It’s a warm Jan. 31 so let’s talk about Clark Stillwell.
For over 40 years, Stillwell has represented the interests of developers before the county commission. Oh, he’s had a few other jobs too — Citrus County Hospital Board attorney, Crystal River city attorney (only the old timers would know that one).
But it’s the development stuff that he’s clung to. It’s the development laws he’s mastered.
So it’s going to be pretty weird not having him around.
Today is Stillwell’s retirement date, though he’ll still see all his pending cases to fruition. He’s not taking on new clients after today, so if you’re looking to build that thousand-home development in Lecanto, better get a move on.
We’ve known each other for decades. He’s never backed away from an interview and he generally gives it straight.
His clients in general had good intentions, even if the neighbors disagreed. Doesn’t mean Clark didn’t represent some people or companies of questionable repute. And if you think I’m naming names you’re crazy.
He won a lot more than he lost. There was one really huge loss. So huge that someone from the opposing side was later elected to the county commission.
Other area attorneys did land-use work, but none mastered it like Clark. He had an answer to every question.
People flocked to that expertise. Clark walked hundreds, probably thousands, of folks through the ungodly development permitting process. Whether someone wanted to build their pool closer to the canal or knock down the Crystal River Mall and replace it with something sparkling new, it’s Clark Stillwell who goes eye to eye with the best county planner and they work it out.
He had an often-used approach at county commission hearings when representing clients whose plans angered the neighbors.
It was this: What we have in mind is better than what could happen under the current zoning.
I call it the Clark Stillwell School of the Worst Case Scenario. It goes something like this:
(Me in my best Stillwell voice):
“Commissioners, what my client is proposing will protect this community and satisfy the requirements of (lengthy duration of state and county law).
Plus, as the property is now zoned, someone could slip right in and open a tire burning plant with only a Level 1 review. And I don’t think anyone wants that!”
Hard to believe elected leaders would fall for that malarkey but commissioners do all the time. Even from the back row, I can see them thinking hard. “Tire burning plant! I can’t let that happen.”
It’s a brilliant strategy. I’m not saying that’s why Stillwell is successful. I’m saying he sold that so well because commissioners knew, deep down, he wasn’t going to bring them a loser and expect to win.
There is great respect at play. Stillwell rarely speaks an ill word about any commissioner, current or former, regardless of their official history.
Plus, let’s face it, there’s a very good chance on land-use matters that he’s the smartest person in the room based on experience alone. I mean…the guy helped write our current Comprehensive Plan and he’s had major input on all of the county’s zoning regulations.
Clark and I have had a fun and professional relationship from the start. On the record talks were always interesting in that we each knew he was playing the other. I wanted a good story. He wanted a little buzz about his client.
I called Clark on Monday afternoon to make sure his retirement plans hadn’t changed. He gave me some details and then we had another one of our informal afternoon chats, tossing around ideas coming down the pike.
He’s not ready for the gold watch just yet. Stillwell represents new owners of the Crystal River Mall property whose plans must be approved by the Crystal River City Council. He also represents Commissioner Diana Finegan in her street vacation request that will be decided by her fellow commissioners. And I’m guessing he has more irons in the fire than he’s letting on.
Then he’ll be retired and someone else will assume the mantle.
When Clark Stillwell pleads his last zoning case before the county commission, it’ll be the end of an era. For 40 years, Stillwell spoke for development in Citrus County.
Win or lose, it was a role he gladly accepted.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.