GreenPointe, the developer of River Hall in east Lee County, is again attempting to add 1,000 dwelling units to River Hall, a 70-plus percent increase. This time, it asked for special treatment from Lee County to accomplish its goal, and Lee County gave GreenPointe that special treatment. The question is why?
GreenPointe was counting on three commissioners to support its request last September. Unfortunately for GreenPointe, one of those commissioners, Tammy Hall, resigned the day before the scheduled meeting at which the requested land use change was considered. Consequently, the vote to proceed with the land use change was denied when the commission deadlocked with a 2 to 2 vote. Commissioners Mann and Manning saw through GreenPointe's plan and voted no. Commissioners Kiker and Pendergrass disregarded the plain language of Lee County's code, and voted to support GreenPointe.
According to the county attorney's office, once a land use plan amendment is denied, the application process must begin anew if the developer wants to resubmit the request. GreenPointe wanted an end run around that process by asking Lee County to grant it an expedited review, i.e., special treatment. There is no such expedited review process presently in place in Lee County.
GreenPointe had to have three votes to get the special treatment it wanted. Therefore, it needed a "friendly" vote on the county commission to replace Tammy Hall. Enter Gov. Scott.
Several people sought appointment to the vacant commission seat. Scott interviewed two applicants, and selected Brian Hamman as the replacement. That choice surprised many, considering the fact that Hamman was neither the most qualified person seeking appointment, nor the more qualified of the two who were interviewed.
Interestingly, Mr. Hamman began receiving campaign contributions from GreenPointe's associates shortly after his appointment. Of course, accepting campaign contributions from developer friendly entities is not unethical or illegal, but it could speak volumes about a candidate's loyalties. Generally speaking, individuals who make campaign contributions do so because they want better government. Businesses that make campaign contributions usually want something in return.
A mediation was held on March 5, 2014 between GreenPointe and county staff, at which GreenPointe requested the expedited review process. The reason seems clear. The November election could change the makeup of the Lee County Commission, thereby depriving GreenPointe of its friendly, governor appointed vote.
County staff scheduled hearings before the Local Planning Agency and the county commission, even before the commission approved the mediated agreement on April 1, 2014, which granted GreenPointe the expedited review process. Commissioners Mann and Manning voted that no special treatment was warranted, while Commissioners Kiker, Pendergrass and Hamman voted to give GreenPointe the special treatment it wanted. That vote was the first step in approving the density increase. Some believe that means the decision to approve Greenpointe's density increase has already been decided by three of the five county commissioners.
This is an issue that should concern all Lee County residents, and not just those who reside in River Hall.
As one person stated at the April 1, 2014 county commission meeting, "This is not about Estero, but it IS about Estero." That can be expanded to say, "It is not about Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Matlacha, Pine Island, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva, Lehigh Acres, or Bonita Springs, but it IS about all of those communities. It is about adhering to adopted rules and not changing them on a whim just to give a special benefit to an out-of-town developer.
If the Lee County Commission continues on this path, it will send a clear message to all Lee County residents that rules, which were established to protect citizens by maintaining a level playing field for all, are not worth the paper they were written on. Lee County deserves better.
One of my law professors was fond of saying, "If it doesn't pass the smell test, something is rotten". What is happening in Lee County government does not pass the smell test, and the stench extends from here to Tallahassee.
-Paul D. Asfour is a former Cape Coral city councilmember. He now resides in the community directly affected by the commission vote.