Ocala Star Banner: But do we need it?

Published: Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.

A lone citizen’s challenge to a land use change approved by the Marion County Commission in 2007 will be taken up Tuesday by the Florida Cabinet in what has evolved into a landmark growth-management case of statewide significance.

The Cabinet – Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson – will hear the case of Susan Woods v. Marion County. The David vs. Goliath case has a single citizen taking on big development and revolves around the County Commission’s vote to change 396 acres of farmland off West U.S. 27 from rural to medium-density residential. Castro Realty Corp. sought the land-use change so it could build 790 houses on the rolling pastures.

In reaching its 3-2 decision, the commission ignored the recommendation of its own planning staff, which concluded the houses were not needed in an already glutted housing market.

The commission’s action was sent to the Department of Community Affairs for final approval, which it got.

Enter horse farmer Susan Woods. The environmentally active Woods challenged the County Commission’s decision. She argued the project was not compatible with the rural, horse-farm character of the area. She argued that so many houses would harm the aquifer because of the karst topography. She, finally, argued the county had failed to meet the long-accepted “demonstration of need” benchmark.

With no lawyer in tow, she took her case to DCA. She won a rare, almost unheard-of reversal of DCA’s decision. More important, Woods won DCA support through the remainder of the process, including from DCA Secretary Tom Pelham personally.

Next, state Administrative Law Judge J. Lawrence Johnston heard the lawyerless Woods’ arguments and ruled that she was right, that the land-use change “was not based on a professionally acceptable demonstration of need.” Not only did it fail the need test, Johnston said the additional Castro houses would have dramatically exacerbated an already bad housing surplus.

So Woods’ lone, determined voice has convinced county planners, the DCA and its secretary and an arbitration judge that the land-use change for the Castro project was unlawful because it was and is unneeded, right now.

Comprehensive land-use plans are drawn up to ensure balance in how we develop our community. Changing those land uses, even a little, means changing the character of the community – forever. How many times have we witnessed it here in Marion County?

With the Cabinet’s ruling at hand, the development industry and conservation and environmental forces have lined up behind the opposing sides. Determination of need is the bedrock upon which a generation of Florida growth-management policy is built. It is so basic, so fundamental as to be indisputable.

If the Cabinet abandons what is left of Florida’s growth-management guidelines by rejecting Woods’ determination-of-need argument, it will set a dangerous precedent for the entire state. It will render comprehensive plans all but useless and undoubtedly foster more sprawl.

The Cabinet should side with Woods, the DCA, Judge Johnston and our county planners.

And as for Woods, our thanks for reminding us that one person still can make a difference in making sure government serves the people justly, even against tall odds.

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