County Commission District 2: Max Epstein

1) Interests and Reasons for Running

A) Tell us a little about yourself, where you live, and your involvement in your neighborhood (issues impacting your neighborhood).

I live near San Luis Park in the 32304 zip code and have pretty much lived my entire adult life in the 32304 area. I moved here for school in 2006 and I have never left. I just love the diversity of the area and I love what Leon County brings to its citizens which is natural wonders and a small-town feel. I first became involved in local politics back in 2017/2018 as a business owner of a glass blowing studio in railroad square when I participated in a grant which that eventually became $750,000 from the state to refurbish the Ashmore’s building in Frenchtown for a community cultural arts center and a S.T.E.A.M learning laboratory for our local schools, particularly our underprivileged schools because we have so many here in Leon County.

While not just specifically in my neighborhood, I have been actively advocating for affordable housing, healthy and safe neighborhoods, better stormwater management, preserving the historical value of our neighborhoods, and advocating for individuals displaced by local government decisions and policies.

For example, when I was in railroad square, I started to see houses being demolished and trees marked with big X’s to be torn down and I wondered ‘Why?’. This was after the City Commission had rezoned the Stearns-Mosely Neighborhood which enabled its destruction there was a big hubbub on FAMU way and I have not given up on them and continue to advocate for those that were displaced. To be clear, I am not against the FAMU Way, I think it’s an incredible idea. The execution is a little different, and I have been working with the DeVoe Moore Center at FSU on a project that looks at the local government’s use of eminent domain and I found that Blueprint/Leon County did accept federal funding, $1.6 million from HUD in 2012. Because of this, folks were shorted over $1 million and they were also required to, but did not, rebuild all affordable housing that they demolished, about 100 units.  Which is a big deal when you talk about Blueprint giving $27 million to FSU; why do our people not get the same considerations?

Another example of my  current advocacy for healthy and safe neighborhoods would be my work with the Tallahassee Sewage and Wakulla Basin Advocacy Group that recently got Lake Munson closed due to a toxic algae bloom. We had talked with and worked with several residents who had developed serious symptoms from the toxic blooms. Some folks could be developing neurological issues. These are all the things I have been pushing to reform.

B) What event(s) led you to run for elected office?

There were a couple specific events that pushed me to run. The first being my very first meeting with a commissionerwho, when I spoke with him about the displacements, and the trees, and the environmental issues, the very first thing he wrote down was reparations for folks, which he turned into an attack line of Trees vs People and our issues were never actually addressed. The issue is that it is always one side yelling at the other. and that’s manufactured by our political leaders and our staff. There is always a way to find compromise, there is a way that we can all get along and have good developments.

But really it was being gaslighted and lied to by our elected leaders, and I know I am not holding back any punches here, but I don’t know how many times I was lied to about FAMU Way. Why are our public officials lying to us? Why do I have to run for office to make sure this doesn’t happen? Honestly, I would like to just be a business owner in our community and know that things happen the way they are supposed to, but they aren’t, and I am tired of seeing our black communities being displaced because of it.

2) Comprehensive Plan Update Process

A) Are you familiar with the comprehensive planning process and its role in guiding growth and development, and protecting neighborhoods?

I am, I have become pretty familiar with the comprehensive plan. I would say I am slightly less familiar with the actual planning process although it does seem to be driven by staff and not necessarily driven by the experts, the citizen experts, like Pam Hall. I don’t know what we would have done without her help on the Welaunee Amendment. It is pretty clear that the staff never reveals the true cost of these comprehensive plan updates. We have a plan that specifically discourages growth in the northeast so that we can have tax dollars go to the south side and areas that need it; so why are we violating our own comprehensive plan?

I have experienced working on the English Property issue and we had a few simple asks that were never incorporated into the planning process, when it is in our comprehensive plan. For example, they identified areas for green space and we asked them to connect those spaces as the comprehensive plan says to do. However, they wanted to get the most out of the acres and you won’t even be able to ride your bike through the area to Rickards High School, you will now have to go to capital circle to do that.

B) What role should citizens have in deciding on growth and development policies for our community?

We need growth, but it needs to be balanced. It needs to come from the citizens, many who are themselves experts. Staff and consultants should be involved but the key piece is the public and their input, from the beginning. We need to have a much larger notification zone. I know it was just expanded but why not expand it more to ½ mile or 1 mile because this is going to affect people. If you are talking about stormwater, that’s going to affect people 10 miles downstream of you unless you do the right thing during the planning process. In particular, when we do have these developments, the commissioners don’t really negotiate on the public’s behalf. They have the power to include things like affordable housing, better development agreements but that never happens. That is what I would be bringing to the table. There is a way to do it all.

We also need to have a true accounting of the cost to taxpayers. Saying that development pays for itself is the “Big Lie.” We are still responsible for building the schools, for the health and safety of the area, and for transportation. The public should have the true cost of these projects. For example, the English parcel issue was going to cost $58 million just for the school system; that was never included in any analysis.  You have to be able to look at all the facts and take it where they lead you, even if that leads you to a place that is uncomfortable.

3) Process Used to Decide on the Use of Public Properties

What role should citizens and neighborhoods have in deciding on the use of public properties and how do you think and how do you think that should work, for example in the development of the Northwood Mall site?

There has to be an organic planning process. If you look at the City, they are selling community property without a bid, and that is just wrong. That is community property that should, and could be, used for affordable housing or other amenities that benefit the public. Those who are directly impacted, those who are close by, should have more of a voice in it, although we have experts from all over the city and we may have people who care about our neighborhoods who may not live there and they should be listened to as well. So we need to listen to everyone and come together.

Every time I show up to these things, they have a nice pretty poster board and you put a sticker on something, but is that really community planning? I don’t think it is. It is not organic; it is not transparent. I think the planners need to be sitting with the citizens as they draw up the plans and there has to be a fundamentally different way of participatory planning. I have taken a few graduate level classes on urban planning and I know we have very talented and knowledgeable urban planners in our community and there are ways of doing this that are accepted. This is exactly what we found on FAMU Way. They had no meaningful participation. They had a meeting, it was rubber stamped and they said everyone was cool with it, and that is just not the case.

4) Growth and Development Decisions

A) ATN believes that growth and development decisions are key to making urban neighborhoods walkable, bikeable, and livable. Do you agree? If so, what specifically would you propose to implement these concepts?  

Absolutely. I live in 32304 where there are not a lot of sidewalks in District 2, particularly West Tharpe Street. That will be one of top priorities to get a sidewalk there so our kids don’t have to walk to school in the street. The ranking of our projects keeps changing over time. West Tharpe street has been bumped to 2040, IF we even have money by then, which I am doubtful we will.

First, we need to stop expanding the Urban Service Area. Even before that we need a long term plan about how to grow and how to make sure these are a priority. It seems straight now it is all done Willy Nilly.

We also need to be very aware of multimodal/micromodel options. We need to have neighborhood nodes, and account for the electrification of transportation. When I see a new sidewalk go in, it is only about 4ft-6f wide. There are ways to do this that are forward-thinking and account for walking, biking, scooting, etc.

B) In your opinion, has the Commission done enough to equitably share tax dollars and guide growth and prosperity generally, and more specifically, to implement the Southern Action Plan? What else should we do to ensure growth is equitable and benefits all of our citizens?

Absolutely not. Every decision I have seen our local governments make are for wealthy developers that take tax dollars away from the southside. I am aware of the Southern Action Plan but it is not being taken as seriously as other areas such as Welaunee. For example, on Welaunee we spent an entire 18 months working on Welaunee, why can’t we get that kind of drive for our neighborhoods that really need it? This is another reason why I am running.

To ensure growth is equitable and benefits all our citizens we should follow the comp plan and actually do what is in the comp plan. Specifically moving forward, we need to have a comprehensive reorganization, reranking of all the projects coming from the City, the County and Blueprint and we need to prioritize the neighborhoods who have waited the longest and where our tax dollars would have the biggest impact to make them more equitable.

5) Commissioner/Staff/Management Roles

What do you see as the appropriate role between staff and the commission in decision making?

Commissioners must use their knowledge and do their own research and not just rubber stamp what the staff has brought to them. I do believe the staff has an outsized role in how all of our planning decisions are made.

Specifically with the County, I think Vince is an excellent administrator overall. However, I have serious ethical concerns about his role in the IMC and close friendship with Reese Goad and others ​named by Scott Maddox. His unequal treatment of the Lake Hall School versus the Miccosukee school also requires an explanation. I’m open to changing leadership without satisfactory answers.

We need to codify how information is presented to commissioners and the public. It does seem that some information is slanted, the County analysis is typically better than the City, however we have joint City-County planning meetings all the time and that needs to be the standard. We must hold our elected officials accountable. County Commissioners are paid very well, and this needs to be their full time job and become an expert in these areas as well as listen to citizen experts on the issues.

6) Issues of Interest to Candidate

Are there one or two issues you would like to work on and/or take leadership on as a Commissioner?

  1. Comprehensive Stormwater master plan between the City, County and Blueprint. There needs to be immediate action to preserve and improve our water quality in our area. Right now, things are done very piecemeal.
  2. Remedy Lake Munson.
  3. Reparations for the individuals who were displaced by FAMU Way and prevent it from happening to more historically black neighborhoods. For example, right now unless you are constantly and meticulously looking at the plans, you would easily miss that they are planning to remove an entire neighborhood.
  4. Advocate for 32304 infrastructure and economic investment and reranking Blueprint projects.

7) Votes on Key Issues

A) If you had been a commissioner during the vote to expand the Urban Service Area to include the Welaunee Arch (2800 rural acres) north of I-10, how would you have voted? Explain your answer.

Absolutely not. I think there could have been ways to incorporate some parts of it but not the entire addition. I do think there could have been a solution. I would have much rather spent time on the Southern Action Plan.

B) How about the vote to give $27 million of Blueprint money to FSU for stadium upgrades? Explain your answer. 

I think this is one of the most egregious votes I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot. First of all, we do not have the money, we have not collected it yet. I continue to think about my father and what he would say to me on an issue like this. He would have said, ‘Max, why would you be putting all of this on a credit card?’ Why are we doing this with our tax dollars? We could have done a thousand grants, actually made a difference, and made an impact on the poverty in our community. All of these decisions are driving the cycle of poverty here in Leon County and this has to change. We need to have measurable results and analysis, and focus on our existing neighborhoods.

8) Additional Comments We appreciate you sharing your time and thoughts with us.  Is there anything you haven’t had a chance to tell us yet that you would like our neighborhoods to know?

We didn’t get to talk much about our environment and protecting our environmental, cultural, and historical resources, too. Environmental Stewardship will be a top priority. As a commissioner, I would be proactively looking for these resources and working with developers and seeking grants to preserve and converse these things in advance so that we know when a new development comes up that we are going to be okay and be able to preserve what needs to be preserved. I would also like to get rid of the act of clear cutting. We need to have a certain set of all large developments to preserve the natural vegetation in the area, and ideally, I would like to see 40%. We need to preserve our heritage trees. I understand we can’t preserve everything, but we need to make an effort. This is what people love about Tallahassee. Trees also help lower utility costs, and this goes to equitable planning.

There are some things that we cannot change but there are things we can. When it comes to affordable housing, we must take action. For example, when we were looking at expanding the Urban Service Area, it was shown there are about 4,000 units that could be built within the existing urban core in empty lots, but we have no incentives to drive the development there.

None of this stuff is easy, but moving in that direction is. It just takes the will to do so and the cooperation.

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