Martin County vs. The World: Here Come de Judge
Around the State
Why would county commissioners approve changes to their comprehensive plan they knew would be challenged by a state agency, a constitutional authority and as many as four private stakeholders?
The same commissioners pushing tax increases in the next budget, by the way. Why would they want to throw citizens into another hot, potentially costly soup?
Certainly it's a question Martin County on Florida's Treasure Coast should be asking itself -- a county where residents have been swept up in an elaborate political power play -- call it a ruse -- by a group of former commissioners, the current majority on the board, lawyers and a noisy coterie of their followers.
These folks are selling their comp plan amendments on the basis that they're stronger than comparable law in state statutes. So, the county should be forgiven, even thanked, if the rewrite tramples on existing Florida law and the rights of Floridians they want to drive out.
The county even bypassed Section 163.3174(1) and (4) Florida Statutes, which designates the local planning agency the body in charge of preparing comp plan amendments and making recommendations to the county. Instead, commissioners appointed citizen volunteer Maggy Hurchalla, a 20-year former county commissioner and co-author of the original Martin County Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
Hurchalla, known for her "no" votes on anything development and certainly highly regarded for her leadership in environmental protection, was defeated in a bitter election in 1994. History and friends in Martin, where I spent 28 years observing Hurchalla and the comp plan process, tell me she can't keep her hands off the plan rewrites. It's a legacy thing. A power thing.
Hurchalla is the spiritual leader of the no-growth, anti-business, anti-agriculture, and anti-private property rights faction in Martin County. Actually, she has been for the best part of four decades. And, boy, does she love it.
Real numbers tend to kick the legs out from under her argument sometimes. But, hey, no problem. Citizens notice traffic, not numbers.
For example, Martin County growth has always been slow, between 2 percent and 4 percent in the most active years since 1980. According to the last U.S. Census, between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2012, Martin grew 1.7 percent, as opposed to 2.7 percent for the whole state, and as opposed to neighbors Palm Beach County at 2.8 percent and St. Lucie County at 2.2 percent. Doesn't matter which kind of commission majority gets elected, the Martin County growth rate stays slow.
By the way, there are no county term limits in Martin, nor are there ethics or lobbyist ordinances.
What Hurchalla and the gang did to sell maverick amendments backed neither by science nor facts -- amendments that lacked the help of consultants to work with county staff on data and analysis that would justify the amendments -- is to create a website, sharing her changes to Chapters 1, 2 and 4, which includes the Future Land Use Amendment. Public meetings followed, all run by the gang -- 1000 Friends of Florida, Guardians of Martin County and the Martin County Conservation Alliance.
A first-class staging. Any one of the gang will swear up and down that Martin County citizens have had input from beginning to end.
Now Hurchalla, trying to head off the mounting state Department of Administrative Hearing challenges, has written a letter to Martin residents, using the algae blooms in the St. Lucie Estuary to whip up support for her amendments. "The slime in the estuary makes it clear to most of us that the state cannot and will not protect our environmental resources," she writes. "If you agree with that position, tell (the state) to approve the Martin County comp plan amendments and let us protect what we care about and we are close to."
Those who have challenged include --
-- The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: A three-page Sept. 19 letter to the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) -- the Department of Community Affairs' successor -- from the ag commissioner's general counsel, Robert Williams, runs through large swatches of the rewrite -- from definition of development to wetlands regulation to agricultural classification -- that fail to comply with state statutes. The Department wants DEO to challenge. See the attachment below for a look at the letter.
-- The South Florida Water Management District: A two-page-plus-addendum letter Sept. 18 to the DEO argues against Martin County's amendments in many areas, but particularly in the regulation of water. Writes Blake C. Guillory, executive director of the District, "It remains the District's position that Policy 2.2E1, as adopted by the county on August 13, 2013, transgresses the District's exclusive authority to regulate the consumptive use of water, will adversely impact an important state resource -- Florida's water supplies, and is inconsistent with section 163.3177, Fl. Stat." Guilleroy includes an explanation sheet on "overall context of water supply management in Florida" and hints it would have been nice if Martin had considered context going in. See the attachment below to read the entire letter.
-- Becker Holding Corp.: A petition for a formal state administrative hearing filed Sept. 12. Becker farms cover more than 10,000 acres on the Treasure Coast and annually produce more than 2.5 million boxes of premium citrus and specialty fruit each year. The amended Martin plan "establishes a supermajority requirement for the approval of any comp plan amendments that involve 'critical issues,' such as ... allowing clustering outside the urban services district ... The supermajority requirements disparately impact agricultural landowners and other landowners, violate the Equal Protection Clause in Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution, and deprives landowners of due process." So writes Becker attorney Bruce D. Barkett of Collins, Brown, Caldwell, Barkett, Garavaglia & Lawn of Vero Beach.
-- Consolidated Citrus, Running W. Citrus and Tesoro Groves: A petition for a formal state administrative hearing filed Sept. 12. Among the problems, says Consolidated attorney Kenneth Oertel of Tallahassee, are these: gross inconsistencies in language on policy (he lists seven examples); adequate data and analysis to support the amendments are missing (24 examples listed); state law is violated by failing to guide future decisions in a consistent manner, establish meaningful and predictable standards for use and development of land, etc. (he lists 25 examples).
-- Lake Point Phase I and II: A petition for a formal state administrative hearing filed Sept. 12. Lake Point phases include 2,266 acres already approved for agriculture and lime rock mining uses, all to be impacted by the plan amendments. Among other arguments: "The revisions were effectively jammed into Chapters 1 and 2 of the comprehensive plan without thought to structure, logic or organization, instead of the appropriate chapter for the subject matters at issue ... the public cannot discern how the comprehensive plan will actually affect their property rights," claims Tampa attorney David Smolker of Smolker, Bartlett, Schlosser, Loeb and Hinds.
-- Midbrook 1st Realty Corp.: A petition for a formal state administrative hearing filed Sept. 12. Managed by Coventry Development Corp., Midbrook owns approximately 3,000 acres of agricultural land in southern Martin County. These changes "create undefined and inconsistent standards that are impossible to administer in a fair, predictable manner,” said Brian Seymour, Gunster attorney representing Midbrook 1st Realty. “The recent changes to the comprehensive plan are not based on facts nor were they established by scientific analysis. They were created and then approved by a majority of commissioners using a process that did not meet the requirements of the law and did not advise the public of what was truly happening. Residents and landowners were not told how these changes would affect them."
While you're reading the problems each petitioner has with Martin County's amendments, remember that serial environmental litigator Richard Grosso, always on the scrounge for the next lawsuit, looked Hurchalla's work over before it went before the county for final approval and pronounced it good to go.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.