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Jackson Lab's Florida Personalized Medicine Campus Plan at Center of Lawsuits

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Jackson Laboratory's plans to build a personalized medicine campus near Naples, Fla., is at the center of a pair of lawsuits filed in state courts in recent days.

Collier County's Board of County Commissioners filed a court complaint in Florida's Circuit Court asking a judge for a "validation" or official declaration that the Jackson Lab plan constituted a "valid public purpose." Such a declaration would allow the county to match with its own bonds the $130 million promised for the project by the state of Florida.

Earlier this year, the county agreed in principle to spend $130 million toward the Jackson Lab project, matching the $130 million — including $50 million this fiscal year from the state's Innovation Incentive Fund — agreed upon by Florida lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist, whose term expires Dec. 31. In return, Jackson Lab has committed to spending $120 million that it plans to raise through a philanthropic campaign toward the personalized medicine campus.

Headquartered in Bar Harbor, Maine, Jackson Lab plans to open a translational genetics research institute to be built on 50 acres donated by developer Barron Collier Cos., starting with a temporary facility projected to launch in 2011, and expanding to a permanent campus envisioned to open two years later. Jackson Lab's campus would anchor a 700-acre "biomedical research and education village," envisioned as housing a mix of commercial, academic, and research tenants.

"The proceeds of the bond will be utilized to construct and equip approximately 165,000 square feet and will house wet labs, bioinformatics, and computational biology dry labs," the board stated in its court complaint, filed Nov. 10. "The project will act as a lynchpin to developing a strong biotechnology industry as a means to diversify not only the state's economy, but that of Collier County, Florida," the board added.

However, nine days later, a medical device concern that has publicly opposed the Jackson Lab plan's use of state and county funding filed its own unrelated lawsuit in Circuit Court against the board. Arthrex Inc. is asking a judge to order the laboratory plan be decided by supermajority vote rather than the simple majority vote being pursued by the commissioners.

In its suit, Arthrex cited the county Code of Laws and Ordinances: "No change in the zoning ordinance shall become effective except by any affirmative vote of four-fifths (4/5s) of the full membership of the governing body."

Arthrex argued that the change to a regional master plan being sought by Jackson Lab and the county to allow the project constituted a rezoning. Coyle and pro-lab commissioners have disagreed, siding with a group of 126 businesses and families that own undeveloped land in rural Eastern Collier County.

The group has argued that traditional zoning rules do not apply to the site eyed by Jackson Lab for development since it is within a "Rural Land Stewardship Area" where property owners agreed to give up some rights to build on environmentally-sensitive land in return for credits to build elsewhere — credits the group says would be worthless if they had to pursue rezoning in order to develop land.

Last week, a board majority voted 4-1 to ask an arbitrator to decide the issue. Arthrex said in its court complaint that the use of an arbitrator constituted an illegal delegation of the county's decision-making authority on development issues, and was a violation of the company's due process and property rights.

Board Chairman Fred Coyle and three other allies who support the Jackson Lab plan have been able to prevail on votes against Tom Henning, who has sided with critics of the laboratory plan in seeking a referendum on the county's borrowing $130 million toward the project.

Henning and critics have argued that the subsidy to the nonprofit Jackson Lab is tantamount to corporate welfare, and that the benefits of the proposed lab and biomedical village are outweighed by its cost to county taxpayers. Coyle and other Jackson lab supporters have countered that the state- and county-subsidized lab project will benefit Collier County — where unemployment was reported at 12.2 percent in October — because it will enable Jackson Lab to create the 244 jobs promised by 2020, plus additional jobs if companies either relocate to Collier County or spin out of Jackson and remain in the area.

But next month, Georgia Hiller, a commissioner critical of the Jackson Lab plan, will succeed the pro-plan Frank Halas as council member for District 2; Halas opted not to seek re-election. Hiller will have been sworn in by the time the county commissioners are expected to reconsider the issue of zoning for Jackson Lab at their Dec. 14 meeting.

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