Martin County’s new direction? Be aware that quality of life and pocketbooks will be affected

 

Maggy Hurchalla was a 20-year Martin County Commissioner, an active member of numerous Governor Commissions on the Everglades, water and planning, a lifelong advocate for wetlands preservation, a winner of national, state and local environmental and conservation awards regarding wetlands, land planning, water studies. She is a resident of Rocky Point.

On May 23, the Martin County Commission took the first step in what Commissioner Doug Smith said was a new direction.

Smith insisted last year’s local elections showed that residents want to put jobs ahead of our environmental and planning policies that limit development options.

Commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding made long, detailed, fact-based arguments in defense of the county’s existing comprehensive plan. They pointed out that more, larger septic systems put more pollutants in the river at the same time we were fighting to restore it. They pointed out how the urban boundary policies have given us lower taxes, better services and a better quality of life.

A proposed amendment to the comprehensive plan deleted wording that said development outside the urban boundary would be limited to agricultural and small-scale services in support of agriculture.

The amendment set the precedent that urban services such as sewer and water could be provided outside the urban boundary when a property owner asked for it.

For anyone familiar with the St. Lucie River’s problems, the amendment looked like it would add bigger septic systems that would hurt the river.

For anyone familiar with the urban boundary policies in the comp plan, it looked like encouraging more intense development outside the urban boundary and extending urban services outside the urban boundary, making the boundary line meaningless.

Commissioner Harold Jenkins pushed for a compromise. He rejected Smith’s suggestion that the only way to have a strong economy was to weaken our environmental protections.

Jenkins suggested a special exception process that would allow larger septic systems in special cases with special additional protections.

He also made clear that he would not vote for the amendment if it authorized utility line extensions to rural areas unless it removed the potential for new sewage package plants at the projects that were requesting it.

Those projects included a partially built industrial park 2 miles west of Palm City and an not-yet-built commercial subdivision 5 miles west at the Interstate 95 interchange. Staff estimates that extending the full range of utility services out there will cost $3.9 million.

Both projects had gotten earlier approval based on the promise that the developer would provide all urban services including sewer and water package plants.

Neither project has built the promised package plants.

Both wanted a comp plan change that would allow regional utility lines to be extended to their project.

Representatives of the industrial park project agreed to Jenkins’ suggestion that there would be no authorization for line extensions without a commitment that it would not cost existing utility customers and, in the interim, there would be no new package plants or extra large septic systems.

Representatives of the I-95 project said they could not agree to those conditions.

At that point, Commissioner Ed Ciampi said he agreed with Jenkins and took over making the motion for approval of the amendment. Some of Jenkins’ very good ideas got lost or were made less specific.

The motion directed staff to draft language and send it to the state for review.

That’s not the way it should work. Wording is everything in crafting a legally enforceable plan amendment. Public participation depends on knowing what’s at stake.

A week after the board’s action, the public had no way of knowing what the commission had approved. Neither did the commissioners.

On June 1, the staff issued a memo on what they had decided the commission meant to approve. It has been sent to Tallahassee. It will not be reviewed by the board or presented to the public.

The waiver for the larger septic systems is written as a “case-by-case decision that sets no precedent.” That is not legally defensible. Special exceptions are possible, but they have to have predictable objective standards. Many of the suggestions Jenkins made in regard to specific standards didn’t make it into the final version.

The new policy on extending utility lines includes a half dozen changes throughout the comp plan that weaken the urban service district concept. The I-95 project still is allowed to build a package plant.

As written, this amendment definitely sets a new direction.

Future commissions trying to turn down super-sized septic systems will find themselves with legal challenges to their lack of standards.

Future commissioners who want to extend the urban boundary out into the rural area will no longer be hampered by comprehensive comp plan policies that make the boundary effective.

If this is Martin County’s new direction, residents need to be aware that their quality of life and their pocketbooks are going to be affected.

Martin County is different because its residents have been willing to get involved.

For those who care, this is the time to get involved.

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