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For the two new Venice City Council members, it was rubber-meets-the-road time

Written by on Friday, December 1, 2023

Right after being sworn in, they faced a first test.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Dec. 1, 2023

Host: For the two new council members in Venice, both Democrats, it was rubber-meets-the-road time in this week’s council meeting. Right after being sworn in, one of the most controversial issues figured prominently on the agenda. Ramon Lopez reports.

Ron Smith: I believe we have a lot of work to do to restore trust in our local government. I think the ballot box is a great place to start. I think that you sent a message loud and clear that you want clean campaigns, that you don’t want outside money laying in our local city election, that you want candidates to stick to the issues, that you want candidates not to defame their opponent. I believe we’ve now crossed the bridge to where it’s a better place, where that kind of behavior will be punished in the future, and where voters will demand that those are the kinds of elections we have in our nonpartisan city races. I think you’ve also sent a message that you’re tired of clear cutting, that you’re tired of paving over our paradise. I promise you that when the public speaks in these chambers, I’ll have my hearing aids on.

Farrell and Smith, being sworn in. Photo: City of Venice

Ramon Lopez: That was Democrat Ron Smith, a new member of the Venice City Council, at his swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday morning at Venice City Hall.

Smith, who lost a bid for the city council in 2022 by a slim margin, was elected by landslide this time around, along with Democrat Joan Farrell who beat Republican Mitzie Fiedler, the two-term incumbent.

They both ran campaigns that stressed controlled growth and independence from wealthy real estate developers. And on Day One in office, they had the opportunity to make good on their campaign promises.

On Tuesday, there was a controversial vote that allowed developer Pat Neal to move a step closer to converting 10.4 acres of open space and wetland into a grocery store-anchored commercial shopping center at the corner of Jacaranda Boulevard and Laurel Road. Neal said the decision by the Venice City Council was the correct one.

The city council members voted 4-3 to approve the final plat for the project. This means the commercial conversion can move forward, unless blocked through an appeal to the 12th Judicial Circuit filed by local residents opposed to Neal’s commercial project.

Neal attorney Jeff Boone said his client needed to move the development process forward, and will do so at his own risk. And because re-platting doesn’t involve actual use of the property, a final replat is compatible with either potential outcome of the appeal.

A cautious Rick Howard joined the two newly-seated members in voting against a replat of the land. Mayor Nick Pachota, Vice Mayor Jim Boldt and council members Rachel Frank and Rick Howard voted in favor of Pat Neal’s bid.

A dozen people urged the council members to not approve the final plat, raising many of the same arguments brought up in opposing the rezoning of the property to commercial earlier this year. They included upset Venice residents Ken Baron and Mike Winaski.

Ken Baron: Seven years ago, Neal Communities came to the city wanting special treatment as to when it was required to dedicate open space. The city accommodated the applicant and entered into the agreement in October 2016. This agreement benefited the applicant, to the detriment of the Milano PUD residents and the city who got to endure for days and 30 hours of testimony and hearings. The City of Venice accommodated Neal Communities, and now we have the whole shopping center debacle.

Mike Winaski: Please, this time let’s take a look, settle down and pull back. Let the appeal be heard. And then decide where we’re going before we move. It appears that we give the developer whatever they want, whatever they asked for. And I think the residents are getting tired of that.

RL: City Attorney Kelly Fernandez said there were issues with Venice granting a final plat at this time. But she said the city council members had the final say on the matter.

Kelly Fernandez: It’s checking boxes, and of all the boxes are checked, the plats approved. That’s why it’s usually on your consent agenda. It’s not controversial. So in this case, you may find that the plat is checking the right boxes, but because of the other items that are happening ancillary to this. There’s pending litigation. That’s just not the right time for this to be approved.

RL: Ron Smith picked up on this. He has issues with voting on the final plat, while the appeal is pending.

RS: Reading from the staff memo, I quote, ‘It’s worth noting if the court rules in the appellant’s favor, it is not clear how our recorded final plat that is subsequently deemed nullified, could be rectified or addressed in the public records.’ My question for you, if we were to move to deny the final replat: What does that mean for us going forward? What doesn’t get done? What harm is done?

RL: That city council rezoning decision is before 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Danielle Brewer. She must determine whether the city council followed due process requirements of the law. Brewer’s ruling is not expected until sometime next year.

A ruling favoring the shopping center opponents would prompt a rehearing of the zoning change by the Venice City Council.

As Joan Farrell and Ron Smith replaced city council members who voted in favor of rezoning the land to commercial, it’s possible that the council could reverse its earlier decision in a rehearing. Baron told WSLR News that the city council’s new lineup favors a fair and impartial hearing.

Should Brewer rule in favor of the Venice City Council and Pat Neal, the next step would be site planning for a new shopping center. Baron said opponents would closely scrutinize — and then challenge — the site plan, if it includes undesired elements.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.