Historic City News reporters attended Friday when Florida School for the Deaf and Blind president Danny Hutto, who will retire April 30th, was given a unanimous show of support, and direction to continue negotiation with the City of St Augustine to settle their differences related to Collins House.
The public meeting drew an audience of about 50 men and women — only about 10 addressed the Board of Trustees on the settlement draft.
The public speakers were offered three-minutes to make their remarks; an allowance that was the source of some humor with speakers like former mayor George Gardner, who joked about his recent trip to Tallahassee where, due to “time constraints”, he and his neighbors were allowed to address the House committee members for only 30-seconds each.
The comments were civil and respectful, but it seemed as if the Board already had an idea of what they intended to do. Before the break, a few speakers had already availed themselves of the opportunity to address the Board — the remainder held their remarks until the “time certain” presentation regarding the controversial mediation.
At one point during early comments, while community activist Ed Slavin was addressing the Board, one of the members was observed browsing the CNN Money website; seemingly more interested in what finance ministers in Greece had to say about their nation’s steps to qualify for a second financial bailout than what Mr. Slavin had to say.
On time at 10:00 a.m., Chairman Christopher Wagner, who is from Bradenton, began the “new business” agenda item regarding the status of the school’s negotiations with the City of St Augustine, thus far.
Attorney for the Board, Sidney F. Ansbacher, with the Jacksonville law firm Gray-Robinson, P.A., explained that although members had been briefed individually, there would be public comments — some of which may relate to other matters having to do with the school but not pertaining to the narrow issue at hand dealing with the mediation. After a few brief guidelines and explanation of the role President Hutto played, as the designated representative of the school in the mediation process, the floor was opened for public comments.
City Attorney Ron Brown was in the audience, as was City Manager John Regan and City Director of Planning and Building, Mark Knight. The designated representative of the St Augustine City Commission in the mediation process, Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, was not in attendance; nor were the mayor or other commissioners.
Many of the faces in the audience were those of neighbors who have attended previous board meetings, commission meetings, neighborhood association meetings and workshops on what they see as an increasingly greater threat to their privacy, safety, peaceful enjoyment and quality of life in a neighborhood that many have called “home” for as many as three generations, or more.
John Morris, who did not attend Friday, but who did attend the previous meeting of the Board of Trustees, was one whose parents lived in the Nelmar Terrace Historic District where he grew up. Lisa Parrish Lloyd, said her parents, and grandparents, lived in the neighborhood. She spoke at both Board of Trustees meetings as well as the last City Commission Meeting, expressing her fear of what may happen to families who want to stay and preserve their neighborhood — should the school receive the power of eminent domain. Greer Skinner Sullivan spoke at the last meeting of the Board and was listening closely Friday because she owns property in both the Fullerwood Park Historic District and the Nelmar Terrace Historic District where she grew up.
The official notice from the City, dated August 23, 2011, specifies three alleged code violations at the Collins House:
– Intensification of a non-conforming use
– Discontinuance of a non-conforming use
– Side yard setback violation
In a presentation from Terri Wiseman, the Administrator of Business Services for the school, the Board received an overview of the transition of the Nelmar Avenue property — from the private residence Marjorie Collins sold to the state in November 1968 for $35,000, to its current use as a dormitory for honor students and those entered in the schools independent living program.
On March 13, 2010, according to minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting held that day, Dr. Zavelson asked Mark Knight, “Would zoning allow for that building, if it were restored, to be used for residential apartments for other students?”
At the time, due to its state of disrepair, the Board was prepared to demolish the building — the neighbors were petitioning the Board to spend the money required to restore, and continue using the aging structure.
Knight’s reply to Zavelson’s question was, “No. The only use that’s allowed, without some action by the planning and zoning board, is the single-family residential or the grandfathered in use.”
The City’s position was, “If it’s a 12-unit dormitory, its stuck at that 12-unit dormitory, if it’s a 12-unit apartment, then its stuck at a 12-unit apartment.”
In the alternative, “it goes back to single-family residential or you have to go before the planning and zoning board for the modification of that zoning.”
The Board in 2010 acquiesced to the neighbor’s request, bringing Collins house “up to code” and spending the money required to keep the property safe for the students and viable for on-campus dormitory space.
Friday, believing that they were sending another message to the community that they want to be “good neighbors”, the full seven-member Board agreed to further their negotiation with the City.
The Board agreed, “to accept the mediation proposal presented to us by Mr. Hutto this morning, in addition to also agreeing to two conditions that were discussed at the January 23rd meeting, that included the architecture having to be more defined as to the Mediterranean style and to have language consistent with the PUD and the school’s checklist in those two sections of the proposal”, in the motion by Yolanda Rodriguez, seconded by Edgar Turner, that was approved without opposition.
The mediation proposal will be heard by the City Commission for approval tomorrow night at their regular meeting.
If you are planning to attend — the regular St. Augustine City Commission meeting will begin at 5:00 p.m. Monday and will be held in the Alcazar Room; on the first floor of City Hall, located at 75 King Street in St. Augustine. It will be broadcast live on Comcast Government TV (Cable Channel 3) and is streamed over the Internet.
Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News staff photographer