There’s going to be a lot of workshops next week for the Apalachicola city commission, and chief among them will be the review of an encroachment matter affecting the construction of the Gibson Inn expansion on Market Street and U.S. 98.
The matter surfaced at the June 6 meeting, when it came time for the city commission to give its blessing to an encroachment into the city right-of-way to accommodate second-story porches on the new building now going up at Market Street and Avenue D.
The issue does not appear to be so much about whether having these second story porches are appropriate, such structures are throughout downtown Apalachicola, but whether White Sands Investments, funding the expansion, was forthright in the process that began several years ago with planning and zoning’s approval of the plans.
“There are lots of precedent in historic cities allowing them,” said John Alber, speaking on behalf of HAPPI (Historic Apalachicola Plat Preservation Inc.), a neighborhood activism group focusing on development.
He said the issue was the completeness of the record regarding the encroachment, and the timeliness of the request.
“There are no boundaries shown, no legal description, the record is incomplete,” he said. “Also it is not ripe for consideration.”
He said when P and Z granted approval of the project with conditions in early 2022, the encroachment was not detailed in the request.
“That came afterwards,” Alber said. “The date regarding the plan is June 2022, so a year ago they knew they needed an encroachment. That’s a pattern in Apalachicola; you seek forgiveness rather than permission.
“We think denial (of the encroachment) may be a little harsh,” he said. “We think there needs to be disincentive of a major scope.”
HAPPI attorney Bonnie Davis said it is unclear from earlier surveys whether a strip on the street side of the sidewalk would also be part of the right-of-way. “This underscores the need for a survey that shows exactly where the Gibson property line is. There is no way of determining that from what has been submitted,” she said.
“We encourage you to direct the applicant to go back to P and Z,” Davis said.
Al Ingles, chair of P & Z, said the body may have made a different determination if they had been fully aware of the encroachment details.
“We would have put it off. We didn’t know that, so it was approved with conditions,” he said. “We need to get things more in line, with a standard operating procedure, so they can build freely.”
Apalachicola Outfitter owner Tom Morgan spoke out in favor of the project, saying the developer would have proceeded differently if he was aware of the need for an encroachment agreement.
“Balconies will approve the look of this building, we have balconies over the sidewalk all over town. They give shade,” he said.
“I am here to thank White Sands for what they are doing in town,” Morgan said. “What that group has done for tourism in this city, what they have done there puts me almost in tears about what they’ve done.
“My hats off to this investment,” he said, noting that White Sands employs nearly 300 people in Franklin and Gulf counties, many of whom have retirement and health benefits.
“We should be promoting jobs for our young people to stay here and live here and have a career,” Morgan said. “This will improve the hotel and how much they can charge for those rooms.”
Cutler Edwards, a member of White Sands executive team, said the company was diligent in securing permission for this project, one of the largest in town over the past 20 years.
“We’re an open book, we’re willing to do what it takes to get this wrapped up,” he said. “We weren’t trying to mislead P & Z. We’ve had inspections from city officials. We’re clicking along and at no point was encroachment raised until last Wednesday.”
Mayor Brenda Ash was critical that building inspector Tammy Owens was not in attendance at the meeting, as she would have been available to answer several questions that emerged regarding the timeline of decision-making.
City Attorney Dan Hartman said his major concern was that the Gibson indemnifies the city. “We just want liability protection to make sure it’s safe,” he said. “We’re trying to be uniform in our approach and application of this.”
He said construction plans and building plans have been reviewed by building officials, and it shows a balcony with pillars and the extent of the encroachment.
Edwards said the only change had been a move towards the Gibson property. The workshop, set for Tuesday, June 20 at 4 p.m. is expected to review the updated plans, with Owens present.
Commissioner Donna Duncan, an attorney by profession, said she was “uncomfortable moving forward. I don’t understand why Ms. Owens isn’t here. She needs to be here.
“I want to look at the whole picture truthfully,” she said. “I wasn’t in the room when it happened. We need to table it and get our ducks in a row and see what’s going on.”
Commission Despina George, who was in the room when P & Z gave its approval, said the survey of the master site plan “clearly shows not an encroachment on city property. The city was concerned about height restrictions and encroachment and they were assured there was none and approved on that basis. I think this is a new issue being brought forward.
“I don’t think P & Z misled the applicant concerning the encroachment, but we don’t have sufficient information,” she said. “We need a survey of the full extent of the encroachment and what is being presented. Even without this issue, this project needs to go back to P & Z.”
Ash requested the building department generate a written report to show what happened with this project. “We have a project standing still at this point,” she said. “There’s too many unanswered questions and it is unfair for the applicant that they’re having to go through the process without having all the information.”