The recent debate over the validity of the city’s online maps and whether developers and the public can rely on them isn’t a new problem with the Hayward administration.
In October 2014, Manna Food Bank, Inc. purchased four acres from the Escambia County School District that once was the site of J. Lee Pickens School. The historic African-American elementary school, named a prominent African-American physician and built in 1938, had been closed decades. The school district earlier in the year had demolished the building.
Mayor Ashton Hayward and his staff told Manna that the non-profit could construct its new headquarters on the site. Manna proposed building an approximately 17,000 sq. ft. warehouse to receive food donations and another 3,000 sq. ft. for offices with a meeting room to accommodate 50-60 people. The city planning department said there would be no problem because the land was zoned commercial. Manna would only need an exception from the city on the size of the warehouse.
Residents protested, claiming the land was zoned residential and the warehouse and offices weren’t permitted. City staff and the planning board said they were wrong. In fact, the board treated the residents rather rudely. The city maps showed the land was zoned R-NC. The residents were told they could do nothing to stop it. The exception was granted. (Read “Seeking to be Heard.”)
Greater Little Rock Baptist Church pastor Lonnie Wesley called and asked if I would look into it. I listened to Veronica Fountain, and we together began to research the issue. The city threw as many roadblocks in our way as possible.
City Administrator Eric Olson told Inweekly, “The Manna’s request falls within a provision specifically built into the land development code for the R-NC zoning district.”
After much digging, we found that Olson and the planning department were wrong. In 2011, the Pensacola City Council adopted its Future Land Use Map that showed the former Pickens School had been changed from Residential/Neighborhood Commercial to Medium Density Residential. Sherry Morris, head of the planning department, had failed to update the Future Land Use Map.
In April 2015, I received a phone call from a Manna board member who said the city staff had admitted to him privately that the land was zoned residential, and the board had decided to sell the site. The Future Land Use Map was later corrected.
In December 2015, former city planner Elizabeth Schrey told Inweekly that she lost her job after she refused to lie to the Pensacola City Council about whether the Manna warehouse was under the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Olson denied Schrey’s allegation.
While Fountain was fighting the mayor’s office to be heard, the planning department. was dealing with a construction permit for a new radio tower in the Long Hollow Conservation District. The 2014 permit had lapsed.
Years ago, Long Hollow basin was reclassified as Conservation Area so it could be used and preserved as a stormwater retention area. The Conservation designation was in the city’s Comprehensive Plan. City Administrator Bill Reynolds had presented a new lease agreement for the tower in 2012 to the city council but never told the city council that it was a non-conforming structure. Under the Comprehensive Plan, it should have been allowed to expire.
The original 125-ft.tower was grandfathered in as non-conforming structure, which it can not be expanded, enlarged or replaced. Under the Comprehensive Plan, it should have been allowed to expire.
The owner Divine Word wanted to expand tower to 400 ft. The planning department should have denied the permit or have it come before a city board for variance.
Divine Word demolished the old tower and began construction without the original contractor or apparently a valid permit.
The city approved the construction when it was complete. Later, City Attorney Lysia Bowling wrote a legal opinion that whitewashed the matter.