More public input wanted on new rule allowing new development in rural Escambia County

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

A measure that would allow for more development in rural areas of Escambia County is on hold to allow more time for the county to receive public input on the proposal.

The Escambia County Planning Board voted Tuesday to hold off on approving the creation of a new future land use category that would allow for an increased density of homes built in rural areas by creating a new land-use category that will allow areas to go from one home per 20 acres in agricultural areas to one home per four acres in the new category called "rural residential."  

The move means the Escambia County Commission will have to wait before taking its vote to approve the ordinance or risk a legal challenge that could come by voting to move forward without the planning board's approval.

The County Commission was set to vote to approve the ordinance for state review at its meeting Thursday.

This latest proposal to alter rules for development in rural areas comes after the state shot down its last attempt in January to change its comprehensive plan, the legal document that supposed to guide the county's developmental decisions.

A small group of residents led by Jacqueline Rogers and Theresa Blackwell filed a petition with the state to stop a change that would allow the creation of new rural communities from going into effect.

An administrative law judge ruled the county did not rely on data and analysis when it repealed a provision that prohibited new rule communities being built on agricultural land in the county, and the judge called the testimony of the county's top planning official "unreliable and unpersuasive."

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The legal department hired an outside consultant to develop the proposed change that was up for consideration Tuesday.

Included in the county's latest proposal is a similar change to the one that was rejected by the state in January.

On top of creating "rural residential" land use, the new proposal also changes Escambia County's official policy on prohibiting new rural communities to a policy that says it "will guide" the creation of new rural communities toward existing ones.

This time, however, the proposal includes analysis done by the consultant of the county's population and housing supply that are meant to justify the change if it is challenged again.

Rogers criticized the county's decision to hire an outside consultant for this issue.

"I have an email chain that I got yesterday that they are spending taxpayer money to hire land planners just to win," Rogers said. "It's not about good planning, and it's not about good government anymore."

Rogers and Blackwell believe the changes are aimed at allowing the county to approve a 38-lot subdivision on land that is currently occupied by a pine tree farm a mile north of Molino Park Elementary School.

Rogers said that the effect of the change would push development into rural areas that are not in the county's Sector Plan, which covers the area south of the county's most rural areas where new development is supposed to take place. The Sector Plan also includes stricter rules on what home builders must include in neighborhoods.

"Everyone else is planning for that (Sector Plan), and then the county says, ah forget it," Rogers said. "Now it'll easier to develop outside of the Sector Plan because the standards are less. Well, do we want no standards? Do we want no sidewalks? Do we want no bike paths? Those are the things we have to have a community discussion on. Maybe we do. Maybe we the standards are too high. Maybe the presentation things are too high for subdivisions, but that shouldn't be willy-nilly opting them out or going above the Sector Plan."

On Tuesday, the planning board didn't get deep into the merits of the proposal, which the majority of the board appeared to support, but the board took a vote to hold off on approval after county staff introduced wording changes to the proposed ordinance just before the meeting.

County legal staff said the wording changes did not substantially change the proposal from what had been publicly available before the meeting online, but Rogers and Blackwell objected, saying the public had not had time to read the changes.

Board member Jay Ingwell said he felt there were a lot of questions still left to be answered about the proposed change.

"This should be a deliberate planning process, and we've turned it in to a crisis planning process where we're basically two votes away from this going to the state," Ingwell said. "There was no citizen involvement, and I know there are citizens that are concerned. All (the analysis) really addresses is future housing. I mean has the school (been looked at) with that growth, what impact it can have on the school?"

Board member Tim Pyle casts the lone vote against delaying the measures saying he didn't believe anything would be gained by delaying adopting the measure.

"(The proposal) seems perfectly logical," Pyle said responding to a comment from Blackwell. "I don't understand the disconnect between the demand (for housing) that is so sorely needed, and then why this is so egregious, but that's just me."

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.