(Caloosa Belle/Danika J Hopper)
It was standing room only at the LaBelle City Commission meeting on Thursday, January 10.
Last Thursday, the LaBelle City Commission meeting was packed full of serious, concerned faces. The subject on everyone’s mind: Would developers, who want to build communities of micro-cottages, or tiny houses, receive the go ahead needed for each of their plans? Many of LaBelle’s residents had shown up to make their voices heard. When asked to stand up to be sworn in for public comment, more than half the room rose up. It became clear that this was going to be a long night. Mayor David Lyons joked, “We’re gonna be here ‘til midnight!” There were presentations from both groups that headed two different tiny house projects. The first, City Village, a proposed 34 units to be built on a property that bordered Lee, Broward, and Missouri Streets. Mike Harder suggested his plan was for affordable housing, with possible perks like a three-year tax deferment or abatement program for buyers. He spoke of the increased revenue that City Village would bring to Hendry County. He pointed out that among the sales targets were teachers, law enforcement, medical personnel, seniors, and snow birds. Diagrams showed that they would work to save two of the ten large oak trees on the property. Commissioners commented that the proposal contained a large amount new information of which they were not previously aware. Julie Wilkins said, “You’ve thrown us a lot of curveballs, tonight Mr. Harder.” She went on to point out that she wasn’t sure the suggested three year tax abatement was legal. While Daniel Akin remarked that there was simply too much for the commission to digest in one night. After a brief discussion, they voted 4 to 1 to deny the request from City Village and recommended that Harder return with a revised plan. Presenters for the Shady Oaks PUD rezoning request stepped up to the podium next, showing they had made many revisions to their initial plans after hearing from both the board and the community. They also stated that they had worked to go above and beyond to appease the surrounding landowners and others that were opposed to this project. During their presentation, there were audible groans coming from the center of the room, where most of the opposition of this project was seated. The tension in the room was high. When public comment opened, speakers were reminded that the would be limited to three minutes a piece and to remain civil. Residents of nearby Moss Landing, a senior community, and home owners from Shady Oaks Lane, as well as life-long residents of LaBelle made up the opposition to the project. Their concerns were many. The biggest being increased traffic, light pollution, noise, and visual nuisances, along with the possible decrease to both the character and value of homes and properties that surrounded the land in question. Each commenter spoke, in detail, of the problems that would ensue if this PUD rezone were to be granted. They were in all adamant that they were not opposed to growth, to the concept of a tiny house community, just that it was not compatible for that particular space. The possibility of increased traffic through their quiet neighborhood, they agreed, would pose a danger to the pedestrians, many seniors and children, that frequented the area. There were also many bottlenecks along the roads, that may result in more traffic accidents. Alex Caldwell, a local home owner, pointed out that the developer had incorrectly defined traffic studies on a nearby road, as though it were two-lanes. “In fact, the City of LaBelle recognizes this is not a two lane road, because there is a sign that says one lane.” The room erupted with laughter. Commenters described that they did not want to have to sit on their front porches forced to look out at 58 rooftops. There were even concerns of the effectiveness of an HOA, and its ability to change rules as seen fit by the board. One after another, commenters concluded their speeches by asking the Board of Commissioners to deny the Shady Oaks PUD request, adamant that they were not opposed to growth, nor the concept of a tiny house community, just that it was not compatible for this particular space. Not all who were present for public comment were opposed to this project. In fact, just before public comments were closed there were a few comments made in support of this project. Arguments for this project ranged from the the positive effects of growth, shortage of housing, and a need for diversity both in housing and types of people. Sheriff Whidden stated that, while he knew how hard of a decision this would be, there was a great need for housing for law enforcement staff. Bianca Ross, lifelong resident of LaBelle and former Chamber President said, “We can say that not allowing for diversity in housing and lifestyle would be the antithesis of LaBelle’s character.” A motion was made to deny the application for rezoning, a role call vote was taken. The motion to deny the application passed 3 to 2. The resounding applause was deafening as the room quickly emptied and the rest of the meeting continued with staff reports, and regular business.