The long-running battle between River Hall residents who want their planned Alva community to stay rural, and Lee County, which wants it to grow, came to a head Tuesday as Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet voted in favor of the county.

Residents challenged the county’s decision last year to bump River Hall’s designation from rural to ‘sub-outlying suburban,’ allowing it up to twice the number of homes. They said the policy called for a finding of necessity to make such a change.

The county said River Hall is already suburban in character, so the finding was unnecessary.

Unless challenged in district court, the Cabinet’s ruling recognizes the county’s authority to change the land use, overturning an administrative law judge’s conclusion in December that said otherwise.

The county’s argument

As County Attorney RIchard Wesch framed the argument, “It is the Cabinet’s duty to decide if Lee County’s decision was reasonable, and, if so, to order that its River Hall decision must stand.”

The Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, CFO Jeff Atwater, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and the governor — found the county’s interpretation of its policy was “fairly debatable.”

It means that “where reasonable minds can differ as to the interpretation, the interpretation stands,” explained attorney Russell Schropp, who represented Greenpointe, the developer, as an intervenor in the case.

Although the community today has only a fraction of its allowed homes, the county reasoned that River Hall with its golf course, fire station and elementary school is already suburban in character. It noted the community’s proximity to Lehigh Acres and the infrastructure in place to support more density.

Reading from the county’s growth plan for the area —”retain rural character and land use where it currently exists”— Wesch emphasized the words ‘currently exists.’ Finding nothing rural about River Hall, it was “reasonable” for the commission to conclude a finding of public necessity could be dispensed with, he said, although the policy called for it.

Debating the debatable

“This policy says what it means and means what it says,” Ralf Brookes, counsel for River Hall’s resident petitioners, echoed judge Suzanne Van Wyk’s view.  “The policy is clear on its face and doesn’t leave room for interpretation.”

Van Wyk had found the residents “proved beyond fair debate” the county was inconsistent with its own policy,. “We’re disappointed this political body deferred to another political body,” Brookes said.

Unless challenged, the Cabinet’s decision means other Lee plans whose land policies depend on a finding of overriding public necessity can have their rural designations changed as River Hall’s was, according to the attorney.

“We don’t think their reading is supportable. I think we will go ahead and appeal,” he said.

If they do, the record on appeal will be the same as the one created during Van Wyk’s hearing.

Last Mann standing 

Having made the 800-plus mile round trip drive to Tallahassee for the last Cabinet hearing — cancelled because of Hurricane Matthew —River Hall resident Roger Thornberry sat this one out, as did his fellow River Hall petitioners Georgett Lundquist, Steve Brodkin, Ruby Daniels, Rosalie Prestarri and James Giedman.

Outvoted by his fellow commissioners and criticized for not supporting their 4-1 vote to change River Hall, Commissioner Frank Mann made an emotional appeal to the Cabinet on behalf of the residents in his district.

“Like Moses asked of Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go,'” Mann urged, recounting 10 years of defending their community.

“Increasing River Hall’s density was defeated by Lee commissioners two times,” he said. “Then the make up of the commission changed. The developer counted votes and tried again.”

While sympathizing with the residents, Atwater motioned a finding for the county, and Putnam seconded.

The residents have 30 days to file an appeal either in the First District Court in Tallahassee or in the Second District Court in Lakeland.

Follow this reporter on Twitter @PatriciaBorns.