Why Escambia County is dismantling the sector plan guiding growth in the north end

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

In 2011, Escambia County became the fourth local government in Florida to adopt a long-range plan — known as a sector plan — that was aimed at guiding growth and development for a huge tract of land north of Interstate 10.

Ten years later, Escambia County will attempt to become the first county to undo a sector plan and replace it with standard county zoning without facing a legal challenge from landholders, all while developers want the county to keep its infrastructure commitments in the plan, which include a new north-south highway through the area.

The planned growth in the area and the new highway connector are some of the justifications to the federal government for a new interstate exit in Beulah.

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Escambia County Planning Board Chairman Wayne Briske said Tuesday at a workshop on the issue that deciding what will replace the sector plan is a huge decision.

"I actually live very close to where all of this is happening," Briske said. "And I can tell you that this is right now — everybody, listen to me carefully — this is the biggest opportunity that this county has to plan something that will benefit many years in the future."

Escambia County Development Services Department Director Horace Jones described the challenge as a "cumbersome process" that will require reviewing the more than 15,000 parcels in the sector plan and ensuring their future land use categories are consistent with their zoning.

"That could be challenging," Jones said. "I like to be transparent and open and honest like I'm always trying to be. There may be some up-zonings in some of those parcels."

What is the sector plan?

Escambia County's Mid-West Sector Plan, since renamed the Optional Sector Plan, was developed more than a decade ago as a way to bring a new major transportation route through the area while allowing the area to grow without straining the resources of the county.

The primary goal of the concept was to develop a long-term plan so individual developers could move quickly through the bureaucracy of the county as long as they were following the plan.

The plan was the county's first attempt at real long-term "planned growth."

It called for the creation of a town center in Cantonment, a regional employment district to attract industry to easy access via I-10, while also providing for new connecting roads to alleviate traffic and even the potential for commuter rail access to downtown Pensacola. The plan also attempted to preserve the character of already established rural neighborhoods, as well as environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands.

A map of the Escambia County Sector Plan.

The plan covers more than 15,000 acres from Beulah north of Interstate 10, includes large portions of undeveloped parts of the Cantonment area roughly north of Kingsfield Road and east of State Road 97 and is bordered in the north by Barrineau Park Road.

In Florida, only seven sector plans have been adopted, and most only have a handful of landowners who initially helped create them. Escambia County's plan creation was driven by three large landholders, but the ultimate plan resulted in affecting the property of about 1,500 landowners.

Since the plan's adoption, no large-scale development has occurred within the sector plan and instead, growth traveled up existing roads.

Why repeal?

Several landowners in the sector plan, especially on U.S. 29, realized the plan limited what they could do with their properties because they were in conservation areas within the plan.

In 2016, the county created a process to opt out of the sector plan for landowners who felt they had lost private property rights and were essentially "down-zoned" with the plan's adoption.

Several property owners have sought to exercise the opt-out provision, including former County Commissioner Wilson Robertson, who voted to approve the plan in 2011 and was the first to opt out.

Community activist Jaqueline Rogers challenged each opt-out, saying the opt-outs would undermine the county's whole attempt at smart growth. Her challenges forced the landowners and county to prove their argument for allowing the opt-outs before administrative law judges in Tallahassee, while she won some victories forcing the county to apply more rigorous data and analysis to its land-use decisions.

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In July, Commissioner Steven Barry, who represents the area, said the process had become too burdensome for landowners and the whole sector plan should be scrapped.

"The intent was good, and I still think the intent was good," Barry said to the County Commission in July. "… I thought it would still be kind of manageable for us to keep in place and try to keep the good parts of it. … In this case, it just hasn't worked out."

Rolling back the sector plan without taking away the development rights it gave the three major landholders of the plan will be the key legal issue for the county to clear.  

Barry said adding a "savings clause" or something similar to the land development code would essentially allow the landholders to keep their development rights granted in the sector plan or develop the land under whatever new zoning the county creates.

Infrastructure commitments

On Tuesday, Jones said the issue would be more complex than adding a savings clause and will require analysis of every parcel in the sector plan. He added it may be likely the county will have to hire an expert consultant to provide analysis for zoning all of the parcels in the property.

"I have not seen any other (place in the) state yet remove the sector plan," Jones said. "So we're going to be another test case again."

Two of the three major landholders, Fred Hemmer and David Brannen, spoke to the Planning Board on Tuesday.

Hemmer said the major issue is the county's commitment to providing infrastructure that is called for in the sector plan.

"You can't just lift a sector plan and not have the large three property owners agree for the donation of the road, agree to what they're going to construct and the county agrees to what they're going to construct," he said. "I just think that is a mistake. I don't think we'll ever get (the agreements) put back together if it's not done during this process."

Hemmer's development group is currently in the process of planning its first subdivision inside the sector plan.

The project, called Woodland Hills, will be a 316-home development south of a Quintette Road extension west from U.S. 29 and is the first real implementation of development inside the sector plan since it was adopted in 2011.

Brannen said he is still interested in moving forward with what the county had planned and that a new highway is important for the region since the current Kingsfield Road cannot support the levels of traffic it faces.

Planning Board member Tim Pyle noted that each opt-out the county has granted made sense on an individual level but the picture changes when looking at the entire plan.

"It seems right and logical for them to be able to opt out, and for multiple reasons of why they were punished by this sector plan," Pyle said. "Whereas now, we look at it from the aggregate and it's completely logical to keep it in place. I mean, what idiot wouldn't?"

Jones said the direction he has from the County Commission is to remove the sector plan while making the landowners "whole."

Briske, the Planning Board chairman, said he hopes the County Commission will agree to keep the core infrastructure ideas called for in the sector plan.

"If we don't make this happen, you're going to have a lot of issues up in the north end of the county," Briske said.

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