Reaching out to update and fine-tune Martin’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan

Maggy Hurchalla, nationally renowned five-term Martin County Commissioner

Nationally renowned environmental expert and five-term Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla knows that Martin County residents clearly feel strongly about preserving our quality of life, preserving our environment, improving our economy and practicing fiscal restraint. At recent open forums and through email comments, Martin County residents have helped forge changes to  Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of our Comprehensive Plan to put back goals and policies that have been removed over the past few years,  and to make sure the amendment process and the overall goals are clear and consistent. The findings will be presented by Hurchalla to the Martin County Commission at the November 30 Commission meeting.

Below is Hurchalla’s cover letter to the Commissioners:

Dear Commissioners,

I would like to present to you a draft of an amended chapter 1 and chapter 2 for the Martin County Comprehensive Plan.

The impetus for this effort was the anger and confusion that arose over the big comprehensive plan amendments that were before the commission this summer.

I found an almost universal feeling that the Comp Plan wasn’t working. Amendment review had turned into a sort of free-for-all where no one was sure what the Plan meant anymore. It seemed to many residents that it had turned into an ambiguous document whose policies were no longer binding.

A few people commented that the process showed the Plan did work, because, in the end, the commissioners unanimously decided not to support the amendments.

For the rest of the people I heard from, that wasn’t how it was supposed to work. For residents and for the developers involved, the outcome was uncertain and depended entirely on the personal feelings of three commissioners.

Chapter 1 of the Plan addresses the amendment process and the legal status of the Plan. Chapter 2 once contained the Overall Goals and policies of the Plan but now deals only with definitions.

I found that a lot of the confusion people felt was because of changes that had occurred since the Plan was first adopted in 1982 and amended in 1992 to meet the requirements of the 1985 State Planning Act.

For starters, the state has abandoned growth management. There is no longer any Department of Community Affairs. Rule 9J5 that set the standards for local plans no longer exists.

This is more than a problem of dealing with references to the obsolete statutes and rules that aren’t there anymore. Those references need to be corrected to make our Plan accurate and relevant.

More important, we’re on our own now. If we want our Plan to mean what we thought it meant , we have to clearly state requirements and policies that we want enforced. We can’t depend on the state anymore.

I found that chapter 2, which once eloquently expressed our overall goals and policies, had been amended out of existence and reduced to a list of definitions.

The reason put forward for this change was that those goals and policies could be found elsewhere in the Plan. There are 17 chapters in the Comp Plan. Many of them are long and complex. Few people read, word for word, all of those chapters. I’m hearing that folks would like for those new to Martin County – whether residents or business people or developers – to know up front what we are all about. They want our overall goals and policies put back into chapter 2.

Goals mean nothing without enforceable policies. I have included overall policies that implement those goals. They include protecting existing residential neighborhoods. There is a very strong emphasis on protecting the St. Lucie River and supporting Everglades Restoration. There are policies to assure that the county will be business friendly and exercise prudent fiscal management. There is an increased emphasis on creating and maintaining databases that provide accurate, easily accessible information that is needed to make good decisions. If you don’t have good data and clear measures of success and failure, you can’t know what’s working and what’s not working. With good current data, residents, businesses and developers can know where we’ve been and where we are going.

Given the importance of the policies that make Martin County special, there is strong support for requiring a 4 out of 5 vote to weaken the rules on critical policies that make us different.

I found that no one disagreed with the idea that our 4 story height limit and our 15 unit per acre density cap should not be changed without a super-majority vote of 4 members of the County Commission.

A large majority supported the idea of having a super majority vote of 4 commissioners in order to weaken critical policies on wetland protection, the urban boundary and taxpayer protection that assures that growth will pay for itself and not be subsidized by existing residents.

Along with this feeling was a concern that citizens were being ignored and that the Plan should have a “Bill of Rights” for citizen participation.

Finally, amendments to the planning process in recent years have left ambiguity and inconsistency in the rules for Plan amendments. It is unclear if Plan amendments can happen once a year or twice a year. It is unclear if an amendment that is tabled or withdrawn before final action stays in the system for 18 months or goes away completely. There are no longer clear requirements that the Local Planning Agency and the County Commission have to pay attention to Plan policies.

The technical side of this issue is about “consistency”. State law used to require a local plan to be internally consistent. The state no longer cares. Plan amendment ordinances used to say that in case of conflicting provisions, the more restrictive policy governed. Plan amendment ordinances now say that the amendment supersedes all Plan policies.

When whatever is asked for trumps all existing policies, there is no comprehensive plan. No one knows what we have lost, when, without any acknowledgement or discussion, an amendment supersedes the whole Plan.

I have taken the liberty of deleting wording that didn’t seem to mean anything and had never been used. I’ve tried to clarify policies that seemed ambiguous.

This draft is all my fault.

It is not the result of committee deliberations or decisions by private groups.

I have tried to reach out to everyone. I set up a gmail account -maggycplan@gmail.com. You are welcome to read through the submittals. I have received over 200 emails and have reviewed and answered each of them.

There have been two public meetings to which everyone was invited – both publicly and personally. One hundred people came to the meeting on September 5th. We have posted the audio of that meeting on the website www.MartinCompPlan.com along with evolving drafts of the two chapters and comments from the public. We had a second meeting October 13th. The audio of that meeting is also on the website. I’ve met with everyone who was willing to talk to me. I have been happily overwhelmed by the number of residents who were willing to get involved and make their feelings known. I can’t begin to thank those individuals that took the time to read the drafts line by line and challenge ideas, fix typos and improve on wording.

Throughout the process I have emphasized that this is only the beginning. I have tried to build consensus with a process that is as open and inclusive as possible.

If there is a bias to the end product it is that the residents of Martin County want to keep this a good place to live. They want it to be resident friendly, environmentally friendly, business friendly and taxpayer friendly. They do believe we can have it all. They want results to be predictable under a rule of law.

Those are my personal feelings but I believe after 3 months of hearing from all sorts of people, they are the feelings of the majority of your constituents.

I realize that this process, no matter how open and inclusive, is no substitute for the formal review required for a plan amendment.

I hope that you can agenda this item for your Nov. 20th meeting. I would not expect a decision at that time as to whether to begin the amendment process. Before you make that decision, I hope that you can set a workshop meeting for people to ask questions and provide more input.

There will be changes and refinements. After that I hope that you can initiate a plan amendment on these two chapters so that the formal process can begin.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Maggy Hurchalla

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