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Orchid doesn’t plan referendum on an island Publix


Publix’s plan to build a supermarket-anchored strip mall in the southeastern corner of Orchid will impact, perhaps dramatically, the seaside town and its neighbors.

It will change, for better or worse, the look and feel of State Road 510 from the Wabasso Bridge to Wabasso Beach, and alter to some degree the quality of life in the communities along that corridor.

It also could affect the area’s property values.  That’s why, with so much at stake and the potential for far-reaching ramifications, the Orchid Town Council must proceed wisely when weighing the pros and cons of the proposal.

At the very least, the council’s five members, need to be sure they’re representing the will of the townspeople.

“The community association already is trying to set up a meeting with Publix representatives, probably in early January, strictly for informational purposes,” Orchid Mayor Harold Ofstie said, referring to the Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club’s homeowners association.

“The residents want to know more,” he added. “They want more specificity. So they’re looking for a question-and-answer session, where they can fully understand what Publix wants to do here.”

Orchid also is required by law to conduct a pair of quasi-judicial public hearings – one by the town’s Local Planning Agency, then another by the Town Council.

And those sessions, along with any other hearings that could be scheduled in the interim, might be enough to give the Town Council a clear understanding of the will of the people.

But what if they don’t?

What if Orchid’s 450 townspeople, after Publix’s final plan is presented, appear to be divided on such a weighty issue?

Should the Town Council members call for a referendum, either to decide the matter or provide them with a mandate?

“I don’t think we would do that,” Ofstie said. “It’s the council’s responsibility to make a decision on the issue.”

State law requires council members to remain neutral until the conclusion of the quasi-judicial public hearing, where they will act as judge and jury. The same is true for the LPA.

Those hearings, however, will not be scheduled until Publix’s plans – currently under review by the town’s outside planner – are finalized.

“We can’t decide until we have a full presentation of the final plans and a hearing, anyway,” Ofstie said.

Ofstie said it’s too early to gauge the sentiment of the town’s residents.

“I’ve heard from some people – a couple, anyway – who have voiced their opposition to the proposal,” he said. “Most of the people I’ve talked to, however, say they’re undecided and waiting to see the presentation.”

Ofstie said the site plan Publix submitted to the town in October is available to the public at Town Manager Noah Powers’ office.

Residents of the town’s neighboring communities, especially those who live at Old Orchid and Seasons at Orchid, have launched an email campaign in opposition of Publix’s plan to build a 31,000-square-foot supermarket and 6,000-square-foot retail building with space for five stores.

Opponents cite increased noise, traffic, crime, light intrusion and potential environmental damage that say would accompany the proposed development of the seven-acre parcel on the north side of State Road 510, immediately west of Jungle Trail.

“We’re aware there’s opposition, but you can find opposition to almost anything these days,” Ofstie said. “And the naysayers are usually louder than the people who are in favor of something.”

When the town approved the commercial zoning of the parcel nearly 30 years ago, the mayor said, officials expected “mom-and-pop shops” would be built there, “but there just hasn’t been any appetite to do anything like that on the property.”

“When Publix first approached us last spring, they told Noah: ‘This is what we want to do. If you guys hate the idea, we’ll just walk away now,’” Ofstie explained. “I asked several people, probably 15, and 13 of them liked the idea.”

“We understand there are pros and cons,” he added, “but I’m highly confident we will give it a fair and careful hearing.”