Tuesday’s BOCC Agenda: Seabranch Redux, Kanner Widening, and BDB

Noted local attorney and civic activist Virginia Sherlock reviews Tuesday’s upcoming Board of County Commissioners meeting agenda, a mixture of interesting, confusing and fiscally questionable proposals:

The only pre-set items are a presentation by the Florida Department of Transportation on the proposed widening of South Kanner Highway and potential installation of noise abatement walls at 10:30 a.m. and the Business Development Board’s quarterly report and proposed annual budget to be heard at 2:30 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively.

The pre-sets fall within the interesting category, especially Agenda Item 7A, the FDOT presentation about the conversion of State Road 76 from Lost River Road to Monterey Road into a six-lane highway with noise abatement walls along selected portions adjacent to Martins Crossing, Somerset, South River and other residential communities. (Raise your hand if you remember when Kanner Highway was just two lanes that led to nowhere.)

Agenda Item 7B, the BDB’s quarterly report, presents specific information to allow the BOCC to assess the organization’s performance under the new contract that was negotiated to reduce public dollars to the BDB while increasing taxpayers’ return on investment in economic development. The quarterly report appears to be very thorough and gives a good overview of BDB efforts. The proposed budget, Agenda Item 7C, is significantly lower than in previous years but is still largely consumed by staff salaries and benefits and office expenses. The bulk of the “program services” budget is devoted to marketing and public relations activities that promote the BDB.

Agenda Item 6B is a proposed amendment to the County Code to allow the library system to dispose of books and other property by donation to the Friends of the Martin County Library System or by disposal. This amendment is reasonable and appropriate, but the agenda item fails to present the proposed ordinance in the customary format (with strike-through of deleted language and underlining of added language), making it difficult to determine exactly what changes the Commission is being asked to approve.

Agenda Item 6C requests final site plan approval for a 194-unit residential project on U.S. 1 and Seabranch Boulevard despite the Commission’s previous rejection of a request to re-zone the property to medium-density multi-family residential zoning. The Local Planning Agency and surrounding property owners objected to multi-family zoning, arguing that single-family zoning would be more appropriate. The applicant continues to refuse to identify those who have an interest in the property and the project, using the name of a Nevada limited liability company to prevent disclosure of the interested parties. Staff properly recommends denial of the final site plan application, which is inconsistent with the current zoning designation, and suggests that the Commission initiate re-zoning for the property to determine the most appropriate zoning category. The Engineering Department also has recently learned that the applicant did not correctly identify the flood zone designation for the property, making the final site plan inconsistent with minimum elevation requirements set out in the County Land Development Regulations.

Agenda Item 8A1 contains the usual laundry list of grant and funding requests but also has an interesting report on the status of the Lake Point litigation against Martin County, the South Florida Water Management District, and Maggy Hurchalla. Lake Point is the rockpit operated in western Martin County by George Lindemann, Jr., heir to a family fortune who served time in federal prison for arranging the electrocution of his show horse to collect insurance proceeds. Lake Point sued over contracts to establish a supposedly environmentally beneficial stormwater treatment area but which Lake Point now claims were intended to allow the Lindemann outfit to siphon water from Lake Okeechobee and sell it to communities in Palm Beach and Broward Counties. The County Attorney’s request for funds from reserves to pay outside counsel to defend the litigation contains a detailed explanation of litigation tactics employed by Lake Point that are running up fees and costs.

NOTE TO MARTIN COUNTY VOTERS: These are among the fees and costs that candidates opposing Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding want the County to avoid paying by simply allowing Lake Point to move forward with its “water supply” scheme for private profit at the expense of Martin County residents. One of Ed Fielding’s primary opponents is a former Lake Point employee whose only appearance before the County Commission was to speak out in support of Lake Point.

Item 8A2 falls in the confusing category, seeking a transfer of $100,000 from budget reserves to fund a Request for Proposals for a consultant to study consolidation of City of Stuart and Martin County Fire Rescue Services. While it appears to be reasonable to commission a study of proposed consolidation plans, it’s unclear whether the $100,000 is to pay for preparation of the Request for Proposals and evaluation and selection of the consultant or whether the request reflects the amount the proposed consolidation study will cost. Staff wants $100,000 transferred from reserves “to establish a budget and approval to solicit consultant services for analyzing consolidation of fire and rescue services in Martin County.” Why is it necessary to approve a $100,000 transfer from reserves before a consultant is even selected and without knowing the cost put forward by those who submit requests?

Item 8B1 is another series of requests for approval of airport subleases that the Commission is asked to ratify without disclosure of the most material term: the amount of rent to be paid by the subtenants to Stuart Jet Center under its lease with the County. The County leases property to Stuart Jet Center and other FBOs at well below market rates. The FBOs then sublease portions of the premises at, presumably, market or above-market rates. It is unclear whether the master leases with the FBOs require the County Commission to approve the secretive subleases, but commissioners routinely approve subleases without disclosure of the profit that the FBOs may be reaping on their below-market leases.

Item 8B3 is another landlord-tenant matter, this one seeking approval for a two-year extension of a lease for offices in Hobe Sound that are rented by the County at above-market rate while also requiring Martin County taxpayers to reimburse the landlord a portion of the cost of replacing air conditioning units that the existing lease requires the landlord to pay. The “benefit” to County taxpayers that staff identifies in suggesting that the County extend the lease beyond its current expiration of October 31, 2016, is to obtain replacement of three deteriorated heating, ventilation and air conditioning units. The fiscal wisdom of this proposal is difficult to fathom. The County is paying more than $18-a-square-foot for Court Clerk, Property Appraiser and Tax Collector offices in Hobe Sound (the average office rental cost in Martin County is about $15 per square foot). The lease expires October 31, 2016. The Commission is being asked to approve a lease amendment to extend the lease to October 31, 2018, and to pay 25% of the cost of replacing three HVAC units (about $5,400) despite the fact that the existing lease requires the landlord to pay all replacement costs. It’s difficult to see how this is a good deal for County taxpayers. With plenty of vacant commercial space available at lower cost and more than two years to make arrangements for a move, there must be a better reason for the proposed lease amendment than is apparent from the agenda item.

Finally, Agenda Item 8D1 is another proposal for approval of a Tangible Personal Property Attraction Grant Program (TPPAG) designed to increase business in the Martin County Enterprise Zone in Indiantown. The proposal raises many questions above and beyond the threshold question of whether it is wise to offer cash incentives from taxpayers to corporations. The proposed program establishes a “kick-back” scheme that provides a refund of a portion of personal property taxes paid by businesses that use or store personal property (equipment, inventory) in the Enterprise Zone. Applicants for the kick-back, er, I mean, grant, must submit their requests to the Business Development Board to determine whether minimum qualifications have been met before the application is submitted to the County Administrator. There is no process established for the BDB to review and approve applications. Will that be done by a Board committee, the full BDB, or by BDB staff? The BDB has played favorites in the past, pulling out all the stops to help some businesses while giving short shrift to others. Where is the assurance that the same practices will not be used in evaluating TPPAG applications? If the Commission decides this is a worthwhile program to pursue, the guidelines need to be more tightly drawn.

Please let your commissioners know how you feel about these and other items on Tuesday’s agenda. If you can’t attend the meeting, send an e-mail with your thoughts to sheard@martin.fl.us, efieldin@martin.fl.us, ascott@martin.fl.us, jhaddox@martin.fl.us; dsmith@martin.fl.us with a copy to the County Administrator and County Attorney at tkryzda@martin.fl.us and mdurham@martin.fl.us.

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