News-Sun photo by CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY Bob Skipper owns property bordering the proposed Swamp Hammock Outdoor Recreation Club. Here he asks the Highlands County Planning and Zoning Advisory Board for more time to bring a panel of experts to testify against the project. The postponement was denied.
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published: Friday, January 18, 2013
P&Z advisory board in favor of Swamp Hammock
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Highlands County's Planning and Zoning Advisory Board voted 6 to 2 Tuesday night to recommend the county commission approve Swamp Hammock's request for AU PD zoning. The decision came during the board's quasi-judicial hearing Tuesday afternoon and evening.
The proposed private outdoor recreation club is controversial. Discussions regarding it have been going on for months.
Bob Skipper, a rancher opposed to the project, asked to postpone Tuesday's meeting. He told the board he had assembled a group for the Jan. 8 meeting, but it had been canceled. Skipper said, "I couldn't get my people together for tonight."
The board ruled that there had been plenty of notice and the matter had drawn out long enough.
"If I had Jesus Christ with me at the meeting, the county commission wouldn't have agreed me," he said as he left the podium after speaking.
The heart of the issue, both those in favor and opposed said, is about land owner rights.
On the one hand, people already in the neighborhood say they have a right to protect their quality of life. They were there first, they argue, and a club of this kind is not fair to them. Why isn't the government protecting them, they ask.
On the other hand, supporters of the club say this is the United States of America, and what right does the government have to tell people what to do with their property?
There also are broader environmental issues being raised by concerned groups and individuals.
Critics are concerned about the traffic they say the club will generate on secondary neighborhood streets, which are the only ways to get to the club.
Critics worry the noise of revving engines, public address systems and amplified music will destroy the peace of the area over a large distance and adversely affect local livestock and wildlife. Light pollution is another issue, especially because the property is in one of the few areas left with dark skies.
Ranchers near the site also worry about trash and trespassers. The Audubon Society fears bird populations and animal corridors will be disrupted and displaced because of the disturbance.
"(Swamp Hammock) is 100 percent inappropriate for this sight," said Paula House, referring to its possible effects on wild life and people.
For their part, supporters say they have done everything possible to minimize noise and bright lights.
Jeff Kennedy, representing the owners, told the board that county staff created a list of specific conditions the club would have to follow. For example, he said, all events are subject to the Highlands County noise control ordinance; exterior lighting features must be shielded and directed onto to property and special lighting -- like high powered sky lighting units, laser lights and fireworks -- be directed within the property's air space and limited to special events.
Pam Karlson, attorney for the owners, told the board, "Occasional vehicle events will be held in the center of the property and the owner has made every effort to have a variety of uses."
A list of those proposed uses included not just vehicle events or fishing and camping, but bigger events like renaissance fairs and bluegrass concerts.
"No other part of Highlands County can do these events," Karlson added. "It's at the farthest most edge of the county."
Street traffic caused the most concern.
Kennedy said a traffic study was done based on the impact the Red Neck Yacht Club generated in Charlotte County. He said the study had tripled the number of vehicles of a peak day and time, and the results showed the level of service remained fine.
Critics of Swamp Hammock raised issues with the study and its choice of a peak day and time. But board members said any such issues were negated by tripling the hypothetical traffic load.
Critics raised strong concerns about allowing the sale of beer on the premises. They also had questions about a proposed 1,000-yard shooting range. The range, however, will be operated under the oversight of the National Rifle Association, and is separate from the overall club.
Supporters said the unusually large range makes official competitions possible, and should draw people in from out of county.
Chairman Lew Carter reminded the audience the board serves in an advisory capacity only. Any decision is to made by the county commission. He added that there were still more steps in the process.
"Some of this stuff you deal with, it happens out in the country," Carter said, referring to ATV noise before the vote. "My concern has always been the traffic. I have to respect the experts (who collected the data and wrote the traffic report)."
Board member Rick Ingler said, "My biggest issue is the noise. I live a couple of miles from the raceway. I knew and accepted (the noise). These folks who live out there shouldn't have to do that. They were there first."
Carter -- joined by Robert Puzey, James DiNapoli and David Travers -- voted to recommend the project to the commission. Douglas Walz and Ingler voted against. William Bennett, an alternate member, had to leave the meeting early for an obligation and did not vote.
Seems Reasonable (by: Melissa M - 2/23/2013)
As much as I hate developing Florida's natural areas, I have to say that I can't see much of a problem with this project. While I agree with the surrounding property owners' concerns, I can't help but point out that the developers have addressed those concerns. It seems they have taken into account the wildlife, as well as creating a buffer zone between loud events and surrounding property. This will give our teens much-needed local activities and should keep them OUT of trouble, not get them INTO trouble. As long as this place checks for IDs and has security measures in place, I just don't see the problem. The only people who have an issue are the neighbors. I can't say I blame them...but this is a county-wide decision, not just a neighborhood decision. What's best for the overall population of Highlands County? Lastly, in response to another comment - what's wrong with an investor wanting to recoup losses on a legitimate investment?? Noting illegal or unethical about it.
Ridiculous (by: Politics as usual - 1/21/2013)
This is just plain gross.
Ridiculous (by: Anonymous - 1/19/2013)
To the people who complain this will bring underage drinking to our county, look around you. There is already plenty of it in our county. It cause's DUI's, accidents, fights, and sad to say death as well. I'm sure you're not thinking of the extra business this would bring to our county though that it DESPERATELY needs. Just like with Triple Canopy Ranch or Redneck Yacht Club, there is security and on-site medics which I'm sure the owners would have for Swamp Hammock as well. Underage drinking is against the law and to keep their establishment open, they'll have to enforce that. Quit complaining because you're the older generation. I have all the respect in the world for my elders, but not for those who believe they have the right to complain about everything just because they've lived longer. Just accept that my generation enjoys things you didn't and that time have changed.
vote (by: Labrat - 1/18/2013)
The vote was 4-2 with 6 commissioners seated at the time of the vote. One commissioner had to leave early.
only a matter of time (by: cant say - 1/18/2013)
Seems to me that it will only be a short time coming if this project is allowed that highlands county will see more problems stemming from this . You will have teens doing underage drinking and who knows what else will come from it because there is isnt anyone to regulate any laws . So be prepaired for whats in store when you allow things like this to be passed by the same people you vote for office. Its bad that the board recommends things to put money in ones pockets while telling the home owners and property owners who have been there that they will just have to deal with it . Seems there might be some side way dealing under the table if you ask me .
Bad Investment (by: Blindman - 1/18/2013)
Mr. White, Mr. Kennedy and others made a bad investment buying this place, the economy tanked and they can't sell estates like it was planned for so they are trying to recoupe money another way. All this effects the Skipper Family who were next door for a long long time working cattle. It's not right for the Skippers and I don't blame them for thier concerns. But Mr. White has money and he and his associates are not going to stop pushing thier agenda. For all the good reasons they claim for the programs they want for the land, it's about recouping from a bad investement. It's about money and it's unfortunate.
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