Pensacola, Florida
Sunday November 23rd 2014

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Fighting City Hall: Innovative Organizers

You can fight city hall. Both Greg Rettig and Melanie Nichols have proven it.

When he learned that the city planning board had approved a zoning change that would allow a Dollar General store on the corner of Spanish Trail and Summit Boulevard, Rettig mobilized his neighbors and brought enough attention to the issue that Dollar General pulled out of the deal.

“I’d never done anything like this before,” Rettig told the Independent News. “Being a lawyer, I’m much better at gathering a lot of information, distilling it down to what’s important and putting together a story to tell a jury.”

He knew he had a challenge to get people to care about the issue. He launched a Facebook page.

“I thought I would let 30 or 40 people know what’s going on, and hoping 10 or 12 would actually care,” he said. The page quickly accumulated over 1,200 followers, all eager to read the background information.

He plugged into the residents’ desire to have safe neighborhoods where children could play. “We knew how much harder it was going to be to reach the older folks in our neighborhoods, but when you got to them, they wanted the neighborhood to stay safe for kids and families.”

Melanie Nichols, president of the North Hill Preservation Association, led the fight to stop the Florida Department of Corrections from relocating its parole and probation center to nearby North Palafox Street.

“We’ve learned that anything good we want that would benefit us as a neighborhood can take years,” she said. “But the bad things that no one wants can happen almost overnight.”

Nichols said that North Hill only learned about the probation office relocation because a resident, who was walking his dog, happened to ask one of the workers at the old Coca Cola bottling plant.

“We had several citizens contact city hall about what is going on with the Coke building,” she said. “No one knew anything. There were no posted permits. There was no information whatsoever.”

Like Rettig, Nichols and others began to do their own research. “There are 23 different things that can happen in a C-3 district. Probation and parole is not one of them. The code states when a use is not specifically listed for a zoning district that it’s got to go through the planning board, which didn’t happen.”

Nichols needed to rally support quickly because it appeared the facility could be opened as soon as April 1. Taking a lesson from Rettig, she created a Facebook page, “Not in Anyone’s Backyard.” Within two hours, the page had 300 followers.

“We had a lot of people in the neighborhoods that have lived there since the ‘60s and they remember the crime, having bars on the windows and doors,” she said. “They said, ‘We’re not going back there ever.’”

North Hill families attended council meetings and picketed a fundraiser for Governor Rick Scott, who called Nichols the next day to tell her the parole and probation office would not be coming to the North Hill area.

Rettig and Nichols believed that gathering good data and getting organized were keys to their success.

“We’ve learned that when bad things happen, you’ve got days to get ahead of it,” Nichols said. “People tell me, ‘You can’t fight the city.’ No, you can.”