Martin County's Path to Preventing Browardization

Introduction - We may have just blown it!

May 9, 2022

 

The proposed Rural Lifestyle land-use designation, now postponed, could have ensured that Martin County's high quality of life and cultural heritage could continue.

Instead, we might lose this opportunity to turn thousands of acres of Martin County's treasured rural lands into parcels forever unsuitable for full-scale development.

Not just temporarily, but permanently.

By applying the Rural Lifestyle land-use designation to qualifying lands, we also could have legally contained the expansion of the urban services districts that allow full-scale development by limiting the desirability of rural lands.

Not just today, but for the foreseeable future.

Those facts and others got buried under the overwhelming numbers of carbon-copy, anti-planning, anti-development comments during the April 19 public hearing before the Martin County Commission considering approval of the Rural Lifestyle amendment to the county's Comprehensive Growth Management Plan.

Dozens of those attending were reacting to the pre-hearing rhetoric that claimed this amendment “would gut Martin County's Comp Plan” and “destroy the Martin County difference.” Although the claims were untrue, they're also not new.

We've seen this same scenario play out again and again over the past 25 years.

Fortunately, a few residents who had been against the amendment prior to the staff's presentation were brave enough to say they were beginning to change their minds at the end. Why?

Because they saw and heard the facts, instead of limiting themselves to just the fear-mongering echo chamber so typical of Martin County's well-orchestrated zero-growth movement.

They could see, for instance, that building three dozen golf cottages for short-term guests does not have the same impact as dozens of residential homes built for permanent residents. The 70 percent open-space requirement would dictate how much room was available for accessory buildings.

Unless you know the facts, however, it's hard to stand your ground in the face of such well-known organizations and the individual voices in Martin County that preach smart growth, environmental preservation, and agricultural protection.

If you listen closely, however, you'll see that their actual objective is zero growth, even at the expense of our own local environment. That's neither healthy, nor sustainable.

We're not going to try to counter every inaccurate statement made during the public hearing; however, we do think it's important to repeat the most relevant facts:

It's easy to see how land that qualified under the Rural Lifestyle designation would lose its appeal to developers interested in creating vast housing developments. A loss in appeal would reduce the value of the land itself and drastically reduce the pressure on farmers and ranchers to sell their land outright.

No legislative rules could more effectively contain Martin County's urban services boundaries long-term and usher in true sustainability of what we call “the Martin County difference” than the proposed change in land-use rules.

We remain hopeful that the Rural Lifestyle land-use designation will return for reconsideration, perhaps buttoning up some of the regulations a little tighter. Will that end the controversy?

No, because the zealots, usually also the loudest, have a different agenda altogether. Follow along with us over the next few days to better understand the pattern of Martin County's contentious growth history.

Please share our emails with your contacts in order to help demystify the myth-makers. It's our best hope of ensuring a sound future for Martin County.


Part 1 - Here we go again!

May 10, 2022

 

Drill down to the layer beneath residents' conflict over keeping Martin County's agricultural lands rural, and you'll find fear.

It's encapsulated in one word, “Browardization,” characterizing a county south of us with its eastern half completely built out, marked by skyscrapers, condominiums, and traffic congestion.

An unfounded fear?

Some say absolutely yes, pointing to the county's 100,000 acres of permanently protected conservation lands as proof.

Others say no, because Martin County still can be “Browardized” if we dare touch the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan rules pertaining to agricultural lands.

It's a decades-old debate inflamed yet again by a proposal this month to establish a new land-use category, Rural Lifestyle. The Martin County Commission backed away from approval, postponing it instead due to an orchestrated sea of complaints.

This broad-brush approach that over-simplifies complicated issues with simple slogans – Save Martin County, Don't Gut our Comp Plan, Keep Our Good Nature – covers up the real threats.

 

Let's Take A Brief Look Back

 

Conservation and environmentalism seem to live within Martin County's DNA. It was firmly embedded by Martin County leaders in the '60s and '70s, likely inspired by Stuart News editor Ernie Lyons' local fishing columns and environmentalist Nathaniel Reed's state and national work in environmental protection.

The county commissioners of that time, including Timer Powers, Frank Wacha Sr., Jim Bruner, and William “Doc” Myers, made it clear that environmental conservation and open space for residents would be the priority in Martin County over concrete and steel.

That's when the idea of limiting the heights of buildings to four stories was born. It was not an arbitrary choice.

Several factors contributed to the decision, including the length of fire truck ladders, that would ensure residents would always enjoy an unfettered skyline and ocean breezes. It set the bar for Martin County's distinctive differences from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.

“...but the big push came from Timer,” said Paul Siefker, an Indiantown resident and builder who was then a member of the Martin County Zoning Board appointed by Powers. “He really wanted to make sure there were no hi-rises on Hutchinson Island, ever.”

The '60s also saw a broader belief that local government could play an active role in wildlife conservation, environmental protection, water restoration, and providing a good quality of life for all residents by planning for it.

In addition to establishing four-story height limits on Hutchinson Island in 1968 -- 14 years prior to the county's first Comprehensive Growth Management Plan adopted in 1982– the county established the state's first waterfront setback line along its beaches to protect its sand dunes, and launched a public campaign to purchase 800 feet of the island's beaches for public ownership.

School children alone raised more than $36,000 to aid in the successful effort.

 

First Attempts to Create Sustainable Agriculture

 

Conservation efforts had focused primarily on the coast through the 1980s; however, the growing population in the coastal areas, the lack of affordable housing in Martin County, and the need to create a more robust agricultural economy in Martin County pressured commissioners to look south and west to our rural lands.

They recognized the need to plan for the future.

County leaders requested the assistance of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council in 1994 to develop a more comprehensive plan for future growth. They wanted to focus on the sustainability of rural Martin County, particularly southern Martin, where the urban services boundary dips eastward from I-95 at Kanner Highway to within two miles of the coast at the Palm Beach County line, then encompassing 191,000 acres of land.

The acreage was zoned for agricultural use only, the majority of which allowed only one home per 20-acre parcel. The land closer to the urban services line often was zoned at one home per five-acre parcel, designated as agricultural ranchettes.

Residents gathered in day-long charrettes to indicate their preferences with color stickers on a map of southern Martin County. Combined with scientific data and analysis, resident preferences were published in 1995 in a final TCRPC report.

Among residents' observations during the study was a preference for rural living – small villages surrounded by farms, gardens, and natural areas – as a legitimate alternative to living in urban or suburban neighborhoods, without expanding the urban services district.

That observation – printed in the draft but excluded from the final report – and the overall exercise made little impact on rural land management rules found in the county's Comprehensive Growth Management Plan and Land Development Regulations.

 

A Second Study Launches

 

Three years later, the county commission with Commissioner Donna Melzer as chair, directed staff and local consultants to conduct its own sustainability study of Martin County with focus on rural lands, including Indiantown. Among those appointed were future county commissioners Michael DeTerlizzi and Doug Smith.

A comprehensive report was released after a year of study and public workshops, one of which drew more than 200 residents to the county fairgrounds. Interest was high, but again the results made little impact.

In fact, when the final report was presented in 1999, the county commission majority refused to accept the economic element, which included plans for the development of small rural villages in western and southern Martin County and a broader range of manufacturing in Indiantown.

With the decline in agricultural profitability in the face of higher risks, farmers adjacent to the urban services boundary in the targeted areas yielded to the temptation to sell their land to developers.

The sale of rural lands – coupled with two studies urging changes to our land-use rules – prompted new no-growth groups to be formed under an environmental protection banner.

Other groups were re-energized, and the term “Browardization” began to surface in public commentary.


Part 2 - Studies of Rural Lands Divide, Rather Than Unite

May 11, 2022

 

The passage of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, although heralded by all, added to the existing local tension over any change to managing the county's agricultural lands.

The unanticipated challenge that emerged was an increased pressure by Everglades restoration activists to keep the purchase price of Martin County's agricultural land for CERP projects depressed, even if their actions were environmentally unsound.

The most effective word then to stop changes in land use rules? “Browardization,” of course.

Meanwhile, the state's first wild and scenic river, the Loxahatchee in southern Martin County, was drying up. The flow of water to its headwaters was impeded by drainage ditches and the construction of Bridge Road that had become a dam acting similarly as the Tamiami Trail had across the Everglades.

A change in managing agricultural land in sensitive areas was critically important to restoring that flow of water south to the Loxahatchee and to sustain other water systems vital to the health of the state's ecology – including the Everglades.

Yet opposition to any changes to agricultural land management rules in the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan remained firm, despite the obvious harm to our riverine systems.

 

A New Environmental Group Forms

 

In an effort to bridge divisions and to learn common-sense alternatives for preserving large amounts of the county's environmentally sensitive rural lands, in 2002 a group of Martin County residents formed The Friends of Martin County.

They invited scientists from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) division to present environmentally sound alternatives for land management.

Among the proposals was the transfer or sale of the development rights of rural lands to create permanent agricultural easements on working farms and ranches, programs already in place at the state and federal level, but not adopted in Martin County. 

Another idea unavailable in Martin County was the clustering of housing units in new developments to create large swaths of open space, fostering wildlife corridors and restoring historic water flows. 

Initial enthusiasm was high to heal the divide among environmentalists, and hundreds attended, says Mary Dawson, a former county commissioner and one of the group's founders.

It didn't last and an all-too-familiar scenario emerged.

“The (anti-growthers) refused to even consider trying to reach consensus,” she says now, “and the meetings devolved into us-vs-them events that lost most middle-of-the-road interest.”

The group disbanded, but asked the county to conduct a study of rural lands to recommend a plan for sustainable management.

The result was the “2020 Vision for a Sustainable Martin County,” a visioning exercise based on the Comp Plan's stated principles, but bowing to the no-growth influence by making the urban services boundary nearly immovable and agricultural land untouchable.

Only one suggested change from IFAS carried over into the report for agricultural land management. It was a now-familiar one:

The suggestion did not make it into the Comp Plan.

Many local environmentalists, including Dawson, said they felt the study had been a waste of money, although it included a land-acquisition map of CERP (Central Everglades Restoration Plan) projects in Martin County.

The hope for a unified effort to address the county's long-range environmental objectives, create wildlife corridors, strengthen the county's agricultural viability, and, in the process, end the strife over rural lands ended in disappointment.

Then Florida Sen. Ken Pruitt stepped in.

 

Looking at the Entire Treasure Coast

 

Martin County, Indian River, and St. Lucie counties had not escaped Florida's explosive population growth. Experts predicted in 2002 that the Treasure Coast would add another 250,000 residents by 2030.

At the same time, Florida's second-largest economic driver, its agricultural industry, had been hit hard by disease, storms, and global competition. The number of farms began to decline in Martin County as acreage was sold to large industrial operations or to major developers.

Sen. Ken Pruitt, then representing the Treasure Coast, asked Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004 to sign an executive order establishing a rural lands subcommittee.

The governor appointed 37 members, including names you'll likely recognize as its leadership team: Frank Brogan, then-president of Florida Atlantic University; Dr. Edwin Massey, president of Indian River Community College; engineer Melissa Meeker, former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District (chair); Thaddeus Cohen, then director of the Florida Department of Community Affairs; in addition to Pruitt.

Two members appointed from Martin County included environmentalist and former County Commissioner Mary Dawson and County Commissioner Doug Smith.

Five major areas were investigated: natural systems, rural lands, the built environment, social systems, and the economy. 

After nearly two years of intensive classwork and study, monthly workshops, public comment, and “vigorous debate among members,” the committee produced a 100-page report that encouraged members to update their county's comprehensive plans to incorporate what they had learned.

The results of the most comprehensive study ever undertaken to ensure the sustainability of Martin County's quality of life and the specific steps required going forward got buried under the loud protests of the same zealots who had undermined the efforts of The Friends of Martin County.

They successively controlled the narrative through fear-mongering public comment and a flurry of email blasts chocked full of misrepresentations, exaggerations, and the perennial threat of “Browardization.”

The final report of the Governor's Committee on a Sustainable Treasure Coast cannot easily be found in Martin County, except by those who themselves served on the committee.

The hope for a sustainable future began to slip away.


Part 3 - Messaging Continues to Counter Study Conclusions

May 12, 2022

 

Two steps forward and one step back seems to be the Martin County mantra when making decisions about managing growth.

Residents serve on committees to study scientific approaches that sustain the local environment, local agriculture, and our economy, tackling issues such as affordable housing and water quality, then we either interpret the results narrowly to suit a certain narrative or ignore them altogether.

One of the narrowest interpretations came out of the 37-member governor's executive committee appointed in 1994 to study the sustainability of South Florida's natural, agricultural, and social systems, meeting nearly simultaneously to Martin County's first sustainability study the same year.

Although Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles' appointment letter identified a wide range of interrelated topics, the committee members studied them only in relation to Everglades restoration.

Under the leadership of former Florida House Speaker Richard Pettigrew, the committee approved a 110-page final report that provided stakeholder input for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, later crafted by the Army Corps of Engineers and approved by Congress in 2000.

Appointed committee members included US Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Terry Rice of Stuart, who had written a white paper about ineffective federal protections of the Seaside Sparrow habitat that prevented the flow of water into the Everglades, and 5-term former county commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, who had distinguished herself as an Everglades restoration activist.

One of the recommendations for inclusion in the CERP plan was the creation of firm urban services boundaries by South Florida counties that would stop encroachment on the Everglades' natural wetlands. The recommendation came with a cautionary note:

Hurchalla enthusiastically adopted the premise of an immovable urban services boundary in Martin County to protect the environment, although encroachment on the Everglades did not exist here as it did in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Nonetheless, it became a hallmark of Hurchalla's environmental axioms, giving priority to tightly restricting growth – both inside and outside the USB – with little to no consideration of the impacts on the viability of agricultural enterprises, the price of housing, or the local environment in Martin County.

 

Mismatched Messaging

 

The studies in Martin County that followed the adoption of CERP revealed the pressing need to restore the historical, natural flow of water throughout Martin County. To reach that goal, however, required updating Martin County's Comprehensive Growth Management Plan.

The state-mandated review of the Comp Plan was slated for 2008, but County Commissioner Susan Valliere did not wait.

With the public's willingness in 2006 to increase their sales tax by half a cent for five years to purchase conservation lands and create more parks, Valliere reacted to the immediate need to create an independent land selection committee.

She introduced a Comp Plan amendment in 2007 for land preservation that would create a land selection committee comprising citizens as well as elected officials to decide which lands should be purchased with sales-tax revenue, and to adopt the Department of Agriculture's TDR (transfer of development rights) program to allow the transfer (or sale) of development rights of a rural parcel outside of the urban services boundary to land already targeted for development.

The TDR program would put hundreds of rural acres with an agricultural zoning of one housing unit per 20 acres under a permanent conservation easement in return for assigning their allotment of housing units to the land already targeted for development. (A 500-acre parcel, the minimum, would allow 25 housing units to be transferred.)

The most controversial aspect of Valliere's land-preservation amendment, however, was the introduction of the clustering of housing units to leave large tracts of land as open space. The planning tool had been suggested in all of Martin County's sustainability studies.

It also was widely promoted outside of Martin County, even by Nathaniel Reed and the 1000 Friends of Florida, the land-planning organization he founded. Here, though, activists sounded the alarm, warning residents that the land-preservation amendment, (more widely called the Valliere Amendment) would destroy Martin County's Comp Plan, eliminate the sacrosanct urban services boundary, and allow widespread urban sprawl.

Sound familiar?

After five rewrites, the final version required a minimum of 500 acres per project (or more), with the landowner forfeiting ownership of the undeveloped portion of the parcel to the county in return for the ability to cluster its allotment of housing units in one area.

No increase in the number of homes was allowed, thus the high cost to developers in the loss of land discouraged its use. In fact, the amendment has never been used.

One commissioner still calls the Valliere Amendment “that horrible amendment,” which became synonymous with “Browardization.”  The deluge of vitriol and negative publicity undermined Valliere's reelection bid in 2010 against Ed Fielding, a Martin County Conservation Alliance board member, who remained on the board until 2018.

The amendment's greatest impact came not with the attempted Comp Plan updates, but in Martin County's anti-growth narrative, growing its numbers and polishing its tactics.

They immediately turned their attention to The Future Group, a citizen advisory committee with a core group of more than 50 Martin County resident stakeholders led by civil engineer Melissa Corbett of Hobe Sound.

Public meetings and workshops began in 2007 largely to include the suggestions of previous sustainability studies as part of the Comp Plan's 2008 EAR review.

Few recommendations actually survived the Comp Plan adoption process – other than changes to match the state's newest regulations – in the face of another onslaught of negative commentary threatening “Browardization” yet again.

 

The Threat of Urban Sprawl, Real or Imagined?

 

After the county commission's approval of the watered-down Valliere Amendment in December 2007, the legal challenges began. The Martin County Conservation Alliance, led by attorney Donna Melzer, and 1000 Friends of Florida filed an administrative appeal in 2008 arguing the amendment would lead to urban sprawl.

The state administrative judge rejected the urban sprawl argument. The state Department of Community Affairs also rejected Melzer's argument, a decision she appealed to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. The court dismissed the appeal in 2010, and imposed sanctions on the Martin County Conservation Alliance, the 1000 Friends, and the Everglades Law Center, which had joined the suit, for filing a frivolous appeal.

Melzer and the Conservation Alliance appealed again to the full appellate court, which upheld the sanctions. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the groups' final appeal in 2013.

Although Martin County attorneys had spent five years in court defending the county against the frivolous lawsuit by the Conservation Alliance, 1000 Friends, attorneys Donna Melzer, Virginia Sherlock, and Richard Grosso, the 2012 county commission majority of Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding, and Anne Scott forgave all but around $7,000 of approximately $34,000 in sanctions.

Commissioners Heard and Fielding were members of the Martin County Conservation Alliance, yet refused to recuse themselves from the vote.

Ignoring the law became the hallmark of the 2012 county commission majority.


Part 4 - Hidden Agendas Lead to Undesirable Outcomes

May 13, 2022

 

Martin County's future direction dominated the 2008 election of county commissioners in the District 3 race that pitted challenger Patrick Hayes, an environmental advocate, against pro-business incumbent Lee Weberman.

Many Martin County Conservation Alliance members campaigned in support of Hayes, who had spent 10 years actively working to restore the Loxahatchee River in southern Martin County where he lived. Their affection for Hayes, however, quickly waned, as he, in turn, became increasingly disillusioned with the Conservation Alliance's agenda and messaging.

He publicly challenged speakers calling themselves environmentalists. He said they obviously lacked a key commitment to restoring Martin County's historic water flows to improve water quality and environmental protection, thus in his opinion could not be considered true environmentalists or conservationists.

“Restoring water flow should be the number-one priority for everyone who lives in this county,” Hayes still says. “Our wild critters depend on water flow and on our rivers to survive. Humans build water plants or dig wells to pipe themselves water … and they can always go someplace else to live. Critters can't.”

Hayes rebuffed the idea that dividing rural acreage into 20-acre lots was environmentally sound or sustainable. During his term, he embraced the potential of the new Valliere Amendment to obtain large swaths of environmentally significant lands, particularly along Bridge Road to unblock water flow into Kitching Creek that feeds the Loxahatchee River.

He worked with four landowners in Hobe Sound who had proposed housing developments along Bridge Road that would place nearly 6,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land under permanent conservation easements in return for only a slight increase in density.

Some proposals had NO increases in the number of housing units as allotted in their assigned agricultural zoning, yet all were rejected after vitriolic public comment and a flurry of emails. They argued that approval of any housing development on Bridge Road would open the door to widespread urban sprawl, especially to the western DRIs (Developments of Regional Impact), and inevitably to the “Browardization” of Martin County.

Hayes was particularly perturbed after one landowner had agreed to donate 1,500 “beautiful acres, critical for restoring water flow” south of Bridge Road in return for clustering his allotted 150 homes among 20-acre lots, 10-acre lots, and 5-acre lots, buffered by native habitat along Bridge Road's right of way. The vote failed to approve the project.

“I don't think they understood what I was trying to do,” Hayes says now of his critics.

What Hayes did not (and still does not) understand is that any housing development on Bridge Road, which leads directly to Jupiter Island and Hobe Sound Beach, likely would be rejected, regardless of its environmental significance or its removal from more intense development in the future.

The final onslaught of criticism came after Hayes supported a change in land use for a triangle of land trapped between the turnpike and I-95 on Bridge Road unsuitable for farming due to its large lake, yet zoned for agriculture only.

At the time, no other uses were possible, since the Comp Plan banned farmers markets, packing houses, farm-to-table venues, or any other enterprise to provide alternative revenue streams for agricultural landowners.

(That all changed on July 1, 2013, when the state passed legislation to override local bans of agri-tourism facilities and operations.)

The anti-growth contingent had taken firm hold of public opinion, thus the ski park and RV park were rejected, as was Hayes. He was labeled an environmental turncoat in the pocket of developers, which undermined his re-election bid.

Ushered in to take his place was former Jupiter Island Commissioner Anne Scott in a 2012 landslide victory, who joined Conservation Alliance members Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard in majority control of the Martin County Commission.

 

The County's Darkest Chapter

 

We've often talked about the 2012 commission majority's decisions by commissioners Sarah Heard, Anne Scott, and Ed Fielding through 2016 that resulted in numerous major lawsuits – and ultimately grand jury indictments for public records violations – costing taxpayers an estimated $20 million to $50 million in sanctions, settlements, legal department costs, and attorney fees.

Less often have we talked about the fact that all of it was unnecessary.

If the 2012 county commission majority had simply followed the rules of our own Comp Plan and state law, NONE of those lawsuits would have been filed against Martin County or environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla, including Lake Point's.

Not one.

Two of the three commissioners responsible for the nightmarish actions of the commission majority in the span of those four years, 2012-2016, lost their bids for re-election.

The scariest lesson of Martin County politics then, however, is that a lie repeated often enough (through 5,000 or so weekly emails) becomes true, compounded by well-meaning foot soldiers repeating the skewed or downright false information delivered directly to their email inboxes.

Actually, we're starting to see those same well-orchestrated protests renewed.

Watch the April 19 public hearing on the Rural Lifestyle amendment on MCTV, and you'll hear the same fear-mongering messages you've heard over and over again the past 20 years at other Martin County Commission meetings.

You'll see yet another long line of public commenters, most not listening to the presentation where their questions were already answered. Another litany of mini-lectures from familiar faces about “gutting the Comp Plan” and "Browardization."

Rinse. Repeat.

A nearly identical response captured the debate over the Valliere Amendment in 2008. Today, however, clustering is the recognized tool to conserve environmentally sensitive lands, create wildlife corridors, and improve water flow for new housing developments.

It was endorsed statewide then by 1000 Friends of Florida, founded by environmental icon Nathaniel Reed – everywhere except in Martin County. Now it's routine.

It seems almost inconceivable that the most common anti-clustering message in 2008 was worded like this email to county commissioners:

Residents were protesting against the very amendment that would help achieve what they wanted.


Conclusion - ‚ÄčAnything Changes or Nothing Changes, Both Roads Lead to Broward

May 14, 2022

 

Catchy slogans capture the imagination and get points across without having to think much. None of us wants to “Miami My Martin” or “Browardize” this special place.

Usually, though, the slogans say more than what's printed on a T-shirt. They say: “Don't grow. Don't change. Not in my backyard.”

That's the easiest message of all to sell to the widest audience. No thinking, no analyzing, no weighing of the unintended consequences of inaction.

After the election of former Jupiter Island commissioner Anne Scott in 2012, the county commission became the county's “Just say no” governing body, saying “no” even when projects met every single policy of our Comprehensive Growth Management Plan and followed each rule of our land development regulations.

The list of “no's” is too long to print here. Most wound up in court with taxpayers footing the bill.

Perhaps the more important question is, why didn't residents stand up in protest? Why were no letters of outrage in defense of our award-winning Comp Plan emailed to commissioners?

A likely reason is that the most charismatic politician this county has ever seen, a natural storyteller with a background chocked full of adventure and humorous misadventures, the late environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla, also was saying, “No.”

She changed the rules of the Comp Plan in 2013 without public protest, with the commission majority's blessing, to make sure that “No” meant no. That fact alone makes her comments rather ironic about the proposed Rural Lifestyle amendment being guilty of “the most sweeping change” in the Comp Plan's history.

And inaccurate.

Besides, the Rural Lifestyle amendment is not the same now as first proposed. (Thoughtful public comment made a difference and changes followed.)

Hurchalla's Comp Plan rewrite was in the courts for more than three years, thus not effective until July 2016. Not all of her changes were stricken by the courts.

Some of her rules remain, in large part because the state's review no longer required that changes had to comply with a county's Comp Plan, only that they did not contradict with state law.

Most ironic is that neither the county commission majority nor Hurchalla referred to any of the numerous sustainability reports with dozens of pages of scientific studies previously written to help shape a more viable Martin County, both environmentally and economically.

The reports simply had been shelved, including copies of former Sen. Ken Pruitt's brainchild, the Governor's Committee for a Sustainable Treasure Coast.

Its comprehensive suggestions, as it turns out, were largely the same principles presented at the much-lauded October 2018 all-day planning workshop hosted by 1000 Friends of Florida at IRSC and conducted largely by Martin County's professional engineers and planning staff.

Had those sustainability reports not been shelved, had they been taken seriously, perhaps Indiantown residents would not have felt compelled to create their own village in order to ensure their economic survival. 

Indiantown's projected population at build-out of their current and proposed development applications will be 21,000, according to a recent engineering study, larger than the City of Stuart.

Parts of the village core will allow density that's double that of the county's at 30 housing units per acre.

Directly adjacent to its urban services boundary lie 15,000 acres of agricultural land that could be annexed. At least two additional developers have reportedly already approached village officials to do just that.

Indiantown is on track to become a metropolis.

 

How Did Broward County Get “Browardized”?

 

Old-timers will recall in the '60s and '70s that Broward County was very much like Martin County. Their county commission adopted policies that sharply limited growth, making it a highly desirable place to live.

To ensure Broward maintained local control, their county commission separated themselves from state governance as much as possible by becoming a charter county.

A charter county can do what they wish as long as it does not conflict with state law, and non-charter counties, such as Martin, can only do what state statute allows them to do. The difference is both subtle and profound.

After the state approved their charter in 1975, Broward increased the number of their commissioners from 5 to 7 (now 9), and established their own land-use planning agency. 

Two years later they issued a $73 million bond, the first of several, to build new parks and buy conservation land, contradicting critics that Broward never planned how their land would be developed. 

Broward now has 502,000 acres of land in conservation, 62 percent of the county's total area, which includes a portion of the Everglades water conservation areas.

Martin County has 100,000 acres, 27 percent of its total area, which includes the C-44 reservoir and stormwater treatment area near Indiantown, a CERP (Central Everglades Restoration Plan) project. Commissioners propose another 45,000 acres for acquisition.

By the late '80s and early '90s, Broward County's electorate changed direction, electing more pro-development candidates, who in turn convinced the state legislature to create a special taxing district to fund the redevelopment of Ft. Lauderdale. 

The city's decaying historic buildings were razed to make way for hi-rises, since land was scarce, as well as building its famed Riverwalk and a glitzier Ft. Lauderdale.

By 1993, the legislature ordered that all unincorporated areas of Broward County be absorbed by one of their 31 municipalities, creating a nearly insurmountable challenge to creating a countywide vision.

The actions of the state legislature demonstrate that even a charter county is not immune to state control, if they determine a need arises for state intervention.

Obviously, Martin County is light years away from being another Broward County, or is it?

The sharp divide that relegates the Comp Plan's economic and sociological chapters to the trash heap and its sustainability studies to the dustbin could flip the switch here.

Consider this: The greatest urban spread will come from the middle of Martin County's western lands, from Indiantown. Critics of the Rural Lifestyle amendment are failing to see the potential of the amendment to give farmers and ranchers options, the tool the county needs to dissuade them from selling their land outright to developers.

Not only surrounding Indiantown, but wherever Martin County's agricultural lands meet the urban services boundaries. 

The key will be whether enough residents look beyond the self-serving, inflammatory emails to learn the facts, instead of falling for the fiction, as we've done time and time again.

Unlike Broward, Martin County can still come together, to envision a future that excludes no one, and ensures a high quality of life for all its citizens, if we don't blow it.