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By Robert Connors
Managing Editor 

City Commission Considers Giving Plant Re-Zoning Authority Back to Staff

Decision Would Be Made Without Commission Involvement

 

Last updated 3/4/2023 at 1:22pm

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Interim Director of Development Services Autumn Cochella is presumed to be the one who would be responsible for making "administrative" decisions on zoning issues, including the pending ABS plastic plant.

The Lake Wales City Commission will consider relinquishing authority on major zoning changes to a city planning staff person who will serve as the final decision-maker. That choice may determine who controls decisions related to a proposal for a nearly 100-acre industrial facility on the city's south side.

The issue is particularly timely because of the pending rezoning from "light industrial" to "heavy industrial" of the site, which adjoins both Highland Park and Highland Park Manor. The site would host a large plant, to be built by Advanced Drainage Systems, manufacturing plastic pipe.

A change to a current ordinance adopted last year that reserved authority to the Commission was described as a "scrivener's error" by City Attorney Chuck Galloway, but several residents appeared before the commission to object to the change. Some have suggested that the commission would prefer to avoid making the controversial decision themselves.

Charlene Bennett, a former member of the city's zoning board, said she regretted voting for the original changes more than a year ago, and that the current version of the ordinance provides greater protection for citizens.

"That whole area is evolving into a residential area," Bennett said, "and we are talking about industrial inside a residential area."

Several citizens addressed the topic before commissioners at their Tuesday meeting, pointing out that the change will apply not only to this site, but to all similar future changes to city zoning, which would be conducted without commission review.

If the commission makes the change to relinquish their authority, the decision would be made by the interim director of Development Services, Autumn Cochella. She recently achieved her planning certification and is filling in after the resignation of the former director last month.

Bennett informed the commission about an email contained within her public records request, dated September 31, 2021, from resident Larry Bossarte, a retired Realtor and then interim director of the Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce, to then Planning Director Mark Bennett, informing him of the project, and that it would likely include ADS consolidating current operations in both Sebring and Winter Garden into the new facility in Lake Wales.

The implication of the communication made it clear that city planning staff was aware of the plan before proposing that the authority be taken from the commission and granted to staff. The city commission was not aware of the proposal until the news was broken by LakeWalesNews.net in a February 9 story.

"I suspect that no one has told you folks about that," Bennett said to the commission before asking them "should something like that happen without a public hearing, without proper information to the citizens, without proper oversight by a citizen's board?"

"A vote against (the change to allow staff approvals) is not a vote against the ADS project," Bennet continued. "It's just a vote to see that proper oversight occurs...in this event, and in all future ones, the public needs to be fully informed, all necessary studies need to take place, and the citizen's board needs to have the final say."

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A 96-acre tract near the former Hunt Brothers packing house is proposed for rezoning from light industrial to heavy industrial to allow ADS to store thousands of finished pipes outdoors on the property surrounding a large plant. Proponents cite the potential for hundreds of jobs that would be created. Opponents of the plant generally object to the location, which would eventually be surrounded by residential properties.

An objection to the rezoning was raised by an attorney representing the Village of Highland Park, who said that the proposal has not been reviewed as required by the city's Comprehensive Plan.

In speaking against the location of the facility, resident Catherine Price cited both a recent train derailment in Ohio and a massive fire at a nursery in Kissimmee. "It was a five-acre fire at a facility that makes plastic pots," she said. "It took 75 firefighters. These were plastic pots being stored in an outdoor area... There could be 20, there could be 30 acres" of outdoor storage at the proposed ADS plant. "There are some very very toxic chemicals that are emitted when plastic burns."

The burning plastic forced the evacuation of nearby residents.

Resident Mary Beth Salisbury complained that, "although you are the elected officials, you have determined that staff will make the decision, and there will be no input...and others will follow."

 

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