Swamp Hammock is in business, sort of
SEBRING In a Solomon decision Tuesday, county commissioners gave both sides half of what they wanted, but neither may be satisfied. As they were making the motion to grant Swamp Hammock a permanent land-use change from agricultural district to ag-planned development unit, what they learned from Commissioner Jim Brooks is that their decision could only be reversed at the landowner’s request. Neither Brooks nor Chairman Jack Richie would go along with that idea, so Commissioner Ron Handley again suggested a compromise. At last month’s meeting, Handley suggested awarding a one-year operating permit, then allow a second year if Braha Sebring does what it says it will do. The commissioners eventually approved Handley’s motion, 4-1, over Greg Harris’s disappointment.Commissioners have been discussing Swamp Hammock since Braha Sebring brought the project before the commission in October 2011. Now, they’ll come back at least one more time. County Attorney Ross Macbeth said commissioners couldn’t grant a conditional use permit because the ordinance allowing that doesn’t exist yet. He’ll draft a law and notify them when it’s ready for adoption. The five-hour March meeting started where the six-hour February session left off – with commissioners turning over 18 months worth of letters and emails on this issue. For Richie alone, that was two three-ring binders of paper. Additionally, commissioners revealed to the 100-member crowd that they’ve met privately with principals and attorneys on both sides. “There are now 37 conditions for approval,” Planner II Candy Harper said. Swamp Hammock has asked for 12 mudding events every 12 months; six events could last three days, six events could last one-day, but if the zoning had been changed, the recreational club could have sponsored some sort of event every day, opponents claimed. Those 37 conditions will be part of a conditional use permit, according to Handley’s motion, but nothing has been finalized, so that could change. Opponents wanted a six-foot high chain-link fence around the interior of the property which would collect trash and keep vehicle riders from crashing into barbed-wire fences designed to keep neighboring livestock in place. Speaking for Braha Sebring, attorney Pam Karlson suggested a four-strand poly-tube fence with a 24-inch debris barrier at the bottom. “Rubber hose would be less costly, more environmentally friendly, and not as destructive as barbed wire if you hit it.” With thousands of vehicles on a two-lane country road, miles of traffic have been predicted. Another condition would limit traffic to 3,000 vehicles. If each is occupied by four passengers, the crowd would be limited to about 12,000 people. Events could start at 6 a.m. and end at 11 p.m. Paula House, the attorney for the surrounding landowners, contended that the commission’s own comprehensive plan prohibited motorsports. “That, very plainly and simply, is the law,” she said. “We are a county of laws, not a county of arbitrary decisions of people who change the zoning code.” Karlson, Macbeth and Planning Supervisor Susan Buchans countered that planned used developments are consistent with the comp plan. “It is a regular tool that has been used for decades,” Buchans said. The former Florida Department of Community Affairs agreed, she said, and so does the current state department. Audience members spoke for and against the proposed development until Richie cut them off at 8:30 p.m. Ron Lane, president of Positive Medical Transport, said his company could station ambulances on site to answer all calls, excepting catastrophic events. “That was part of my concern,” said Commissioner Don Elwell, because I don’t want our ambulances to take forever to get there. If there is a payment problem, it’s your issue.” Which brought up John Clark, who owns property adjacent to Swamp Hammock. He’s been emailing commissioners and the media for the last week with tidbits about Ralph Braha’s business dealings. Clark’s bottom line is that Braha would be an absentee landowner, that he doesn’t pay his bills, and that he can’t be trusted as a businessman. Karlson denied those allegations last month by declaring that Braha has no judgments against him. Carol Skipper, who owns land with 3.5 miles of borders adjacent to Swamp Hammock, asked, “What is the purpose of zoning? Can someone tell me?” It appeared to her and her husband, Don, that Swamp Hammock was being spot zoned, which means that a large piece of land is being zoned differently than neighboring properties. Kelly Prescott, a teacher and Lake Placid youth group leader, agreed with the development because it would give children something to do in Highlands County. Okeechobee County Commissioner Bryant Culpepper told fellow commissioners that mudding events have been approved for four years. “It’s been a very emotional issue on both sides,” he agreed, but disagreed with the Skipper’s contention that cattle would give less milk, bear fewer calves and be afraid to graze where mud trucks drive. “The cows come up to the fences to watch what was going on,” Culpepper said. He claimed mudding has been an economic boost to his county. Both Brooks and Richie said Highlands has wasted too much time on the issue. “We’ve got more things to do in Highland County,” Richie thundered. “The bottom line is you can keep putting lipstick on a pig, but in the end you’ve still got a pig,” Brooks said. “I’m uncomfortable with the location, with the narrowness of the road, with the narrow shoulders. I’m not against this type of event if it was in another location. I’m willing to make a motion to deny this.” Richie passed the gavel to Harris to second the motion, which failed 2-3. Harris moved to approve the zoning, but Macbeth interjected that the motion would have no effect. “All you will do is approve the staff report,” Macbeth said, which stated that the zoning change is consistent with the comp plan. Handley then moved to grant a special use permit, which Brooks seconded, which meant the two opposing commissioners were on board.