Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners agenda promises heartburn

Martin County Board of County Commissioners (Photo: WPTV)

 

Noted local attorney and civic activist Virginia Sherlock reviews Tuesday’s upcoming Board of County Commissioners meeting agenda:

Although Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners agenda appears to contain fewer items than usual, the agenda packet is so large it could not be downloaded before the packet was separated into individual items for public review on Friday.

There is way too much to digest in way too little time.

Two items request re-zoning and site plan approval for a controversial development on US #1 and Seabranch Boulevard adjacent to Heritage Ridge. The proposed project is too dense and is incompatible with surrounding development. A glaring lack of transparency is not only evident but celebrated by the applicant, a Nevada-based limited liability company that apparently would rather pay a fine for failing to register to do business in Florida than to disclose who its members are.

The Commission is also set to re-visit an economically unsound proposal to build and operate a contract-based US Customs facility at Witham Field. This item was kept hush-hush by County staff until the last minute and was not available for downloading and printing by the public until the Friday before Tuesday’s meeting, making it difficult if nlot impossible for the public to adequately review and evaluate.

Agenda Item 8E2, U.S. Customs Facility Discussion, is preset for 2:00 p.m.

It is simply unreasonable for staff or the Commission to move forward with this item on such short notice. The item contains documents which are complex and convoluted. Some of the materials are incomprehensible for residents unfamiliar with bureaucratic acronyms and fiscal shell games.

A proposed agreement between the County and the Martin Marine-Aviation Alliance, LLC — a limited liability company established less than a year ago for the purpose of ensuring that the aviation industry that stands to benefit from the Customs facility “puts some skin in the game” — remains essentially unchanged in proposing to contribute a paltry $150,000 over three years toward shortfalls in Customs operations. Although the proposed agreement is called a “sponsorship agreement”, the agenda item at least more accurately describes it as a “partial sponsorship agreement.”

The bulk of the agenda item consists of a Joint Participation Agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation dated December 19, 2011, with the state to pay $400,000 and the County to pay $400,000 for the project, and a supplemental agreement extending the deadline for construction of the facility from December 2013 to July 2016 and increasing state funding to $900,000 ($400,000 in Fiscal Year 2012 and $500,000 in Fiscal Year 2015) and reduces the County’s responsibility to $225,000 for a total project cost of $1.125 million (which is less than the lowest construction bid received by the County two years ago).

The remainder of the item is primarily a staff-generated report or study that is apparently intended to persuade the Commission that the project is economically viable. The study is not signed or annotated so as to allow a reader to determine who prepared it (other than the generic “Airport staff”) and where and how the data was obtained. The report apparently is intended to replace a questionable and outdated report previously prepared by the Economic Council as the chief proponent of the Customs facility — a role now apparently assumed by Martin County staff.

A 5-page legal memorandum from the attorney who represents the County on airport issues assures the Commission that if the Customs Facility proves to be financially unsustainable, the facility can be closed and the only recourse of the Florida Department of Transportation is to demand repayment of its $900,000 in grant funds (the legal memorandum refers to $400,000 in grant funds, apparently having been written before the FDOT agreed to provide an additional $500,000 in grants for construction of the facility).

The memo also advises Commissioners that the grant assurance that requires the County to certify that it has “sufficient funds available to assure future operation and maintenance” of the Customs facility does not prohibit the County from closing the facility after it is constructed, so long as the County can certify that it has the funds available at the time the facility is built and that the Commission has authority “to commit those funds to this project.”

A supplemental memorandum from County Administrator Taryn Kryzda purports to attach the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Memorandum of Agreement,” but the only attachment is the unsigned “Program Feasibility Study” prepared by unidentified “airport staff”. The study is extremely difficult to follow and clearly needs more time to evaluate and digest before it can be intelligently discussed by the Commission or by the public. The Memorandum of Agreement with USCBP is not included in the agenda packet.

Agenda Items 6A and 6B, present for 9:30 a.m., seek re-zoning and final site plan approval for a project proposed by Avalon Ventures, LLC.

The LPA did not recommend approval of this project. Intervenors from adjacent developments, including Heritage Ridge, made a strong case for denial based on too high density and lack of compatibility. LPA Chair Trent Steele raised transparency issues, noting that representatives for this project are not the principals of Avalon Ventures, LLC, identified in Division of Corporation records.

It turns out that the applicant is a Nevada limited liability company with the same name as a separate, unrelated Florida limited liability company. The Nevada company has not registered to transact business in Florida. The applicant’s lawyer says in a legal memorandum that registration isn’t necessary since the applicant is simply the owner of property, not transacting business in Florida.

This, of course, ignores the fact that the Nevada company has hired lawyers, land planners, surveyors, architects and others to prepare and process land development applications and has engaged in meetings with County staff to discuss and revise the applications to obtain development orders.

The applicant’s attorney says that even if these activities constitute “transacting business in Florida,” the penalty for failing to register is only a fine that would amount to just $2,000, which his client apparently would rather pay than reveal its principals.

Martin County Commissioners have repeatedly asked staff to draft an ordinance that would require applicants to disclose who they are rather than to hide behind corporations and LLCs. Staff has been “working” on a transparency ordinance for several years, despite the fact that many other counties and municipalities have adopted ordinances that provide excellent guidance.

Avalon Ventures, LLC, is a poster child for the need for transparency in development applications. Why would an out-of-state company rather pay a fine than reveal who is behind a development application? Commissioners should be cautious about approvals that benefit unidentified applicants.

Agenda Item 8A3 is a request by the County’s Coastal Engineer for a resolution opposing oil and gas exploration and off-shore resource harvesting off Florida’s Atlantic Coast, including coastal areas of Martin County. Commissioners should authorize staff to communicate to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management the County’s opposition to off-shore exploration.

Please let your commissioners know if you agree that the public needs more time to review and evaluate costly and questionable proposals like the proposed U.S. Customs facility.

Attend the Commission meeting on Tuesday if you can, or send comments to commissioners, with copies to the county administrator and county attorney at: sheard@martin.fl.us, efieldin@martin.fl.us, jhaddox@martin.fl.us, ascott@martin.fl.us, tkryzda@martin.fl.us, mdurham@martin.fl.us

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