In mid-March, an alarm was raised within the halls of county government that a new taxiway at the Marco Island Executive Airport had encroached into a conservation area.
Paperwork began moving in an effort to correct the situation.
That much, you already know.
What you may not have known is the person raising the alarm wasn't Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock.
Even before Brock came out with an audit report citing the infraction as a reason for nonpayment of almost $1 million to the contractor, county staff members were aware of it and scrambling to address it.
A March 14 document from zoning manager Ray Bellows sought a change to the county's Land Development Code. In it he wrote: "This amendment is intended to clarify that aviation related uses are permitted as an essential service on the portion of the Marco Island Airport development footprint that is zoned Conservation."
That statement seems to contradict the arguments made last week by county administrators who told Collier County commissioners that there was no zoning problem.
The multiple interpretations of documents that regulate land use and development also explains, in part, the clashes that keep occurring between Brock, the county commissioners and the staff working for them.
By way of history, the Marco Island airport was built in 1976. In 2010, a project to add a taxiway was approved. Construction started in May 2011 and was completed in February.
Brock, the county's bill-payer, says his office got an anonymous phone call in December 2011 alleging that some of the work was taking place in an area designated for conservation. He hired his go-to attorney, Anthony Pires, to look into it.
Pires concluded the anonymous caller was correct and recommended no further payments be made to the contractor, DeAngelis Diamond, until corrective steps, such as rezoning the land in question, were taken.
On March 22, a week after Bellows pointed out the land was zoned for conservation, Brock sent county managers a report saying the same thing.
But Bellows' superiors didn't immediately pursue a rezoning. Instead they relied on a line of reasoning that went like this: The airport master plan is part of the county's growth management plan. In it, the land in question is designated for aviation uses. Section 1.03.01 (E) of the Land Development Code (LDC) states, "Where any provisions of these regulations are determined to be in conflict with the Growth Management Plan, the Growth Management Plan shall control."
Clearly then, the land is suitable for a taxiway because the Growth Management Plan says it is and the Growth Management Plan takes precedence over the LDC, they argued.
Not so fast, Brock countered. The same document, LDC section 1.03.01 (D), states that when two provisions of the county's land-use documents conflict, "The provision providing the greater restriction or regulation shall be deemed to be controlling." A conservation designation is more restrictive than an aviation designation, making conservation the designation in force, Brock maintained.
Within the space of two paragraphs, the rules on how to proceed when there is a conflict are in conflict.
Ultimately Tuesday, commissioners voted to concur with staff's analysis that the taxiway was built on properly zoned land and to proceed with the rezoning process anyway, just to be sure. The promise of an expedited rezoning was enough to convince Brock to release the $943,000 DeAngelis Diamond and its subcontractors were languishing for.
While that crisis may have passed, more are on the horizon. Noted Commission Chairman Fred Coyle: "I can find a discrepancy in state statute or local government or zoning which would prohibit doing just about anything that we do here if my mindset was to keep things from happening. I can throw up all sorts of roadblocks, as can any good lawyer. We have lost sight of common sense here."
For his part, Brock says he sees the number of questionable documents and decisions coming from county staff increasing, rather than decreasing, and he will continue to point out errors when he sees them and insist they be corrected.
"It is the ultimate responsibility of management to understand and implement the proper processes to comply with the Land Development Code and agreements. The clerk's office may suggest recommendations in audit reports but it is the duty and decision of management to formulate processes to ensure compliance," Brock's airport audit concludes.
Chris Curry was named executive director of Collier County airports in 2010, long after the county's land-use documents were drawn up and after the legal battles between Brock and the county commissioners started.
As he looks forward over the next two years to a multimillion-dollar repaving project at the Immokalee airport — a project that already has drawn criticism from Commissioner Georgia Hiller, who agreed with Brock on Tuesday when she said, "Collier County is not doing the right things. Collier County is not following the law," — he can only hope that the bad blood on display Tuesday doesn't carry into the next job.
"As an optimistic person, I would like to think the people working on behalf of the clerk and the county are more professional than that. I'll hope for the best and be prepared to deal with whatever happens as we try to get these airports moving forward," he said.
Professionalism all around is what we all should not only hope for, but expect.