Shortly after filing lawsuits against several Plant City residents for slander and libel, the owner of Keel and Curley Winery issued two ethics complaints to the Tallahassee-based Commission on Ethics against Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Ray Young, a former county planning commissioner and winery neighbor who opposed the rezoning.
Owner Joe Keel said in the Sept. 14 complaint that Higginbotham used the weight of his position to persuade people to oppose the winery’s rezoning late this summer.
Keel and Curley Winery fought for a modification to its zoning to allow its new brewery, Two Henrys Brewing Company, to operate. Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously for the rezone, ending in a victory for the Thonotosassa Road winery. Higginbotham made the initial motion for approval.
But, even before the rezoning hearings, Keel said Higginbotham had acted against the winery in attempt to cause problems for the small business.
In the complaint, Keel said Higginbotham, who also lives near the winery, approached neighbors last year who lived across the street from it. Keel said Higginbotham tried to persuade the neighbors to file a noise complaint against the winery.
“I didn’t even know where (the neighbors) lived until I read the complaint,” Higginbotham said. “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
In the complaint, Keel added that a couple of county employees from code enforcement and the fire marshal’s office had come to inspect the property around the time he said Higginbotham had asked the neighbors to file the complaint. They found two violations and no noise violations, Keel said.
Having county officials come out is routine when there is a complaint made to a commissioner’s office, Higginbotham said. Complaints come in regularly about a variety of issues.
Keel said Higginbotham approached another neighbor, as well — this time during the rezoning process. Keel said Higginbotham asked Young to involve his church in opposing the winery rezoning. Young is a deacon at Plant City’s First Baptist Church. He was appointed to the Hillsborough County Planning Commission in 2010. His term expired Sept. 13.
“It was the sum of all, to be honest with you,” Keel said of his decision to file a complaint. “To get the church involved in the opposition, I think that is what threw it over the top for me.”
Keel also said Higginbotham’s wife, Devon, attended opposition meetings.
“It’s a gray area,” Keel said. “The commissioner’s wife was spotted … going to the meetings on an issue he was voting on … it’s not illegal … but she’s still a commissioner’s wife.”
Higginbotham said his wife attended no opposition meetings, but there are also no statutes barring the behavior if she had. He said it wouldn’t be a conflict of interest.
“Devon has no knowledge of this … she did not know or attend any meetings,” Higginbotham said.
Keel also said protocol during one of the public hearing meetings had been violated.
Keel filed an ethics complaint against Young Oct. 6.
“Young used his powerful public position to influence and organize opposition to a rezoning, above and beyond just acting as an individual citizen,” the complaint read. “He conspired with Commissioner Higginbotham and, as such, provided Higginbotham and his wife with a special privilege in attempting to defeat a rezoning that they were opposed to.”
Contact Amber Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.