Public Input Debate Delays Vote on Downtown Deal

Two hours and forty three minutes after they began discussing the issue, the City Commission voted 4-3 today to wait two more weeks before deciding whether to sell 10+ downtown acres to a Tampa developer that wants to build 306 apartments and townhouses. And most of the people in the audience were happy for the delay.

Much of the discussion by commissioners and audience members concerned not the merits of the proposed $3.7 million sale but whether the public got enough notice to give its opinion about plans for the site north of Lake Mirror and east of Massachusetts Avenue.

After hearing the back-and-forth discussion, even the head of the development group said he welcomed the two-week pause. But Phillip A. Smith, president of Framework Group LLC, confirmed — as some commissioners feared — that governments get negative reputations among developers when they delay or ignore established processes.

Nicole Travis, director for the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency, which negotiated the agreement with Framework, kicked off the discussion with a slide show reviewing the history of the city’s ownership of the site, past development attempts, the process used to land the Framework deal and opportunities for public input.

But subsequent speakers claimed the public was largely left out of the loop during negotiations with Framework and in the days leading to a vote on the deal.

David Hallock, an attorney with GrayRobinson and chair of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, urged a 30-day delay so that interested citizens can take some time to understand the proposal.

The first public notice that the deal would be voted on today came when the City Commission agenda was published Wednesday afternoon. And Hallock pointed out that when the commission discussed the proposal at their agenda study session Friday morning, the conceptual plan drawing that outlined Framework’s proposal hadn’t been made available on the city website for members of the public to review.

He also said he reviewed the minutes of the CRA Advisory Board for the last year and saw only one time that plans for the 10-acre site were discussed.

Not long before the commission voted, Cory Petcoff, chair of the CRA Advisory Committee, asked to speak.

He began by praising the CRA staff but added he’s “concerned about the number of complaints that I’ve heard about not being involved in the process. It was done by the book, but our community has responded in a way that makes it feel like they were not actively involved. Is it their fault for not paying attention? Maybe. But as chairman of the advisory committee, I take some responsibility. I feel like we have a lot more to lose than gain if we vote today.”

The commission voted 4-3 to delay their decision by two weeks so that interested parties can give input.

Voting for the delay were Mayor Howard Wiggs and Commissioners Bill Read, Don Selvage and Justin Troller. Voting against were Commissioners Jim Malless, Phillip Walker and Edie Yates.

Malless said he “could have gone for an extension if somebody could have told me what would change” after getting public input. The issue the commission will vote on concerns the land deal and general development plan, not design specifics, which will be up for commission approval once they’re available, he said.

“This vote helped reinforce the image we don’t want that Lakeland isn’t friendly to development. I really believe that if we don’t do this deal, there won’t be another deal (on the 10 acres) for eight or 10 years,” he said.

After the meeting, LkldNow asked Travis if the feedback from today’s meeting would change the way she handles communication about future high-profile development cases.

Her response: “I would not change anything about public communication when the CRA is involved in a high profile project. My office is and always has been open to public comments and constructive criticism on every project we work on. I truly believe questions and comments for all viewpoints make every project better. We welcome the dialogue.

“I will continue to work on projects and negotiate deals using whatever platform or process the commission provides me to work with in.”

Framework’s presentation at today’s meeting: