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News Section: Local Government



Robinson Farms Density Issue Back Under a Cloud Despite Ruling

Published Thursday, August 4, 2011 2:06 am
BRADENTON – When Katie Pierola and Greg Geraldson beat the odds to win an Administrative Law Judge's ruling on a Robinson Farms density change that was controversially approved by the Manatee BOCC against the advice of its staff, their hard work and citizen activism seemed vindicated. But with news that under the new growth management law, the ALJ decision will not go before the DCA, but instead in front of the Governor's cabinet, there is concern that the developer's massive fund raising efforts for Governor Scott (and some of his cabinet) will influence the process.

There was tremendous confusion surrounding the new growth management bill passed in the final hours of the 2010 legislative session, though most agreed that it would drastically reduce the DCA's role in the land-use review process. It was nonetheless surprising when Manatee County was informed that the review (which was completed before the bill became law) would instead be sent to the governor and his cabinet.

For Pierola and Geraldson, they now face a scenario in which rather than a DCA director being issued the opinion (click to read), it will go to a governor of whom their opponent's (Neal Communities) CEO was one of the greatest supporters, organizing over $500,000 for then candidate Scott. Neal is widely-known as the most powerful fundraiser in Manatee County. In fact, it's become something of political folklore, almost urban myth. Friends, associates and even enemies brag of his well-established ability to raise $100,000 for any candidate on a whim, with nothing more than an hour of phone calls through his Rolodex. Neal's friends know that the former state Senator knows politics inside and out, so when he says, we want this guy, they know better than to doubt it.

Neal Community's Attorney Ed Vogler argues the

Robinson Farms decision.

For years, county commissioners, state legislators and other candidates favored by the land developer have had to answer questions about the precipitous amount of donations made by companies, subsidiaries, individuals and even family members all associated with Neal's businesses – often with a host of different donors listing the company headquarters as their address of record.

In a state where most offices have a $500 per individual or corporation maximum, that kind of bundling power is a serious asset. So when Neal introduced candidate Scott at the local fundraiser last September, saying he believed Scott would “change things,” it was clear that he felt Rick Scott was somebody he could work with to get things done.

Given the fact that Scott had been very pro-growth from the beginning of his campaign, consistently citing a return to expansive land development and limited regulation as a major key to economic recovery, it's not hard to imagine why Neal liked him. In fact, Scott began talking about abolishing the DCA almost from the beginning of his campaign. He also made it very clear that he thought environmental regulations were excessive and killed jobs, while stifling development – all things that most any developer would be thrilled to hear.

But even for Neal, who'd helped raise nearly $200,000 for Scott's primary opponent Bill McCollum, the $531,000 he announced that his local Republicans had raised for Scott was a prolific number. And for a politician who was largely self-financed, spending a reported $60 million plus of his own fortune, the large boost was undoubtedly appreciated. It's understandable that Robinson Farms activists would rather see the opinion issued to the DCA director than Scott. It also presents the question of potential massive conflicts of interest (case in point) that could result from the new law and process.

Of course, the Manatee BOCC could vote to repeal the decision and the whole process, even the previous ALJ decision, becomes moot. Their vote was already highly controversial, first for the amount of protest by residents, then because it got a negative recommendation from a planning commission staff that's already seen as leaning toward developers, and most notably because the approval was initially voted down before former county commissioner Gwen Brown changed her vote. A security camera captured Brown (who herself was a long-time beneficiary of Neal's fundraising prowess) on video tape having a private conversation with Neal's legal counsel in the hallway before she re-entered chambers and motioned for a re-vote, her change swinging the decision back in Neal's favor.

With Brown having since lost her seat to Michael Gallen, the ALJ's decision against the BOCC's original vote, and the original staff recommendation all to consider, it would be hard to imagine a board not voting to repeal the measure, should it be brought to the floor. That being said, when Pat Neal and company have been involved in land use decisions, especially ones they clearly hold dear, stranger things have been known to happen.

Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. An archive of his columns is available here. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com.

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Pretty powerful words Bob from your little computer. I doubt that you have never even met the Neals but you are sure quick to call them names. You could if you wanted. All you have to do is attend any number of charity events and fundraisers that they sponsor. Or visit the house that they donated for the use by disabled children in summer camp. Or the books that "empty suited son" donated to all the first graders in this county. Or the thousands and thousands of dollars that they have raised to support injured fire fighters.

What have you ever done!!
Posted by Bill Rich on August 4, 2011
 

The way to win this war is to cut the head off the snake and bury it deep.This political hack has more tricks up his sleeve than one could imagine. Backed by his "empty suit son" and the dog and pony show that follow him around he is a tough act to beat. Deep pockets have served him well in this community and financially backing Mr. Scott gives thought to pay back and the Brown fiasco. All in a days work for this crew with no thought to the community and its safety.Why have a planning board when you have this guy to dictate what he wants. Friend to the folks of Manatee County is a real stretch for this pillar of the community. It is a me,myself and I attitude with the dollar bill his only goal. We will stay the fight and in the end the good guy will prevail.
Posted by Bob Harrington on August 4, 2011
 

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