the plan to proceed, while subsequent phases must undergo further review.

It was at times messy and testy, as commissioners jousted with each other and staff over whose rights should prevail, those of the developer or of the residents. No one left completely happy.

The debate is important to everyone in Citrus County, not just to those directly affected by the project, because it gives insight into commissioners' views on land usage. Today, it's a tract in Beverly Hills; tomorrow, it could be the vacant lot next door.

Commissioner Jim Fowler and, to a lesser extent, Commissioner Josh Wooten, spoke forcefully for the developer's rights. They made strong points that the county lays out rules for such projects, and when a developer meets the thresholds, fairness dictates that they be allowed to proceed. They noted that county staff recommended approval of the project because it met the technical merits standard. How in good conscience, they asked, could the commissioners say no without taking away the person's property rights?

Commissioners Gary Bartell and Vicki Phillips fired back, equally forcefully, saying that the plan before them Tuesday was essentially the same one they rejected in February. If it were a bad idea then, it's a bad idea now. Just because a developer has spent time and money on a project doesn't guarantee approval.

As for meeting the technical standards, that's only part of the equation, they pointed out. Commissioners also must ensure that projects mesh with the surrounding neighborhood.

The fifth commissioner, Chairman Roger Batchelor, swung this way and that during the debate, his hands full with making sure the various motions adhered to the rules of order by having the necessary seconds and discussion periods.

It wasn't a pretty sight. At times, the commissioners seemed confused about just what they were voting on. A recess was called so Bartell and Development Services director Gary Maidhof could retreat to a back room and work out some details. (Why they couldn't have this discussion in front of the interested parties escapes me.) Fowler was on the verge of losing his temper with an audience member but wisely bit his tongue rather than taking the bait.

At the risk of overgeneralization, the debate clearly showed that Fowler and Wooten are the voices of the business community on the commission, while Bartell and Phillips put residents' concerns first.

Certainly, the business community's rights are legitimate and should be protected. But there are plenty of business advocates already, from the chambers of commerce to the Economic Development Council to various merchants associations. The business community even has its own newspaper. The president of the Chamber of Commerce is the publisher of the Citrus County Chronicle and has lobbied the commission for funding for the EDC. The establishment clearly has a voice.

Who, then, speaks for the rest of the county, for the little guys, for the folks who have to live next door to these projects?

There's a reason why the review process gives commissioners the final say on land-use cases. County staff looks at the nuts and bolts of a project, but the decision on whether a project is sound rests with the elected officials, supposedly the guardians of the entire community, not just a select part of it.

Phillips had it right when she told Fowler that no one was denying the developer's property rights, they were simply following the review system that's in place. The proposal, she said, needs to be fixed and she wanted it sent back for revisions _ not killed.

So, why was this debate important to you? Because as the county grows, more and more of these kinds of decisions will be made. The county's growth management plan only goes so far in protecting the interests of the residents; variances and exceptions are granted all the time.

When these cases arrive before the county commissioners, the final arbiters, it's important for you to know which way the winds are blowing.