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Escambia County commissioners on Thursday voted to exempt property owned by former commissioner Wilson Robertson from a land use plan he voted for as a sitting commissioner.

Robertson had sought to remove his property, located at the intersection of U.S. 29 and Neal Road near Cantonment, from the Mid-West Sector Plan, approved by commissioners in 2011 while Robertson was still in office. Authorized by state statute, sector plans are used by local governments for long-term planning in large areas. Escambia’s Mid-West Sector Plan covers some 16,000 acres west of Highway 29 between Interstate 10 and Barrineau Park Road, the area targeted for construction of a “Beulah Beltway” highway.

Robertson served as an Escambia County commissioner from 1988 to 1992, 1996 to 2000, and 2008 through 2016. He purchased the 8.67-acre parcel for $450,000 in 2008, with development of the $1 million Sector Plan already underway. Robertson has previously said he plans to build a Sherwin-Williams paint store on the site.

An 8.7-acre parcel owned by former Escambia County commissioner Wilson Robertson is shown outlined in purple within the Mid-West Sector Plan’s “conservation neighborhood,” shaded in yellow. (Escambia County/Special to The Pulse)

Through his attorney Jesse Rigby, Robertson argued that he had effectively been down-zoned and stripped of development rights when his property was included in the Sector Plan. Prior to the plan’s adoption, the parcel was located with a commercial zoning category, but the Sector Plan placed it in a “conservation neighborhood,” a designation which limited residential development to just three units per acre and prohibited commercial development.

After more than an hour of debate during which some two dozen nearby residents spoke out against Robertson’s request to “opt out,” commissioners voted 4-1 to approve it, with Commissioner Doug Underhill the lone vote against.

“It takes real courage to be serious about planning,” Underhill said. “We are marching toward a disaster of sprawl development in places like Beulah and 29. We have to have courage to say to the developers that they might not be able to make a mint off a particular piece of property because we are going to protect the lifestyle of the citizens.”

“Someone needs to defend the lifestyle of the citizens as strongly as we seem to want to defend the desire of the developers to make more money,” Underhill added.

The decision represents a potential windfall for Robertson, who will now be able to develop the property according to the underlying zoning and future land use designations, which allow for both residential and commercial development — and much more of it.

Many of the measure’s opponents donated their speaking time to Jacqueline Rogers, the moderator of the popular “Escambia Citizens Watch” Facebook group who lives about a half-mile from Robertson’s property.

“I’m disappointed that the commissioners did not defend the integrity of the Sector Plan,” Rogers said after the vote. “It was an attempt at some progressive planning to balance the desire for more development against the need to preserve the rural characteristics for the citizens already living here. I think it would have helped prevent sprawl and given a more orderly, neighborhood friendly development pattern.”

“Clearly, former Commissioner Robertson was aware of what the Sector Plan did since he was involved in public meetings and ultimately voted to approve it,” Rogers added.

The intersection of Highway 29 and Neal Road near Cantonment. (Jacqueline Rogers/Special to The Pulse)

Commissioners denied they were giving their former colleague special treatment.

“He shouldn’t get something because of who he is, but he shouldn’t be denied something because of who he is,” said Commissioner Grover Robinson.

There was one small victory for opponents of Robertson’s opt-out: while Robertson had requested a future land use designation of “Mixed Use-Urban,” commissioners voted to designate the property as “Mixed-Use Suburban,” a more restrictive classification.

“I am pleased that the commissioners did not grant his request for a more intense Future Land Use that would have allowed industrial activity,” Rogers said. “It is not compatible with this area of the community.”

Bizarrely, the commission was scheduled to vote on Robertson’s opt-out before formally adopting criteria for opt-out requests. In the end, commissioners reordered the agenda and approved the opt-out criteria just before taking up the issue of Robertson’s request.

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