A sharply divided Apalachicola city commission has granted the Gibson Inn an encroachment to enable its addition, now under construction, to put in second floor balconies that extend into the city’s “air space” right-of-way up to or over the sidewalks along Market Street and Avenue D.
At a special meeting June 20, the commission approved by a 3-2 vote, with Despina George and Anita Grove opposed, to grant the encroachment as spelled out in an agreement drawn up by City Attorney Dan Hartman.
The vote came immediately following the defeat, also by a 3-2 vote, of a motion by George to table the motion until July 6.
“We need to give the public access to the same information provided the city commission and give the commission time to process the information,” said George. “I don’t think time will permit us to have a meaningful discussion here.”
At the outset of the special meeting, Mayor Brenda Ash set a time limit that no more than a half-hour would be spent on considering the encroachment.
She also made clear the citizen activist group HAPPI, which had weeks earlier negotiated a settlement agreement with Gibson Inn owner Steven Etchen, had not acted on the city’s behalf.
“I thank HAPPI for their time, effort and comments,” Ash said. “HAPPI was not hired to negotiate on behalf of the city of Apalachicola; that was something they chose to do.”
John Alber, a resident at 240 Sixth Street who serves as a director on the HAPPI board spoke on the group’s behalf. In February 2021, the group whose acronym formerly stood for Historic Apalachicola Plat Preservation Inc., changed its name to Historic Apalachicola Partnerships for Preservation Inc.
“This is one of the most visible projects in Apalachicola in decades,” he said. “It’s very visible and will transmit a message to builders and citizens and staff all over the place.”
Alber said HAPPI’s perspective on the matter had changed since an earlier city commission meeting when he and fellow HAPPI board member Bonnie Davis began working with Etchen to find a solution that would move the Gibson project along as well as serve as a disincentive to not adhering strictly to procedures set out in the city’s rules.
“I grew to respect Mr. Etchen as well,” said Alber, noting that HAPPI had asked for, and received, from the Gibson a survey of the proposed encroachment.
“It was a doozy,” said Alber. “What was said at the meeting with Avenue D was not correct. There was (also) a 100-foot strip on Market Street for which an encroachment was being sought, both ground and air, between the sidewalk and the extension.
“Nobody knows the ramification of granting the encroachment as is,” he said. “And it’s a very important matter that none of the public has seen this survey.
“The project is now the poster child for ‘forgiveness rather than permission,’ Alber said. “We know this hearing has the sense of urgency from the applicant. Our strong recommendation is to defer a decision so that all (parties) have a chance to review this new piece of evidence.”
HAPPI’s recommendation was supported by Janine Gedmin, a resident at 226 Ninth Street, who said tabling would allow commissioners and staff “to review the implications of granting those additional easements.
“If the commission is interested in just pursuing (the encroachment) on Avenue D, then have the $40,000 penalty fee, or some type of fee which is not included in the document attached to today’s agenda by Mr. Hartman,” she said.
She said the city attorney’s summary as part of the special meeting’s agenda had cited page numbers and other quotations which the public had no online access to. “The public should be able to independently review those documents, and not to challenge Mr. Hartman but to provide input,” Gedmin said.
Ash said the delay in posting the materials was because city offices were closed Monday, June 19 in celebration of the Juneteenth federal holiday.
“They were too late to be posted, that was the issue,” she said. “We do apologize for that.”
Gedmin said the holiday delay “lends credence that the matter be deferred,” a position echoed by remarks from LaRaela Coxwell, who argued that even the Friday prior to a Tuesday meeting is insufficient time for residents to review documents.
“I suggest that Friday is not friendly either, we don’t get to see it unless we go to the city’s office (and then) we know the city has weeks, if not months, to deliver those documents,” she said. “Most of these (encroachment) documents remain concealed or at the very least difficult to access. It seems like an effort to avoid accountability based on city staff.”
Coxwell said agendas that go out on Thursday, Friday or occasionally Saturday prior to a commission meeting do not afford the public enough time. “We’re a bunch of slow boiled frogs, and this just continues in that kind of habit,” she said. “This is just another example where we are discouraged or stonewalled to be involved in a process.
“Thank God for your educated and engaged constituents that will do the homework at the 12th hour,” Coxwell said.
Cutler Edwards, chief strategy officer for White Sands Investments Partners, which owns the Gibson, took exception to any suggestion that the company had misled city officials.
“I’ve been careful to say there will be an encroachment over Avenue D,” he said. “I did say it did not cover the sidewalk on Market Street, which is true. All those plans have always shown balconies between posts on Market Street. Nothing has changed. The documentary record is complete and echoes everything else we’ve ever submitted.”
In his report, Hartman stressed that the company had not committed any encroachment, since they were seeking permission in advance of completion of the second floor construction.
“The Gibson did not apply in a timely fashion but they have not encroached yet,” he said.
Hartman said he had reviewed documents from May 2022 and Jan 2023 planning and zoning meetings, as well as reports from city building officials, and concluded that “the plans clearly show encroachments on Avenue D covering the sidewalk, and on Market Street (from) the roof line up to the sidewalk, the exact extent of those encroachments is not shown.
“Their building plans are consistent with the P & Z submittals,” he said. “The mistake they made was not applying to the city for the encroachment agreement much earlier.”
Hartman said he had drawn up an “air space only” encroachment, with the city left to decide whether to OK the decorative pillars which would not be structurally necessary.
Asked about them by Ash, Edwards said the company planned approximately 20 8-inch by 8-inch pillars.
“We would much prefer to have posts underneath aesthetically,” he said. “The building could be constructed without them (but) it would be anomalous to what the city has currently.”
In seeking to table the matter, both George and Grove asked that agendas be provided to the public with more advance notice.
“We have asked all along to have an agenda out earlier, to get it out to everybody at least a week in advance,” said Grove. “The Monday (a week before the meeting) would be great. I sympathize with those requests.
“This voluminous material has been hard to go through,” she said. “I feel like it’s a small ask. We need to have people look at the material and if you have valid concerns I would bring up the concern to city staff and the attorney and we go from there.”
In making the motion to table, George stressed there had been “a material change in the ask” and asked why the request hadn’t been made and decided upon prior to the building permit being issued.
She said that the Gibson had provided “an affirmative statement that there would be no encroachment on the Market Street side.
“We now have a request for an encroachment for six feet on city property that is not the sidewalk,” George said, noting that such requests have been granted in the past when it serves a public good.
“This encroachment is only for the benefit of the applicant,” she said, “This is not an insubstantial piece of property. We should not do that while there are pending issues regarding parking and height restrictions. I want to be able to let the public digest this, and have the staff do the work to vet the parking plan.”
Edwards took issue with George’s description of the situation, calling it “a mistaken narrative.”
He said every site plan shared by the Gibson had referred accurately to the balconies being “over city land between the lot line and sidewalk and Market Street.
“I couldn’t spell it out more completely,” Edwards said. “At some point people have to read agenda packets and read the documents submitted. We cannot in any way use the city property for any Gibson Inn purpose. There is no reclamation of land to be used by the Gibson.”
Commissioner Donna Duncan asked for clarification as to whether the intent was to limit the discussion exclusively to the encroachment issue. Both Ash and Hartman said it was.
“The height and parking (issues) need to be researched but that is not on the special meeting agenda,” Hartman said. “In my opinion they are separate items.”