Tuesday’s agenda: BCC asked to reduce public participation, transparency

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: The Martin County Commission will be spending millions of taxpayer dollars on Tuesday in approving contracts for the purchase of tires for county vehicles ($1 million), road and parking lot striping services ($1 million), fertilizer and pesticides ($675,000), Britt Road bridge replacement ($1.36 million), a new well for Martin County Utilities ($620,650) and increased costs related to the Jensen Beach Boulevard watermain project ($144,466).
And those are only the expenditures that will be approved on the consent agenda without any public discussion. (Item 4B)
Millions more in taxpayer dollar spending will be discussed by Commissioners behind closed doors on Monday and Tuesday when a settlement proposal will be presented for secret discussion to end the Lake Point rockpit’s lawsuit against the County.  
No information has been made public about the proposed settlement as the County appears to be following the same process that was followed by the South Florida Water Management District, which secretly agreed to allow Lake Point to continue its mining operation on western Martin County property for approximately 50 years, with taxpayers obligated to pay at least $22 million annually to the operators of the rockpit.  
The Water Management District held closed-door meetings during which the Governing Board agreed to settlement terms, then went into public session to vote on the agreement without disclosing the terms to the public.  The terms were revealed only after the Governing Board voted unanimously to approve the settlement agreement without public participation.
The Martin County Commission has scheduled a shade meeting at 2:00 p.m. on Monday and another shade meeting at an undisclosed time on Tuesday for more out-of-the-sunshine discussions between Commissioners and their attorneys, following a number of previous shade meetings about Lake Point.  (Agenda Item 8C1)  A public session appears on Tuesday’s agenda to discuss the settlement in the sunshine (8A2), but the proposed agreement has not been made available for review, which will prevent meaningful public comment or participation.
NOTE TO COMMISSIONERS: Public Participation with a capital P that rhymes with T that stands for Transparency.
In another proceduraly questionable item on Tuesday’s agenda, Commissioners are being asked to rescind a Comprehensive Plan Amendment that was approved without proper notice to neighboring property owners (Item 6B) followed by re-consideration of the amendment at a properly noticed public hearing (Item 6F).
The Cove Royal amendment, CPA 17-6, quadruples the density on a 97-acre parcel on Cove Road.  The owner is seeking a change from Rural Density, which would allow a maximum of 48 units at one unit per two acres, to Estate Density, which would allow 194 units at two units per acre.  The amendment was approved on July 25 by a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Heard and Ciampi opposed.  However, the developer’s notice to surrounding property owners erroneously said the decision would be made on August 25.  When residents showed up on August 25, staff told them the vote had already been conducted and if residents objected, they would have to file an appeal with the State of Florida that very day.  Residents managed to rush home, prepare and file an appeal.  The State ordered a hearing on the matter, and only then did Martin County staff agree to ask the Commission to rescind the improperly approved amendment and re-consider the proposal. Residents will finally be given an opportunity to express their concerns about the dramatically increased density on the property, which is near the Atlantic Ridge State Preserve, and environmental issues.  The Wetlands Map indicates a high probability for the presence of wetlands throughout the property, and no environmental assessment has been conducted.
Agenda Item 6G seeks approval of a major final site plan for the 227-acre Grove Golf Club in Hobe Sound with a waiver of the 2,000-gallon-per-day restriction on septic sewage flow.  This was one of the proposed projects that prompted developers to seek changes to Chapter 10 of the Martin County Comprehensive Growth Management Plan to allow larger septic system flowage rates.  The state allows up to 5,000-gallons-per-day for commercial uses, but Martin County’s septic flowage limit is 2,000 gpd.  The proposed flowage for the golf club is 4,995 gpd. The project includes an 18-hole private golf course, driving range, clubhouse and maintenance facilities.
Agenda Item 6D proposes revisions to Article 10 of the Land Development Regulations to weaken requirements for disclosure of the actual owners of property which is the subject of a development application. And in another attempt to stifle public participation, the proposed revisions also require that anyone who wants to support or oppose any measure before the Board of County Commissioners or any other body must submit all evidence or written materials to the Growth Management Department at least seven business days prior to the public meeting or hearing.
This could severely hamper the public’s ability to comment on development proposals or comprehensive plan amendments and places neighborhood residents at a disadvantage in having their concerns considered, since materials provided by the applicant that residents may need to formulate their positions are frequently not available for advance public review.  This provision was proposed by staff in response to a Palm Beach County Circuit Court case last spring which concluded that consideration of evidence submitted by an intervenor on the day of a quasi-judicial proceeding before the Lake Park Town Commission was a violation of the Town Code’s quasi-judicial procedures requirements.  
Martin County staff is now attempting to revise the Martin County LDRs to limit public participation in all public hearings and meetings based on a Palm Beach County case citing a Lake Park ordinance which applies only to quasi-judicial proceedings.  The Lake Park requirement for advance submission of evidence applies only to applicants and intervenors, not to members of the public who may wish to submit written comments for the record. 
Staff is asking the Martin County Commission to severely restrict the ability of the public to submit comments and materials in every public hearing and every public meeting – regardless of whether the proceeding is quasi-judicial.
As with its recommendations to weaken Martin County’s four-story/40-foot height limit, staff appears to be reacting to a misinterpretation of a court case in proposing to weaken public participation in  the local government process.
NOTE TO COMMISSIONERS:  Continued attempts to reduce or restrict participation by residents in local government proceedings further erodes citizens’ already low level of trust in staff and elected representatives.
In other matters on Tuesday’s agenda:
– Staff is seeking approval for revisions to Article 4, Division 6 (potable water) and Division 7 (wastewater disposal systems) to implement new provisions of Chapter 10 of the Comp Plan which were previously approved, allowing increased septic system flowage rates and waffling on a prior prohibition against new package plants (private sewer systems).  Agenda Item 6A.
– Revisions to Articles 9 and 10 of the Land Development Regulations are sought to establish a process for continuing to authorize any property use approved as a special exception prior to 1995 and to authorize “administrative variances” allowing property owners to obtain minor variances from Land Development Regulations without a public hearing before a board or agency.  Agenda Item 6C.
– Approval is sought for a major master site plan and final site plan for the Vittoria of Stuart residential facility on Willoughby Boulevard near Community Drive.  The project will be built in two phases, each with a two-story, 75-bed facility and infrastructure.
– Stuart Jet Center and Atlantic Aviation are asking Commissioners to renegotiate their Fixed Base Operator leases at Witham Field to extend the period of each lease with increased rent payable to the County.
Download or view agenda items at:
Please attend the BCC meeting at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday at the Administration Center, 2401 SE Monterey Road, Stuart, or e-mail your comments on these and any other issues to  commissioners at sheard@martin.fl.usefieldin@martin.fl.ushjenkins@martin.fl.useciampi@martin.fl.us, and dsmith@martin.fl.us, with copies to the County Administrator and the County Attorney at tkryzda@martin.fl.us and swoods@martin.fl.us.

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