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9/13/2001

News > News

Pulling Strings

 

On June 4, Mike Hattaway, who is chairman of a small but powerful group in Seminole County that calls itself the Development Advisory Board, put the panel's influence to the test.

Board members did not like the county government's policy for allowing homes to be built on rural lands. They felt the policy, which aimed to preserve a portion of Seminole County's rapidly disappearing green spaces by limiting how many houses could be built in certain zones, was too restrictive. They wanted a plan that was more favorable to developers, and asked the county to consider making a change. But with a deadline looming to revise its formal land-use plan, the county would have to act quickly, warned the eight-member group of developers, builders and engineers.

Hattaway didn't have to wait long for a response.

Eight days later, on June 12, a split Seminole County Commission voted to do just as they were asked. It didn't matter that staff members objected, citing too few employees and not enough time to look into the matter: Those with the real power were wielding it, and the county commission followed up by ordering its staff to conduct the research -- quickly -- and see if the Development Advisory Board's idea would work.

Environmental activists were outraged. The changes, they said, would allow for thousands of new homes in an area previously tagged for sparse development.

But the more shocking realization is this: The private panel whose members so abruptly took hold of and redirected the debate has no publicly appointed members, no legal standing, no requirement to adhere to the state's government-in-the-sunshine laws and -- except for the cumulative weight of years spent nurturing connections in a small-town political atmosphere -- absolutely no right to throw its weight around.

But it does. All the time.

"They were hijacking Seminole County," says Deborah Schafer, president of the Southeast Seminole Voters Association. "That's the most appropriate term we can come up with."

Indeed, given its status as an unofficial committee, the Development Advisory Board (DAB) has wrested from the county an startling amount of taxpayer-paid support. County staff members draw up the agendas for the board's monthly meetings, which take place the first Monday of each month in a county building. Staffers diligently attend those meetings, and the county is expected to maintain a record of the board's proceedings. Moreover, the board demanded and now has a voice in personnel decisions affecting the county's planning and development arms. Board members also have made it their business to review and make recommendations on spending the county's $6.6 million "104 fund," which is collected from permitting and building fees and finances much of the county planning department's operational budget. Perhaps most significant, the DAB also has been given authority to review all proposed changes to the county's land-use plan.

"I'd say they definitely have a lot of clout," says Seminole County Commissioner Grant Maloy. "I wouldn't say they control the county, but they have more influence than other boards."

Perhaps that's because of who's on it. Members include Hattaway, the owner of Hattaway Realty, who once pushed the county to quadruple density zoning on property he owned in Chuluota; Larry Dale, the bullying former Sanford mayor who currently heads the Sanford-Orlando Aviation Authority; Hugh Harling, an engineer who has riled environmentalists for projects such as Avalon Park, in east Orange County, that have pushed development to the edge of the Big Econlockhatchee River; Allan Goldberg, who owns CFG Real Estate Group and won the county's backing in his successful effort to challenge density restrictions in the environmentally sensitive Wekiva River Protection Area; Bill Miller, the owner of Suda, Inc. who has built homes in Central Florida for more than 20 years and previously headed the Home Builders Association of Mid-Florida; and John Howell, the former chairman of the Private Business Association of Seminole, a small business group that helped form the DAB.

The density proposal, decried by groups such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, would have allowed property owners on land zoned for no more than one house per three acres to factor in undevelopable wetlands when subdividing for future development. Say you own 10 acres, nine of which are protected wetlands, and you live ion land zoned for one house per five acres; the DAB would let you subdivide and build two houses, whereas you previously could build only one.

The DAB argued that its idea, which Hattaway calls "the most misunderstood issue that's ever been in Seminole County," wasn't meant to benefit developers. Rather, it was intended to help small property owners who wanted to build another house on ther site.

Not so, counter slow-growth activists, who note that Seminole County hears only about 12 cases a year in which people are denied permits because of the law the DAB wanted to change. The end result, they say, would be to open up all of southeastern Seminole to higher-density construction. In fact, the county commission eventually agreed with the activists, shelving the proposal and instead focusing on fixing the situations of those few landowners the DAB claimed to want to help individually.

But that's just one of many controversial proposals the DAB has had its hand in. In another, it sought to revise Seminole's proposed trails ordinance to permit more construction along walking and biking paths. It told the county how to spend a recently approved extension of a one-cent sales tax. And it has taken aim at the data upon which the county bases its building restrictions in flood zones.

Still, Hattaway calls the DAB "the most innocuous bunch of folks just trying to help out" local government. Apparently, the county disagrees. At the Sept. 10 DAB meeting, and a week after Orlando Weekly launched its inquiry into the DAB's undue influence, County Manager Kevin Grace showed up with a new dictate: Either the board had to agree to an official, county-sanctioned role -- meaning, among other things, that members would have to start adhering to open-government laws and file conflict-of-interest disclosures -- or say goodbye to the generous staff hours and assistance that Seminole County currently provides to the private body.

For the second time in its five-year history, DAB members rejected the county's overture, prefering their own autonomy over public scrutiny. Instead, Grace and Hattaway will meet within the next month to address exactly what the DAB's role will be, though it's doubtful the board will disappear altogether.

"They know people and people know them," Grace says of the DAB members. "I assume they'll continue operating in some fashion as an autonomous board -- their interest is in staying an autonomous board."

And really, given their clout already, why would they want to change?

The Development Advisory Board came to life in September 1996 as an offshoot of the Private Business Association of Seminole County, a sort of small-business Chamber of Commerce, to review and streamline the red tape associated with building and developing. The DAB, according to county records, formed with the full knowledge and consent of the county commission. It wanted a simpler and more flexible land-development code, a more "positive" staff and to relax development restrictions, including the density issue, according to its initial "goals and issues" statement.

"Have you ever seen the plaque that people put on the wall that has a picture of an Indian?" Hattaway asks when questioned about the DAB's role in Seminole politics. "'To really understand me [the pictured Indian says], you have to walk a mile in my moccasins.' We're the moccasins."

In other words, the DAB is the county's "focus group" for development issues, or, perhaps, "a bunch of volunteers doing this as community service," he suggests. But others, including members of the county's staff, don't see it that way. One former staffer who asked to remain anonymous says the DAB never became official because its members didnít want to deal with the conflict-of-interest scrutiny the state's open-government laws require.

Hattaway defends the board's quasi-legal status, calling it more "healthy" to be private and equating the DAB with the Sierra Club. "They have far more influence than we do," he says, "and they're not under the [county commission]."

But neither Sierra Club nor any other advocacy organization has its agendas prepared on the taxpayers' dime. Nor do its members received county documents free-of-charge, hand-delivered. The DAB does.

Much of the board's prominence may, in fact, lie in its secrecy. Until just two weeks ago, even Commissioner Maloy didn't know the DAB was operating without official sanction. (Other commissioners did not return Orlando Weekly's calls requesting comment.) Moreover, the county commission would sometimes delay voting on new laws, such as the trails ordinance, until the DAB had a chance to review them and suggest changes. With its official-sounding name, Maloy says, he just assumed the DAB was another formal advisory panel, like the trails or natural-lands committees.

Mahmoud Anajda, Seminole's development-review director, also was unsure of the DAB's legal status as of last week, though he dealt with its members regularly.

Don Fisher, Seminole's planning department manager and a former DAB member, says it simply didn't occur to the county until recently to force the board into the open. It was, he says, the way things were -- and the staff saw no real need to change them. "A lot of times," he says, "you start these boards, [and] every now and then you have to step back -- staff is doing that right now."

Hattaway, however, doesn't think staff involvement is a pressing issue: "I think that it's a healthy process," he says. "Only a few people who have nothing better to do are [protesting]. It's a non-issue to 99.99 percent of the county."

Grace decided change was needed when he discovered how much staff time was devoted to the DAB -- about half a dozen staffers, if not more, attended every meeting, sources say.

Still, the DAB never received much attention from the public -- namely, because no one knew it existed -- even though its meetings officially were open. When the density issue surfaced, spectators, such as the Sierra Club's Andrea Holman, began trickling in.

Reflecting on that sudden attention, Anajda says, "We may need a bigger room if more people show up." He even hinted the unofficial DAB may have to move to the commission chambers to accommodate a crowd.

It's doubtful anyone would care about the DAB's status if they didn't take issue with its proposals -- or, more pointedly, the influence DAB members apparently have over county staff. That influence can't be understated: Both current and former staffers declined to talk on the record with Orlando Weekly because they feared for their jobs; as one ex-staffer put it, "I may want to work [in Seminole County] again. I know people who lost their job because of that group." The source declined to give examples.

One high-ranking official ended an interview by asking that any derogatory comments made about Dale not be tied to him. Another, when asked about the DAB's influence, simply replied, "Huge." Asked the same question, Anajda let out a chuckle and a deliberate, "No comment."

Still, county officials say the DAB has done a lot of good. And, as Anajda says, "They cannot make code changes without staff. They discuss and try to argue or debate and give feedback."

That, indeed, is the DAB's role: To give the development community a voice. "That's how we do things," says Anajda. "Sometimes we may come to terms and we change things."

At the DAB's request, the county changed the trails ordinance significantly.

Last year, Seminole voters approved a county-wide trails referendum, directing the county to form a trails committee -- to operate under the Sunshine Law -- and set the rules for how the trails network would affect property and roads.

When the draft proposal came before the county commission in July, it delayed its vote to give the DAB and "other interested parties" time to review it. Along with property-rights attorney J. Christy Wilson, the DAB rewrote a more development-friendly ordinance, to allow increased crossings of the trail by adjacent property owners. Along a stretch of State Road 426 near Slavia Road in particular, Wilson and Hattaway represented property owners who wanted to permit more crossings for the railroad track that ran along the road and, if the ordinance passed, along the trail as well.

The idea, the Sierra Club's Holman contends, wasn't to protect property owners along the trail, many of whom had negotiated their crossing rights years ago. Instead, she says, Wilson and the DAB wanted to open up land along the trail for retail development in the burgeoning area.

But that wasn't the only change. Among others: removing a clause that said a benefit of the trails system was to allow users to move in one direction for long distances, "without the frequent stopping for cross traffic." The DAB also asked the county to remove any reference to railroad-crossing rights and to "regulate vehicle crossings," not "limit traffic flows."

The county went along with those changes. But while not every DAB recommendation made it into the new ordinance, which goes back to the trails committee for review this month, the DAB had a significant impact -- ironic, Holman adds, because the trails committee is official, and the DAB is not.

Other official task it takes on: Nearly half of every DAB meeting, says Fisher, is spent discussing ways to allocate spending from the "104 fund" -- a fund made up of public dollars, although Hattaway repeatedly refers to it in an interview as "our money."

Beyond that, Hattaway says, the DAB merely provides technical expertise to staff. "That's where we have the biggest impact," he says. "We're one piece of the puzzle, but we're not the whole puzzle."

Typically, Fisher says, the meetings are mutually beneficial: Staff asks the DAB what it thinks of an idea, and the DAB offers its reaction and suggests changes. If staff agrees, the changes go ahead. If staff doesn't, the DAB's recommendations are simply attached to the proposal as it moves on through the planning process.

How much of a role DAB members have in hiring and firing county workers is unclear: Grace and Fisher say none, except the one occasion where a DAB member was asked to sit on an interview committee. The former county staffer, however, disputes that. With high-ranking officials, the source says, the DAB could have as many as three members helping to select employees; even with low-level jobs, the DAB had a say.

"They really haven't done that [interviews]," Grace counters. But it appears the DAB wanted to.

At its Nov. 2, 1998, meeting, Hattaway brought up the idea of "DAB members being contacted when it comes to hiring individuals within the land-development division," according to the minutes of that session. Though, as one member put it, the DAB didn't want to "micro-manage," the board did want "input."

Then-planning director Gil Backenstoss, who declined comment for this article, told the board a DAB member was present when he was interviewed, and that while he may contact one or two DAB members to ask their opinions, he and deputy county manager Frances Chandler didn't think it was necessary to have a DAB member present at all interviews.

At that point, Hattaway "warned Gil Backenstoss that he needs to be aware of what he is getting into," the minutes reflect. Later, the minutes say, Backenstoss agreed to call one member of the DAB when hiring decisions were being made, and that member could alert the others.

As a board, Hattaway says, the DAB rarely got involved in personnel issues. But its individual members, he adds, sometimes did -- just like any private citizen with a complaint.

As the former staffer says, DAB members -- the source points in particular to Dale and Harling -- had "an agenda." And they got what they wanted. "Behind the scenes, [Dale and Harling] were peddling influence. There's no doubt about that."

As evidence, activists point to the fiasco surrounding Dale's Boar's Nest Hunt Club.

In 1992, real-estate agent Jim Logue looked into buying the Levy Tract, a 149-acre piece of Seminole County property then valued at $149,000. Most of the land, he says, was below the high-water mark and belonged to the state anyway -- only 25 acres, he says, were "actual land." He offered the owner $1,000 an acre, and planned to build lakefront home on a portion, then deed the rest to the county. In the middle of his negotiations, Hurricane Andrew struck, and Logue went to Miami. When he came back six months later, he learned the land had been bought by Larry Dale and a few of his buddies, for $280,000.

But Dale didn't want to develop it. Instead, he began negotiating to give it to the county in exchange for a hunting and fishing lease on a 3,500-acre parcel the county owned elsewhere.

That land, adjacent to a site set aside for a future landfill, had been set aside for public recreation. And even though Dale and friend bid less than others, the county commission in 1994 awarded them a 20-year lease on the land under the title "Seminole County Wildlife Association," better known as the Boars Nest Hunt Club,Ē as itís informally known, for 20 years. All the group had to do was turn over the Levy tract -- a trade that activists say smacks of cronyism, given Dale's close friendships with county commissioners Randy Morris and Daryl McLain.

Fast-forward six years: In 2000, Seminole voters agreed to tax themselves to buy more recreation lands and improve the county's trail program. And in May, the natural-lands committee began considering a buy-back of the Boars Nest lease. Indeed, a buyout clause in the lease allows the county to take back the land at the 10-year interval if it refunds the group's $280,000 investment.

Still, Dale reportedly was none too happy. According to one county official, "[He] blew a gasket." Soon after, says Commissioner Grant Maloy says, Dale lunched with McLain and Commission Chairman Dick Van Der Weide. That Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to send the natural-lands committee a letter saying, in essence, lay off Boars Nest.

"To assist in clarifying the committee's charge," the letter reads, "it is the board's intent to have the committee focus its attention on making recommendations regarding the purchase of properties that are not already owned or controlled by the public."

The implication, committee members say, was undeniable.

Maloy says he went along with his fellow commissioners so he could bring the issue up later. "I didn't oppose it," he says, "[because] it was kind of a done deal."

And even though he wasn't on the commission when the first lease deal went down, he sums it up perfectly: "We're kind of behind the curve on being more progressive on being in the Sunshine," he says.

In many ways, Orange County's DAB differs from Seminole's: For starters, its members are covered under the Sunshine law -- they're appointed, they disclose their finances, and they do not meet to discuss the board's business without posting a public notice.

Moreover, Orange's DAB has absolutely no say in hiring and firing, says planning manager Chris Testerman. And Orange's nine members cross ideological boundries, ranging from environmentalists to community activists to developers and real estate people. But Orange's board does review ordinances that affect development, Testerman says, such the county's recent "arbor ordinance," which would prevent developers from clear-cutting land.

To Hattaway, the differences are a matter of semantics. Seminole County's Program Regulations Committee performs the same functions as Orange's DAB. In contrast, he insists his group is a "sounding board." And it's not the final word, either. Proposals must go through the planning and zoning board, the county commission and in some cases, the state's Department of Community Affairs before becoming law.

Still, activists say, when the DAB flexes its muscles with staff, it gets a leg up on the competing interest groups. "We kept wondering," Schafer says, "why we were having trouble getting through to the staff. Why doesn't staff hear us?Ē"

"As long as the DAB is in a position to influence," adds Sierra Clubber Keith Schue, "the cards will be stacked against us."

Under the new policy, Grace says, the DAB will have exactly the same minimal staff support afforded to the Sierra Club or the Home Builders' Association.

But Schue's unconvinced. In fact, he says, it may further enshroud the DAB in secrecy, because the county will no longer maintain the records of meetings. "All that's going to do," he says, "is make sure we never find out what they're doing."

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