SEBRING After nearly six hours of discussion Tuesday, commissioners still didn't decide whether Swamp Hammock will be allowed to open an outdoor recreation club near Highlands County's border with Hardee and DeSoto counties.
The problem this time came as the meeting began, when County Attorney Ross Macbeth asked if the five commissioners had turned over all written correspondence on Swamp Hammock.
Although they hemmed and hawed for a few minutes that Chairman Jack Richie had gotten the same emails, and that since he'd turned over his, then he'd probably included all of theirs. However, their final answer was that they weren't sure because they'd been getting letters and emails since Braha Sebring brought the project before the county commission in October 2011.
Although Macbeth warned that they were conducting a quasi-judicial hearing that could be appealed in district court, Richie continued the meeting. It wasn't until 10:45 p.m. that he revealed he'd spoken with Macbeth again during a break and that all records must be made public before final action was taken.
Before that moment, however, every commissioner had revealed his thinking: Brooks was the only one to come down solidly against the idea of allowing mud bogging and 45 other uses to what has been a 1,135-acre ranch, surrounded by other ranches, farms and residences.
The focus has been on mud bogging: an off-road hobby-sport with supercharged engine classes, safety rules and owner-driver relationships. Some drive ear-splitting monster trucks; others put the petal to the metal in ATVs. The idea is to dig a hole, fill it with water, drive into it, then roar out with all four wheels spinning.
It's not unusual, said attorneys opposed to Swamp Hammock, for other Florida events to attract tens of thousands of people – some drinking, some rowdy.
John Clark, who owns property adjacent to Braha Sebring, passed to commissioners a bound set of documents that contained a Fox News report of a Nov. 19, 2012 Redneck Yacht Club event where two people were med-flighted out when one fell out of a vehicle and another was run over.
Fox reported Charlotte County was called to the event 15 times. Officials estimated the crowd at 20,000.
Braha Sebring has asked the county for permission to build log cabins, an obstacle course, a general store, fishing areas, a heli-pad, car and tractor shows, horseback riding, radio-controlled model areas, truck and tractor pulls, truck tug-of-wars, restrooms with showers, vehicle display and sales areas, a golf driving range, swimming areas with beaches, wedding and retreat areas, ball fields, paint ball, war re-enactments, fireworks and laser light displays, ATV and dirt-bike tracks and trails, cattle pens and grazing areas, and mobile food, beverage and alcohol vendors.
The county's planning department responded by suggesting the commissioners impose 31 conditions.
"We've asked these guys to jump through every single hoop," Commissioner Greg Harris said. "But I believe in Gabe White and Jeff Kennedy. If something goes on out there, I think it will stop."
West Josephine and Payne Road residents lined up at the podium for hours to tell commissioners why they would be wrong to allow the noise and traffic, that such activities in a rural areas would violate their property rights, ruin their property values, scare their cattle, make their cows produce less milk. Wildlife would be driven away; fawns would be separated from their mothers. Residents would be so landlocked by traffic, they couldn't attend church on Sundays. Promoters should look for another place in the county where there are no bird nests.
An equal number came to the microphone to explain that Highlands County has needed just such an attraction for decades, that there is nothing here for children to do, that children can't even go to the mall anymore, that not everyone plays high school sports, that 4-wheelers will go to Swamp Hammock instead of tearing up natural areas, that sandhill cranes aren't bothered by cars even at Sebring International Raceway, that such an event would be good for the economy and great for tourism.
"I ran for this office on property rights," said Commissioner Jim Brooks, who was seated in November. Before he was elected, he was on the planning and zoning board for more than two decades.
"I don't agree with the planning department," he said, then moved to deny the request to change from agricultural zoning to agricultural-planned unit.
Commissioner Ron Handley has been swinging from one side to the other since the issue started. "Nobody is going to be happy. But I'm back to my real gut feeling, which is that everybody's property rights should be protected."
His compromise was to award a one-year operating permit, then allow a second year if Braha Sebring does what it says it will do.
Commissioners had a problem with Development Services Director Mark Hill's condition that a six-foot tall chain link fence be erected around the property. "Condition 'aa' is being recommended by the staff as a result of conversations with the adjoining property owners to the north, east and south and will facilitate the safety and security of both the subject property and adjoining properties. Although such a condition was discussed by P&Z Commission as a possibility, the commission did not include this condition. The staff is now proposing that this condition be included in the Resolution."
A fence would cost $400,000 and might make the project cost prohibitive, said Braha attorney Pam Karlson. Besides, she added, Southwest Florida Water Management District has ordered that fencing should not be permitted in wetlands areas.
"I wouldn't support a six-foot chain link fence," Handley said. "I came up with the idea of an orange fence, a temporary fence to go along with a temporary permit. To me, that seems like the fairest solution for everybody involved."
Harris also spoke specifically against the fence, as did Commissioner Don Elwell.
"The idea of a six-foot chain link fence is almost comical," Elwell said. "They're not having 20,000 people at the first one. It's not a perfect fit in our county, and it's not the ideal property."
"But," he added, "It's going to grow, and they're going to learn a lot. We need this; we need something like this in Highlands County."
"I'm particularly concerned about the lack of protection from the barbed wire fence," Richie said. He confessed to still being able to argue either side.
"I think we're very close, but there a lot of problems that still need to be addressed. It's pretty much up in the air," Richie said.
As the meeting closed, Richie got each side's attorneys to commit to a date when commissioners can take a final vote. He started with March 12, the earliest date that could be legally advertised, but finally settled on March 26.