Martin County's Path to Preventing Browardization - Part 3

Article Posted on May 12, 2022

Note: It is our goal at One Martin to provide reliable, fact-based information so citizens can be better informed about our government and our community.

Messaging Continues to Counter Study Conclusions

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:

  • Do not allow regulation to cause harm to the agricultural economy or limit housing capacity that would cause price-gouging when setting urban services boundaries.

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.

Brandon D. Tucker
Board Member, One Martin

CLICK HERE to continue to Part 4 in the One Martin series, "Here We Go Again!," which examines the unintended consequences of extremism on local decisions.

If you would like to review the Introduction in the One Martin series, “Here We Go Again!,” CLICK HERE.

If you would like to review Part 1 in the One Martin series, “Here We Go Again!,” CLICK HERE.

If you would like to review Part 2 in the One Martin series, “Here We Go Again!,” CLICK HERE.