by Lee Malis and Gainesville Neighbors United
I came home from vacation one day to find a backhoe ripping out trees, knocking down my fence and then going after a giant Live Oak tree in my backyard. My shock and confusion at the time would be hard to describe. I had just come from attending a great wedding with lots of old friends. I was feeling happy and content. That was August 16 and that was the last time I felt that way.
The past three months seem to have been nonstop invasion, attacks, slander, and legal fighting.
My name is Lee Malis, and I left Gainesville back in the 80s and returned home after being away for almost 30 years. I photographed social upheavals all over the Americas and Europe for 20 years and raised my family in Prague, Czech Republic. I had covered Pinochet in Chile, the massacres of the Mayan Indians in Guatemala, the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the coups of Russia, the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany. I had been a photojournalist for Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, and many more magazines.
When I quit photojournalism, I bought an old hurricane-damaged sailboat, fixed it up and then sailed in my 40’ ketch for 10 years between Maine and the Caribbean working as a captain, fixing boats, teaching high school, and I even published a small monthly newspaper for a while in St. Augustine.
When I came home to Gainesville five years ago, my son had never lived in the United States and I had always told my children that Gainesville is the center of the universe.
I bought an abandoned old house and my son and I lived in the house. He attended Santa Fe Community College and I worked on renovating the house. I created a nice garden and am getting involved in Gainesville life again.
My son graduated and moved back to Prague for film school. I was happy with a quiet life, repairing the house, renting out the rooms downstairs with Airbnb, and making a garden and fixing broken things. I fixed old lawnmowers, furniture, broken bicycles. I enjoyed a simple existence.
Then, along came the Reef Apartments, a new “luxury apartment community” development next door to my house in the 5th Avenue neighborhood.
After the initial backhoe attempt to tear out my tree, I got city employees to come to my house and see with their own eyes that there had been a mistake.
Gainesville’s city planning department, recently renamed the “Dept. of Doing,” had given the Reef Apartments a permit to tear down a tree that was standing in my backyard. The Live Oak tree is also actually approximately five feet in diameter, not less than three feet as their survey showed, a difference of $20,000 in the mitigation fee. That is more than my annual income.
Instead of denying the permit, the Dept. of Doing just told Britton Jones, the Reef Apartments developer, to redo the survey and he could keep his permit to cut down the tree in my back yard. I did not like that.
The city employees did not seem to care what I liked. They strongly suggested he not cut down the tree, but since he had a permit, that was up to him.
But how could a developer have a permit to cut down a tree in my yard? Over the next days, I wrote to the city commissioners, all of whom I had voted for and for many of whom I’d helped campaign. Not one wrote back.
Then the land moving equipment came, digging out near the big Live Oak’s roots. Though I called the Dept. of Doing again to try and stop that, the city staff didn’t answer my calls. I called the police, and I called all the commissioners again. Luckily, commissioner Gigi Simmons was a couple of blocks away and came to visit while Sergeant Wilkins of GPD got the land-moving crew to agree to stay away from the roots for the day. The next day the city staff came out and said that they would ask Mr. Jones to keep his crew away from the roots until the new survey was finished.
Mr. Britton Jones had held a neighborhood meeting back in March, as required for the Reef Apartments development application. The invitation to the meeting had a map showing that the Reef Apartments were over a mile away from the actual location. I sent that map to the city commissioners and the developer had to hold another meeting and notice it properly. They then did not invite me or any other person living adjacent to the property. I complained again, this time to the Dept. of Doing and they promptly did … nothing.
The Dept. of Doing continued to do nothing but said that they would look into it. So I assumed there would be another meeting. Nothing was done and not only did they not have another meeting they gave them their permit and no one from the neighborhood had any say in the event. Due process for the adjacent neighbors was ignored. A pattern was forming.
Back to September now. When the new survey came out, it was obvious it was wrong again! They did not correct the tree size. The size of the tree is crucial to the fee paid for the permit to cut it down. Surveys are not supposed to be alternative facts. Nobody seemed to care. Jones agreed to not tear down the tree saying it would be too expensive. But he did tear out my fence, tore out other trees, sued me with a SLAPP suit. For those who don’t know what a SLAPP suit is:
“A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Such lawsuits have been made illegal in many jurisdictions on the grounds that they impede freedom of speech.…The plaintiff’s goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs, or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism…” (From Wikipedia.)
So now I’ve spent almost half of my yearly income on legal costs. I started a Go Fund me site with the help of Meg Neiderhofer. Incredibly we raised about $3,600 and after fees it came to about $3,300. I spent that money saving the tree. I feel bad asking people to help pay for my battle and so haven’t asked. The total I’ve spent so far is about $6,000.
Every week it’s something. I rarely sleep anymore, my blood pressure spikes sometimes 50 points in one day, when they tear my fence down, for instance. I could keep fighting legally, but what’s the point? It would cost everything I’ve got and more. Without a lawyer to agree to take it on contingency or pro bono, it’s not worth it. I’m exhausted now. Civil law is for the wealthy.
But it’s not all bad news. Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos asked the City Auditor to investigate what’s going on. There is an official independent investigation of the Dept. of Doing by the City Auditor. And the state Board of Surveyors and Mappers has started two official investigations into the engineering firm Jay Brown Professional Group and their surveyor.
It’s been an education on how Gainesville government works. It seems the new Orwellian “Department of Doing,” and the city’s newspeak logo, “Gainesville, Citizen Centered, People Empowered” was created to help developers get their jobs done. I’ve seen no desire to protect the citizen’s rights. It should be “Gainesville, Citizen Censored, Developer Empowered.
The city planning department – the “Dept. of Doing” – is trying to pass an amendment to the recently updated City Comprehensive plan. They’re calling this new plan “GNV R.I.S.E.” Some of the Newspeak is just amazing. My favorite is the term “Affordable Housing”! They are saying this is an Affordable Housing plan. And who can be against helping less affluent people have affordable housing? Not me. I grew up on the streets and was a ward of the courts from the time I was 13 years old. They are finally going to help my people! Hallelujah!
But no. The City of Gainesville and the Department of Doing have a different definition of affordable housing.
Mayor Lauren Poe says “affordable” means 30 percent of income. But he didn’t say anything about how much income. So they can build luxury apartments that are affordable for middle-income people but not for the lower-income people. He says the city has a housing crisis and needs the Department of Doing’s latest rezoning plan for that reason. But the plan is touted to help lower income people. A sham.
But last year Poe said, “Gainesville has an overabundance of affordable housing.” Which is it? And how does favoring developers over neighborhoods help? And how will all this new housing serve the 4,000 people currently on the Housing Authority’s waiting list? There are loopholes big enough for a blue whale to swim through. I would bet not one of the 4,000 will be able to afford this “affordable housing.”
My neighborhood, Fifth Avenue, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Gainesville, has real affordable housing available. Well it did. Developers have been buying up property, tearing down houses, and building high-rent dorms that look like houses. Last year’s change to the zoning speeded that up. The three-story apartments going up next to my house are all “luxury” apartments. Now the Department of Doing plans to change the zoning again to allow even more rentals at higher density, without telling property owners. Fifth Avenue is being zoned out of existence.
And the Department of Doing is trying to impose citywide changes in the name of “affordable housing.”
That means developers can come into any neighborhood, bypass zoning regulations, and build nine expensive rentals in exchange for one that’s “affordable.”
The city commissioners are the Department of Doing’s biggest supporters in this. The Department of Doing came up with this plan after months of talking with “stakeholders” including developers who would profit from it. Not with the public, no notice to property owners, a few sham “workshops,” and now, after people protested, four sham “affordable housing open houses.”
Unless people start standing up for our neighborhoods and the way the city is being run, we are in real trouble.
Wendy Thomas is the director of the Department of Doing. Before she came to work for the City of Gainesville, she was the planning director in Bozeman, Montana. Her department floated an incentivized “affordable” housing plan there as the Department of Doing is trying to enact here in Gainesville via GNV R.I.S.E.
But that plan didn’t work there. According to an article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle A community group called “Save Bozeman” filed suit against the city, accusing city commissioners of modifying development regulations to “benefit developers without neighborhood input,” saying commissioners rushed through a 2015 design guideline change to promote high-density development.
Our city isn’t making it easy to find out what’s going on in the Department of Doing. Maybe you heard something about what they’re calling an “affordable housing plan”? Maybe you read a Gainesville Sun article or editorial about it?
What you probably didn’t hear is what it really is – citywide zoning changes. This time the changes affect all neighborhoods.
But were any neighborhoods or property owners notified? No.
The Department of Doing has tried from the start to call the comprehensive plan amendment an “affordable housing plan” to hide what they’re really doing until it’s too late. Well, too late is coming up fast – Nov. 29. Commissioners will vote on the changes then. So far they just keep saying the changes are a tool in their toolbox or an experiment they can undo if it doesn’t work.
Doesn’t happen that way.
Once the city gives permission like this to developers, there’s no going back. Their lawyers show up and threaten to sue.
To find out more about what’s really going on, check out the Facebook page “Gnv Neighbors” and some of the conversations going on in Nextdoor.com.
Speak up, call and email commissioners, come to the city commission meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 29 at city hall. Don’t let the Department of Doing run over you and your neighborhood like they have mine.