Residents rise up against threats to ignore zoning laws

This Independence Day weekend, more than 70 St Augustine residents declared their independence from bad government, sloppy staff work, and commissioners who favor developers over city residents, during a protest in front of property that four city commissioners are willing remove from zoning protections that have been in place since the early 1970’s.

Vice-mayor Todd Neville, Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, Commissioner Roxanne Horvath and Commissioner Leanna Freeman were jeered and booed in abstention by a crowd of citizens who disagree with their decision to move forward a re-zoning effort, on the part of developer and hotelier Kanti Patel, that would remove HP-5 zoning protection from property along Castillo Drive.

Chanting “History not hotels”, and “No bailouts for developers” dozens of citizens expressed their disapproval from as far away as Ocala, and current residents who have lived in other cities, like Key West, where they say they have seen first-hand what happens when towns surrender their zoning to accommodate commercial interests in tourists.

Steve has lived in St Augustine for the last 10-years, but for 35-years before, he told Historic City News editor Michael Gold that he lived in Key West. There, he recalls, at a certain point everything was being done to benefit tourists and it was done on the backs of residents. “It is like a cancer — it will continue,” he said.

Lincolnville community activist Judith Seraphin remarked that business and commercial interests in St Augustine are taking over residential interests and that the city commission should be mindful of those changes. “This is not the same city it was 10-years ago when Mr. Patel received his PUD,” Seraphin said. “The commission is under no obligation to approve this rezoning, and it will violate our comprehensive plan if they do.”

Dennis Liphardt drove from Ocala Saturday when he learned about the protest. He explained that he has been following the actions of this and other developers in St Augustine recently and that he plans to live here. He says that he and others should be committed to the residents and that he is concerned that businesses are taking over historic preservation districts.

Sandy Lenny has lived in St Augustine for 12-years. She said that she finds it harder and harder to enjoy activities that used to give her pleasure, like walking her dog and riding her bicycle. “We are quickly becoming overdeveloped,” Lenny said.

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Local blogger and watchdog reporter Ed Slavin paraded through the crowd carrying a torch, topped with a dollar sign. “The false information that was presented to the commission has still not been corrected,” Slavin said, referring to the developer and city staff’s understated parking needs for the proposed hotel, wedding and special event venue, restaurant and longue.

One of the city’s most active 92-year-old residents, Renee Mintz, was carrying a sign proclaiming her age and saying that she’s “mad as hell”.

Blake Souder may have captured the sentiment of the protesters best with his sign, “Rezone the Commission 2018 – Keep Mayor Shaver”, pointing out that Shaver was the only member of the commission who voted to uphold the Planning and Zoning Board’s denial of a PUD modification that would have allowed Patel to abandon his previously approved underground parking plan. She was also the only commissioner to vote against moving the rezoning application to second reading during the last commission meeting.

Michelle Bova, a resident of another preservation district downtown, is very concerned about the precedent this rezoning would set for her neighborhood. “We have lived in HP-1 for 20-years,” Bova said. “There is a rezoning coming up soon, so I get concerned when I see the city commission abandon a decision by the current planning and zoning board.”

Former city commission candidate, Susan Rathbone, said, “We have reached a tipping point in the balance between residents and tourists.” She and her father live in Davis Shores and she has been active in community affairs for years, most recently serving as president of the St Augustine North Davis Shores Neighborhood Association. “There is a finite amount of historic property in St Augustine. We decided as a community 40-years ago to preserve it and protect it with HP zoning. Why are we ignoring that for the sake of a developer who miscalculated the cost of building a required underground garage?”

Sue Lucas said the developer is guilty of “bait and switch” tactics — promising the moon ten years ago when his PUD was approved, then doing nothing, while expecting costs today to be comparable to those of 2007.

Organizers Deb and Lee Geanuleas and the group, St Augustine Residents Count, said that it is vitally important for citizens to show up for the city commission meeting on July 10th to speak out against the rezoning of the HP-5 property to PUD zoning to accommodate the San Marco Hotel.

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