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Land use: Zoning appeal raises ethics question
By Charles Swenson
A Garden City restaurant that is challenging a decision by the Georgetown County planning department claims staff was “improperly influenced” by a County Council member whose firm is working on the redevelopment of Marlin Quay Marina.
The Gulfstream Café went to the county Board of Zoning Appeals this year to challenge a staff decision that the reconstruction of a building at the adjacent marina was a “minor change” to the marina’s development plan and therefore didn’t require a public hearing and approval from County Council. The appeals board unanimously denied the request.
The restaurant filed an appeal last month in Circuit Court. In addition to claiming the appeals board was wrong, the appeal said that Steve Goggans, the architect for the marina project, used his role as a County Council member to influence the staff and appeals board decision. Goggans this week denied the accusation.
The appeal of the county’s decision on the Marlin Quay Marina planned development is part of an ongoing dispute between the Gulfstream Café and the marina owner, Mark Lawhon. Last year, the café, whose registered agent is also a corporation, received a temporary injunction in Circuit Court to stop workers rebuilding the marina restaurant and shop from blocking a parking lot between the two buildings. The lot is part of the marina, but the café has an easement for parking.
“This dispute is not about a parking lot. Instead, it is about Gulfstream Café’s attempt to use this court to put the Marlin Quay Marina Restaurant out of business,” Lawhon said in a court filing.
He claims the café voiced no objection to his plans to rebuild the restaurant until after he demolished the old building. “Gulfstream did not complain about any lack of parking … until demolition was complete,” according to the filing, which included the ellipsis.
Gulfstream Café said it sought the injunction because the Marlin Quay Marina kept it in the dark about its construction plans, then blocked the parking lot so vendors and diners couldn’t use it.
The restraining order remains in effect pending a hearing.
In its appeal of the zoning decision, Gulfstream says in court documents that it asked the county planning department in December for a decision that the restaurant project was a major change to the marina’s planned development zoning. When it finally heard back, it learned that the decision had been made in June and that information had been sent to Goggans as the project’s architect.
“The decision of the board relies almost exclusively upon narrative in a letter from Steve Goggans to Boyd Johnson, dated May 26, 2016, where in Mr. Goggans lobbied Mr. Johnson for a number of favorable determinations,” Gulfstream states in a court filing. Johnson is the county planning director.
Goggans, who is not named as a party to the appeal or the parking suit, said he didn’t do anything for Lawhon and the marina project that he doesn’t do in other jurisdictions. “We engage the planning staff and the building department,” he said. “Admittedly, I had a lot of communication with the planning staff.”
But he said the purpose of those discussions was to make sure that the work on the marina project did not become a major change to the planned development.
Gulfstream’s appeal includes a letter from Goggans to Lawhon in which he “valued his personal negotiations with ‘local regulatory authorities’ which resulted in ‘favorable outcomes’ at an ‘additional $72,000.’”
Goggans disputes that, pointing out that the letter actually lists several areas where his firm’s scope of work on the marina project went beyond the initial proposal.
In asking the court to reverse the county’s decision that the project is a major change to the development, Gulfstream also says Goggans should have recused himself under state ethics law because one of the Board of Zoning Appeals members is his appointee.
Gene Gilfillin is the appeals board member from Goggans’ district. Although he reappointed him, Goggans said they have never met. And Goggans said he appeared at the board’s hearing as a witness, not as a representative of the marina.
“This is a private project,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve transgressed ethically or in any other way.”
He called the complaint “a very unfair shot” and added “it’s probably going to be deemed irrelevant.”
Gulfstream also argues the appeals board failed to base its decision on the facts, and says the marina project will double the size of the restaurant building to accommodate a hotel. “The density and intensity of the site will be tremendously increased,” it says, two of the criteria for determining a major change.
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