Ocala, Florida — The Marion County Citizens Coalition — Joined by Save Our Rural Area — has now filed a lawsuit against the Marion County Board of County Commissioners.
In January, Ocala Post wrote an article that specifically addressed the reasons the lawsuit has been filed. Citizens also filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the agency responsible for investigating local government corruption.
The article describes how the Sunny Oaks Estates project is set to destroy some 400 to 450 acres of farmland near Interstate 75 and County Road 318 in Irvine. A well as a majority of the companies and individuals involved with the project have given campaign contributions to county commissioners.
The project will be a combination of residential, commercial and industrial development — a development that will certainly invite more crime, traffic, and population to an already crowded Ocala; it is the city of Orlando in the making. Again, bringing public safety to the table.
Scott Siemens, a developer on the project, was originally cleared for a project that would allow for townhouses, apartments, and a 220-room hotel to be built. Siemens is frequently represented by engineer David Tillman of the civil engineering firm, Tillman and Associates.
Monetary campaign contributions to commissioners namely come from real estate investors. Also contributing to commissioners’ campaigns are farmers that would benefit from land sales, underground utility companies, engineers, and developers who are directly involved in the recent development projects.
On May 7, 2013, Tillman and Associates gave a contribution to Commissioner Carl Zalak, and on December 20, 2013, to Kathy Bryant. Ciraco Underground, a utility contractor, also gave contributions to Zalak and Bryant. Scott Siemens gave a contribution to Zalak on June 21, 2013, along with Linda Siemens who gave a contribution to Zalak on October 3, 2013. Companies Rainey Construction, Rainey, Ike (Road Contractor), Rainey Investments, LLC, and Rainey Land Company, have all given contributions to the commissioners’ election campaigns.
It should also be known to Marion County residents that all seven members of the Planning Board have ties to the construction industry; many are even involved in projects that come before them for review.
The Marion County Citizens Coalition contacted Ocala Post, expressing concerns over the lack of due process to landowners and citizens alike.
The Marion County Citizens Coalition said the following:
“The Marion County Citizens Coalition (MC3) has initiated a suit against the Marion County Board of County Commissioners. The suit resulted from a growing concern at a lack of due process.
Among the violations which Mr. Ralf Brookes, the MC3 attorney, has identified are the right to request timely documents, the right to examine documents, ask questions and receive timely answers. MC3 requests that Marion County strive to take actions to increase meaningful participation enhancing the public voice in government public hearings and proceedings.
Neighborhood Property owners have the right to ask for notification of land-use changes, the changes those land-use amendments will bring, and how homes and property values will be affected.
Tag-a-long and last-minute land use requests without proper notice violate procedural due process and have no place in democratic government. Procedures for notice and public records explaining even minute changes must be followed by everyone without regard for status, position, profession, or standing with government entities. Too often it is just the inner circle (or those with high-powered lawyers) who are provided with email notifications and for whom procedures are shortened, fees are waived, and short cuts are granted. Tag-a-long and last-minute land use requests without proper notice should not be allowed, Marion County should have a procedure that is followed by everyone.
Fees for applicant generated land-use changes should be collected and not waived as tag-a-longs to County generated plan amendment updates. We the taxpayers should not foot the bill for development impacts on our infrastructure, and not every piece of land should be converted to shopping centers and housing developments. What has happened to our sense of place and farmland preservation?
Furthermore, Marion County taxpayers and residents have the right to provide input and provide feedback regarding appointed boards. Boards that play a significant role in development decisions are currently made up of the regulated and weighted with developers, their contractors, and companies with which they do business.
We ask that commissioners seek balance on all county business as the constitution mandates. It is time we had a voice.”
In January, Clayton S. Ellsworth Jr. of Dunnellon wrote, “I have been poring over the campaign contributions for all of the County Commissioners. About 50% of these contributions are from contractors developers, engineers, real estate, etc. These categories represent by far the single biggest contributors to the County Commissioners. No surprise at all. As I have said before, for years the County Commissioners haven’t met an investor or developer they haven’t liked. Wonder why?” He added, “Money Talks.”
Marion County residents are even more concerned that changes to the Sunny Oaks Estates project were slipped in without allowing input from the public. The land usage — at the last minute — was changed from 150 acres to 450 acres. One resident said, “The meeting was a joke, they clearly had their minds made up before the meeting even started.”
Experts have repeatedly argued that the Cross Florida Greenway and all of its surrounding area needs to remain protected, not to mention the impact the development will have on the county’s water supply. Pleas from preservationists fell on deaf ears as the BCC moved forward with the projects.
The majority of Marion County residents, such as Mildred Grisson, agree that the BCCs involvement in the Equine Commerce Support District and Sunny Oaks Estates projects is a conflict of interest.
In response to the lawsuit, the board’s attorney, Matthew Minter, wrote that the commission followed all legal procedures in the agreement made with Ocala developer Scott Siemens.
The lawsuit alleges that — despite being requested multiple times — commissioners failed to provide a copy of the fully executed agreement between the County and Siemens; violating public records request laws.
On May 9, 2014, the County responded that the development agreement was still being revised due to changes made on May 8, 2014. On May 13, 2014, a copy of an unexecuted allegedly “final draft” (in underline strikethrough redline format) of the Development Agreement was provided. The lawsuit states, “To this day a fully executed agreement has not been received.”
Minter denies this allegation as well. However, there are e-mails included in the lawsuit that took place between involved parties; the e-mails seemingly “back up” allegations in the lawsuit.
Minter called the lawsuit “moot” and has requested the court throw out the lawsuit.
In an e-mail to Ocala Post, one local landowner wrote, “I hope the courts can see through the corruption of our commissioners. They should not be allowed to accept contributions from involved developers and they should not be allowed to “sneak” in last-minute land changes.” Adding, “The people of Marion County deserve a lot better than the individuals currently in office.“