Eminent Domain: The keys to the kingdom

During the regular business meeting of the St Augustine City Commission last night, more than 50 current and former residents of the city appeared before the five-member board to express, in no uncertain terms, their distrust and disbelief in what they see as manipulation of local codes to favor the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.

The administration of the eighty-acre state school and the intentions of retiring state lawmaker and Anastasia Island resident, Bill Proctor, came under close scrutiny and harsh criticism during public comments on two agenda items.

First, a proposed settlement agreement, and mutual license agreements between the city and the school, negotiated to resolve the differences between the two. Next, a proposed resolution of the commission in opposition of pending House and Senate bills that would provide the power of “eminent domain” for the school, among other things.

Commissioners voted unanimously to oppose House Bill 1037 and its companion Senate Bill 1348 filed and co-sponsored by Stephen Wise, District 5, Jacksonville (which includes the northwest area of St. Johns County) and Don Gaetz, District 4, Destin.

After a lengthy discussion from neighbors on both sides of the campus, a motion was mode by Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman to approve the resolution that passed the commission unanimously.

The resolution will ultimately be forwarded to Representative Proctor and Senators Wise and Gaetz to make them aware of the position taken by the commission.

Other schools in the state have the power to take adjacent land, if needed for school operations, in exchange for fair compensation of the current property owner. In fact, ALL schools except the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind currently have that power — even though it is seldom used.

So, what’s the rub?

In simple terms, “trust”. As verbalized by the dozen or more speakers, each taking their full three-minute turn at the microphone, it is a great deal more than that; stemming from what was described as years of violations of city planning and building codes by the school in the otherwise peaceful setting of the Nelmar Terrace and Fullerwood Park residential neighborhoods.

And, they are not just any “residential neighborhoods” — both neighborhoods; Fullerwood Park to the north and Nelmar Terrace to the south, are recognized “National Register Historic Districts”. The city enjoys this esteemed recognition in five other residential zones — City of St. Augustine (downtown St. Augustine), Model Land Company, Abbott Tract, Lincolnville and North City Historic District.

The school has been successful — it has grown; even though last year’s student population growth did not keep up with the performance of past years. The neighborhoods, on the other hand, did not; at least not at the same pace or to the same extent at the school.

Interestingly, the City not only wanted, but also was the successful bidder to provide the location to build the school — winning in a contest against other towns in the state. Captain Edward E. Vaill donated the first five acres of land to build the original school; which consisted of three wooden buildings that were completed in December 1884. Today, the eighty-acre campus encompasses 47 major buildings; and additional, lesser buildings.

At one point, Mayor Joe Boles interjected that the school remains important to the city — as a local purchaser of goods and services as well as a major employer of better-paying jobs with employee benefits. By the end of public comments, which consumed the majority of the meeting before the dinner break, Boles rhetorically asked fellow commissioners, “Is there anybody up here that wants to make a motion to support this settlement?”

No one came forward from the audience to speak in support of the negotiated settlement or to oppose the resolution in objection of the House and Senate bills. Commissioner Bill Leary, who lives in Fullerwood Park Historic District, had just returned from Tallahassee. He bluntly expressed his disappointment that there were no school representatives in attendance. Leary challenged the school to come to next commission meeting and confront the members and residents.

Leary says he spoke with Representative Proctor before the session and thought he had his support to stall the pending legislation for four days — long enough to allow a more thorough analysis of the language in the bill. Leary said that Proctor told him, “he thought that was reasonable”.

“I was surprised when he showed up, when it looked like we were going to get that delay,” Leary said. “Then he showed up and turned the committee around.”

Neighbors say that they view the school as an aggressor, characterized by one speaker as an “800 pound gorilla”. Another speaker said the result of two-days intense negotiation didn’t look much like a compromise or settlement … he said it looked like a “mugging”. Magnolia Avenue resident Melinda Rakoncay didn’t stop at that, declaring that the residents are “at war”.

The fact of the matter, as explained by City Attorney Ron Brown, there is very little the City can do to force the school to do much of anything. If the pending legislation passes, everything “on the ground” will have irrevocable approval — silencing claims the City and school have been arguing for months. “If you accept the settlement, at least you get something,” Brown said, referring to a twenty-foot setback for the objectionable Collins House fence along Nelmar and 80-feet of marsh front property adjacent to the park.

The school wants the City to release its claim on a recorded alley running through the lots — from Magnolia Street to the marsh. It has been used by the public for years and it is seen as the only bargaining chip the City may have.

Officially, and unanimously, the Commission voted to continue mediation of the terms of the settlement and voted to approve the issuance of a resolution in opposition to HB-1037 and SB-1348, including the sticky wicket of eminent domain.

Commissioner Leanna Freeman also expressed disappointment in the school, saying, “The only people that could stop it is the school, that’s the reality.”

Frances Keaton of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind has announced to Historic City News that the Board of Trustees will hold a public meeting at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, February 10, 2012, in Room 126 of the Center for Learning Development of Moore Hall.

Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News staff photographer

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