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Fee in land use hearings could muzzle critics

The repercussions from the contentious Halls River Retreat proceedings continue to ripple through local government. While the Development Services division adjusts to the judicial rulings in that case and the county commissioners rethink their approach to similar land use decisions, some little-noticed changes are being proposed in the way the public participates in these actions.

The county adopted an ordinance last year spelling out how such deliberations, known as quasi-judicial hearings, will be conducted. It defines the roles of the players, how evidence will be presented and weighed, who has legal standing and other technicalities.

Now, after a year of working under those rules, the ordinance is being fine-tuned. The goal is to make it more user-friendly and less cumbersome, according to Assistant County Attorney Michele Slingerland, who wrote the draft revisions.

Fair enough. There was ample confusion, especially among the public, about how such hearings were being run. Some citizens fumed that they were being constrained from speaking to their elected officials on important issues, and some commissioners expressed similar frustrations.

When citizen groups sued the county after the commissioners approved the condo project, the county challenged the groups' legal standing. One of the groups charged that the county had violated its rules in conducting the hearing.

Changes were needed, and the draft revisions address many of those concerns.

One proposed change, however, bears a close examination.

People or groups that want to mount a challenge similar to those raised in the Halls River Retreat case would have to pay a fee before they could speak up.

The proposed ordinance change would establish a filing fee to be paid by what is now to be called an "intervenor." Formerly a "party in opposition," this would be a person or group that wants to put on a case against the applicant.

Slingerland explained that such cases can involve a large amount of staff time, copying costs, courier services and other expenses to the county. Just as the county charges copying costs and fees for applications and permits, this would be a way to recoup some of the costs.

No amount has been established and, Slingerland pointed out, the commissioners may decide to set the fee at zero. The ordinance change merely sets up the mechanism for charging fees.

It is hard to escape the conclusion, however, that this would mean that people who wish to address their elected representatives on a topic of vital importance to them could have to pay to do so. That sends a chilling message to the public.

Certainly, complex land use cases such as Halls River Retreat involve a great deal of time and county resources, but aren't taxpayer dollars already being spent to cover those salaries and expenses? If the issue is an unwieldy workload, perhaps the county should consider increasing the size of the staff.

Consider this: Where else in local government, from the School Board to city councils to the court systems, does the public have to pay a fee in order to speak in opposition to a proposed action?

Slingerland equated the fee to that paid by an applicant, noting that staff time is involved in handling both sides of the case. However, the applicant can pass those costs on to potential customers and clients. The public has no such recourse.

Slingerland also pointed out that at least one other county in Florida, Leon County, has a similar provision in its ordinances. That is hardly a trend that Citrus should feel compelled to follow.

There are other proposed changes to the ordinance that could make the process more streamlined and equitable. The issue of legal standing, for example, would be simplified by a provision that assumes the parties all have standing. The question-answer-rebuttal language has also been improved. Aspects of the proceedings would be made less formal.

The ordinance changes are still preliminary, and Slingerland has sought comments from various attorneys in the county as well as the county commissioners and staff. The changes may come before the commissioners for approval as early as August.

At that time, if not before, the commissioners should reject the notion of a filing fee for the public if for no other reason than to avoid perpetuating the complaint from many citizens during recent high-profile land use cases that the commissioners are not interested in hearing their views.

Fairly or not, the filing fee will be seen as a government-imposed hurdle for members of the public who wish to participate in such important decisions. However much money the county would receive through the fees, the cost to public goodwill would be too great.

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