Martin County In 2070: Guest Column By Nicki Van Vonno

Article Posted on March 3, 2023

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.
Dear friends of One Martin,

As credible news sources in Martin County continue to dwindle, it's more important than ever for residents to have options for where they get factual information about issues that affect them locally. 

One Martin will try to help fill that void by bringing our readers some knowledgeable guest writers. 

In this newsletter, we share with you a column from Nicki van Vonno, who retired last year as Martin County's Growth Management Director. Nicki always struck me as a straight shooter. A nonpolitical county staffer who performed her duties well, based on the policies and rules set forth in Martin County's Comp Plan.

Her column is the first in a multi-part series about growth management and planning for Martin County's future. But to have an informed conversion about the future, we need to understand the past. 

We hope you'll read her thoughts below and let us know what you think. 


Below is a Guest Column from Nicki van Vonno
Martin County in 2070
Martin County is having one of its “Oh gee, we need to spend a bunch of money to do a study to find out what we want” moments. Citizen activists have emerged from the pandemic, and we are all seeing the world with tired, dry eyes. And what do we see? A lot of new people.

As many readers are already aware, One Martin is a non-profit whose mission is to create a culture where diverse interests respectfully work together to cultivate an informed citizenry and build a prosperous community. Sadly, this is a lofty goal because civil discourse has long been a problem in our community. We are seeing this conflict rear its ugly head again as the debate over how we grow has been a discussion point during recent county commission meetings as well as commentary in our local newspaper. 

Here’s some background to get you up to speed on where we’ve been. 

In 2018, 1000 Friends of Florida, the state’s leading not-for-profit smart growth advocacy organization, sponsored a series of meetings that projected what various areas in Florida might look like in 2070. At the time, I was the Martin County Growth Management Director, and I participated by doing a presentation that contained a 52-year look back at Martin County.

In 1972, Martin County didn’t have zoning in place, much less a comp plan, but we did have our beloved St. Lucie River and guess what the local headlines screamed:
The Battle for Clean Rivers Continues
On April 1, 1982, Martin County’s first Comprehensive Growth Management Plan was adopted in response to the State of Florida mandating that local governments do a better job of planning. Florida Statutes also require periodic updates to those local plans in the form of an Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR). Over the years, the timeframe for the EAR has changed but has generally been every five to seven years. The Comp Plan (now called the Growth Management Plan) EAR process was completed in 2009 and again in 2017. Another one is pending.
But back to the 1000 Friends of Florida summit in 2018 where these key observations were made:
  • Land is finite.
  • If gross density (defined as the maximum residential density permitted on the land) is increased, there will be sufficient land to accommodate projected population growth while also protecting agricultural land and natural areas. Increasing gross densities is not guaranteed by right and must go through a public review process.
  • Zoning and site plan review procedures found in the County’s Land Development Regulations (LDRs) are consistent with the Comp Plan. LDRs ensure that specific density and intensity assigned to new development is (1) compatible and consistent with established development and (2) provides equitable use of the land while complying with the Capital Improvements Element (Chapter 14) and natural resource restrictions contained in the Coastal Management and Conservation Elements of the Comp Plan.
  • Even with higher gross densities it is possible to have a wide variety of housing types, including single family residential.
  • There are clear fiscal advantages to more compact urban development, which is typically located within our historical community centers where retail and service businesses are already established. In addition, the existing and planned principal arterial intersections where community-sized and larger shopping centers are located show opportunity for redevelopment and revitalization.
  • Local governments are empowered with making land use change decisions and must consider the long view. While the cumulative effect of small land use changes may seem minor in the short term, over time these incremental changes will shape the future landscape of Florida.
  • As Florida’s population continues to grow, land conservation is essential to preserving natural and rural agricultural lands.  
In Martin County, those observations are preaching to the choir. We have a well-known history of thoughtful and forward-thinking planning. Some of the key tenets of our Comp Plan are:
  • We do not consider agricultural land to be vacant land; it is a critical component of our local economy, our sustenance, and our way of life.
  • Inclusion of a four-story height limit countywide to protect our community character.
  • In Martin County residential densities cannot exceed 15 units per acre, and only in limited circumstances. This means any development application submitted to Martin County cannot exceed this number of units. Due to the County’s strict land development regulations, our Martin County Plan ensures that services are available (i.e., concurrent) to serve the proposed development at the time of impact. For example, concurrency for water and sewer service must be immediate because people need to be able to flush their toilets. But for transportation facilities, the impact of new development can be several years later. Not all houses are built and occupied at the same time.
  • Martin County embarked upon an award-winning effort to restore its six historic business districts through the creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency. These Community Redevelopment Areas (CRAs) include Hobe Sound, Port Salerno, Golden Gate, Rio, Jensen Beach, and Old Palm City. Various challenges faced the different CRAs including a shortage of housing that is affordable to residents of low or moderate income, including the elderly; or a coastal and tourist area that is deteriorating and economically distressed due to outdated building density patterns, inadequate transportation and parking facilities, faulty lot layout or inadequate street layout.
  • Martin County also reduces costs by restricting urban development to the County’s Urban Service District and maintains its concurrency requirements even though the State eliminated this requirement when the Growth Management Act was amended significantly by the Community Planning Act in 2017.
  • Martin County’s protection of wetlands and shoreline protection zones and limits on construction on its barrier islands.
  • Our County’s long-term commitment to the purchase and maintenance of thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive and recreation lands.

I know this was a lot of technical information to share with you as we begin this educational journey to learn about Martin County’s Comp Plan. And there is much more information to share with One Martin’s readers. Next month my column will focus on a brief history of planning in Martin County.
On a personal note, in my former role as Martin County Growth Management Director, I served as a county staff person who followed the policy direction of the County Commission, whoever they were, regardless of party affiliation, or position on growth. I always said: “If everybody is mad at me, then I am doing my job!”

Nicki van Vonno, AICP retired as the Martin County Growth Management Dept. Director, in May 2022.  In her retired life, Nicki continues to advocate for literacy programs, volunteers on several non-profit boards in Martin County, and provides planning services as a small business owner at van Vonno Consulting, LLC.

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