Letter: Update on legal appeal of 7-Eleven

MELINDA RAKONCAY
MELINDA RAKONCAY
Letter: Update on legal appeal of 7-Eleven

Melinda Rakoncay, President
Nelmar Terrace Neighborhood Association

Dear Historic City News readers and potential donors:

Thank you so much for your generous contributions to date! The filing of the appeal and the sufficiency hearing on legal standing were a whirlwind of activity! We have a quasi-judicial hearing coming up on January 15; so now while I have a minute I will provide you all with a recap of what has happened so far and what we can expect going forward.

On October 8, our attorney, Jane West, filed an appeal on the building permit for the 7-Eleven which was issued by the City Planning & Building Department on September 9, 2014. It listed violation of Ordinance 2014-04 passed by the City Commission on second reading on April 14, 2014, which prohibits gas stations on the entry corridor of San Marco Avenue, numerous violations of the Design Standards of the Entry Corridor, and traffic not meeting the Comprehensive Plan.

Seven individuals, Nelmar Terrace Neighborhood Association, and the Neighborhood Council, were listed as aggrieved appellants.

Isabelle Lopez, the City Attorney, reviewed the appeal, and deemed that there was no question the appellants had standing. Nevertheless, a sufficiency hearing to determine whether the parties had standing was required under the City Code. Our attorney made a presentation during the preliminary hearing on Monday October 27th. James Whitehouse, 7-Eleven’s attorney, challenged both our standing and the sufficiency, as well as the timeliness of the appeal at that hearing.

All the listed appellants had to show up in case they had to be questioned. What should have been a short presentation before the City Commission, became an hour-long hearing because of the challenges. We won that evening on all 3 counts; we were found to have standing, the appeal had sufficient merit, and we had submitted it on time.

All three parties, the City, 7-Eleven and the Appellants, have agreed, for the sake of time, to forgo separate preliminary hearings before the Historic Architectural Review Board and the Planning and Zoning Board. The entire matter will be heard before the newly seated City Commission. This way, we’ll avoid the need to attend multiple hearings on the same issues.

The quasi-judicial hearing is set for January 15 at 9:00 a.m. Four hours for the hearing have been allocated and no other matters will be heard at that time. It will be a “de novo review” since the City Commission will be accepting evidence.

The January 15 Appeal Hearing will not be like a typical appeal heard at a regular City Commission meeting, where the commission is ruling on an appeal of a decision made by HARB or the PZB, and where public comment is allowed. This will be closer to a court hearing with the City Commission acting in the quasi-judicial role of judge and jury.

The time will be carefully allotted to all the parties. Although the appeal is between us and the City Staff, 7 Eleven will have representation because they are the property owner.

The critical part of our preparation right now is securing expert testimony on the various substantive issues raised in the appeal. This testimony will be important for establishing a proper record for appeal to the circuit court.

In January, I will send out a schedule of how the time will be broken down between all three parties. If you would like to submit public comment on this issue, we strongly urge you to do so at the public hearings set for either Dec 8 or Jan 12 instead of at the quasi-judicial hearing so we can use the time allocated wisely.

Please spread the word: everyone who is opposed to the proposed 7-Eleven at the corner of San Marco and May Street, please voice your opposition during the General Public Comment time at the beginning of regular City Commission meetings on both December 8 and January 12.

Jane West and I have been busy meeting and making ourselves available to meet with the new mayor and commissioners to answer any questions they may have regarding the appeal and its process. Shae has generously agreed to provide her legal expertise and handle both the sufficiency hearing and the quasi-judicial hearing for a very reasonable flat fee. Some of the work already done under that fee includes many conversations with me about strategy, meetings with commissioners, and a lot of email back and forth.

Although the legal fees are flat rate, expert witnesses may charge for their expert testimony, and we will have expenses with transcripts. In addition, moving forward with an appeal to circuit court will incur additional legal expenses that we need to adequately plan for.

While nothing is ever a sure thing, we are feeling confident in the case and the ability to win this. The purpose of this appeal is to uphold the City’s codes and ordinances to prevent the 7-Eleven from going in at a location that would have a disastrous impact on both traffic and the visual uniqueness that the City has planned for its entry corridors.

At a time when we are focused on creating a vision to make St Augustine a unique historic town to both live in and visit, this decision will have a lasting effect our future.

Again, “thank you” to all who have contributed to our fund and made all of this possible. To the many of you who have been considering making a donation, but were waiting to hear if we needed more funds, now is the time to make a donation.

This is a worthwhile cause to preserve our quality of life and the integrity of our unique community. Please share this article with others who are concerned about the impact of this project.