Historic City News reporters witnessed a split vote last night, with one commissioner missing, which means that neighbors in both the Nelmar Terrace and Fullerwood neighborhoods will not be able to stop the removal of three trees from a vacant lot previously approved by the St Augustine Planning and Zoning Board.
It was clear that this appeal was not so much about whether the city board erred in their decision to allow removal of the trees (one dead, one dying, and one to be relocated on the lot) as it was another showing that the neighbors do not want a 7-Eleven built on the corner.
The project has been controversial from the start; even the attorney for the project, George McClure, admits that there are still issues to be worked out and changes have been made since the original application.
As a matter of procedure, the city building department forwarded the application for tree removal to the Planning and Zoning Board because the trees were on property that is part of a development project, according to Mark Knight, Director of the Planning and Building Department. Otherwise, the removal request might have been handled entirely by staff.
When the request got to the Board, the applicant appeared, two objections were heard, and, with only one dissenting vote, the removal application was approved.
McClure says that he understands the “elephant in the room” but last night’s appeal to the City Commission was legally more restricted in scope than the matter at the Planning and Zoning Board. The only matter for consideration by the commission last night was whether there was any evidence before the lower Board that would have lead a reasonable person to reach the same conclusion as was reached in this case.
Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline spoke first after public comments and rebuttal, and was the only commissioner to vote to support the neighbor’s appeal to overturn the Planning and Zoning Board decision. Sikes-Kline admitted confusion of the legal matter at hand saying, “I know, I am not a lawyer …” but she was surrounded by voices that are.
“Historic City News will probably call me a tree hugger, or something,” Sikes-Kline remarked — Editor Michael Gold acknowledged her comment by repeating to her that the correct description would be “tree hugger”.
Unfortunately, had the commission acted with their heart, as Sikes-Kline did, rather than with their head, as the remainder of the commission did, the City would have been open to a lawsuit for damages that Commissioner Bill Leary, who is an attorney, said, “a first-year law student could have won”.
The motion to support the Planning and Zoning Board decision was made by Leary and seconded by Vice-Mayor Leanna Freeman; both commissioners were previously members of that Board. Commissioner Errol Jones voted with Leary and Freeman to deny the appeal.