City Commission Approves Correction of Impactful "Scriveners Error"
Decision Clears Way for Approval of Advanced Drainage Systems Plant Construction
Last updated 4/21/2023 at 9:41pm
An overflow crowd was present Tuesday night as Lake Wales City Commissioners approved correction of a "scrivener's error" that many had interpreted as a step toward the approval of a controversial pipe factory proposal.
The change will allow a staff decision on a zoning change from "Light Industrial" to "Heavy Industrial" without the necessity of a commission-conducted public hearing process and site review. That process would allow commissioners to place special conditions upon the property.
During the discussion period some commissioners made it clear that their vote was not on the merits of the plastic pipe manufacturer, its location, or other factors, but limited to the correction of a twice-changed ordinance governing the way changes to zoning intensity are made.
Nevertheless, several commissioners made it clear in their comments that they saw the proposed plant as both relevant in the vote, and important to the city's economy and tax base.
The change approved returns zoning authority to city staff, a step toward the approval of a zoning change from light to heavy industrial on a 97-acre site on South 11th Street. The site could accommodate a massive manufacturing facility that may eventually employ some 200. The change is required to accommodate some 35 acres of outdoor storage of finished plastic pipes.
According to City of Lake Wales Interim Planning Director Autumn Cochella, the site plan will still be subject to extensive review by both planning staff and commissioners, and conditions for development may be required.
The preliminary plan submitted for the parcel by ADS "is not even close" to what will be required, Cochella told LakeWalesNews.net.
The proposed facility has proved divisive of public opinion. Multiple speakers, both in favor and opposed to the change, spoke during the first hour of the meeting.
Larry Bossart, the former interim director of the Chamber's economic development wing, told commissioners that he had been passed the information about two years ago from a Winter Haven broker who had been unable to find a suitable location for the plant. He had passed that lead to the family-owned Hunt Bros. Corporation.
Ellis Hunt Jr. in turn told the commissioners that they had originally expected to expand their fresh-fruit packing operation when the parcel was zoned for light industry nearly 16 years ago. The decline of the citrus industry forced them to change plans, and they offered the property for sale.
Hunt went on to surprise many when he revealed that the Hunt family had previously turned down an offer to site the Nucor steel mill on the property, saying that the ideal of melting scrap metal to make rebar on the site didn't seem compatible with their area. That plant was subsequently built on a site near Avon Park just inside the Polk County line.
Hunt said his family did research on the proposed plastic pipe plant owner Advanced Drainage Systems and visited two of their locations before sitting down to talk with them.
Several speakers suggested that the correct path forward was forget the error, and to conduct the full review called for in the original ordinance.
Former Planning and Zoning Board member Charlene Bennett told them that she and the board had voted for the change without understanding the full implications. "They were making it blindly," she said.
"I was wrong, I regret it," Bennett said.
Last month the board reversed that vote.
Bennett suggested that the same was likely also true for the commissioners who voted for it a year ago, without knowledge of the pending proposal, also failed to grasp the importance of the change.
Bennett called a public hearing "a safeguard for the community," adding that that "never hurt anybody."
Blair Updike of Highland Park agreed telling commissioners that "there are a lot of advantages to keeping that plan in place."
Resident Catherine Price was critical of the city's newly-hired attorney Tom Cloud, who she said was not lending clear legal opinions to either the zoning board or commissioners in two recent meetings, but was rather acting as a paid lobbyist for the plant, offering "a long and tedious performance designed to confuse."
In his explanatory comments before the vote, Commissioner Daniel Williams clearly related the decision to his support for the plant, saying "I believe in this case...we will be able to start something up that will allow us to generate income, that will benefit families immediately."
In weighing the decision to vote in favor of correcting the ordinance, Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson chose to focus solely on the fact that the error arose due to "a publisher" who failed to update city codes on an internet referral site, which were subsequently picked up by city planners and reinserted.
"The publisher has no authority to change a lawfully adopted ordinance," Gibson said, indicating that if the commission failed to correct the matter, the courts would certainly do so.
Gibson also suggested that the commission should reconsider legally changing the ordinance back to its original form.
The final vote to correct the error and allow the staff review was unanimous.
Advanced Drainage Systems will host a special public meeting on Wednesday, April 26 at the Lake Wales Arts Center. That meeting will begin at 6:00 pm, and is expected to last two hours.