Martin County richly earns its reputation as the most business-unfriendly county in Florida.
Playing hardball and creating a hostile atmosphere for companies that show up to boost the economy has been going on for years in this Treasure Coast county where the motto is "Enjoy Our Good Nature."
I bring this up now because Martin's no-growth commission majority just pulled another fast one on a company, this one a genuine gift horse, and frankly it defies all sense of logic.
Doesn't anybody down there in paradise think about the taxpayers?
It's not enough that Martin is still smarting over the loss of tax revenue from its algae-choked, $187 million marine and $118 million hospitality industries.
Last week the commission chased out a biomass electric generating plant proposed for the Indiantown industrial area -- an operation that would have made it the second largest taxpayer in the county. It just didn't want to stick around any longer to play Martin's games.
We're talking about a huge fumble here.
William F. Quinn, president and CEO of Jupiter-based U.S. EcoGen LLC said Martin's "carbon-neutral, state-of-the-art, renewable energy facility would create hundreds of temporary construction jobs and about 160 permanent energy- and agriculture-related jobs; become one of the highest paying tax generators in Martin County; and create new opportunities to use fallow citrus land to grow energy crops in the form of sustainably harvested eucalyptus plantations."
EcoGen had strong community support, too, particularly Indiantown's.
Annually, EcoGen would have provided $450,000 in tax revenue, $20.5 million in output sales (money put back into the community) and $6.7 million in payroll.
Notice I said would have.
It won't now.
EcoGen won over four of five county commissioners in a request to swap adjacent 78-acre land parcels so the company could grow its trees on agriculturally zoned land instead of under power lines zoned "public energy transmission." Four of five. That kind of agreement is practically unheard of in this county.
Alas, EcoGen's request fell victim to Martin's unelected shadow government, led by former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla and attorney Virginia Sherlock. And despite the commissioners' original enthusiasm, county staff recommended denial and all commissioners but Anne Scott followed like lemmings.
In case you haven't guessed, not much county business gets done in Martin without Hurchalla and Sherlock's approval. Both were circling like sharks from very early on. Have a look at their letters in public comments posted on the county website.
On July 21 Quinn wrote to County Commission Chairwoman Scott: "... The volatile political climate in Martin County has forced us to reconsider the continued investment of our time and resources. ... I am notifying the commission that we are withdrawing our application and have terminated development activities on the EcoGen Martin project."
He particularly referenced Hurchalla's influence on the process. "Staff provided copies of emails from Maggy Hurchalla and other private citizens whose input and recommendations to the commission majority seem to weigh heavily on their decision-making. The emails ... made it apparent that local politics could very likely undermine the project."
On top of that, Sherlock ally and County Commission candidate Donna Melzer was campaigning as "the only person who pointed out that the (EcoGen) proposal was outside the urban boundary (contrary to the Comp Plan) and could lead to costly urban sprawl. NOW, STAFF and LPA AGREE ," Melzer wrote.
Costly urban sprawl? In Indiantown?
Under a time constraint to meet a deadline, Quinn and other company officials couldn't see a future in continuing. The deck was stacked against them.
Read Quinn's letter for yourself in the attachment below. He tells the story.
I'm sorry for Martin taxpayers. I see EcoGen just like public commenter Steven Swann, who called it, "an opportunity to help intelligent growth in western Martin County."
Why wouldn't county commissioners see that?
Would it have killed them to be reasonable in the interest of common sense? Think what was at stake. Think about 160 permanent jobs. EcoGen was asking to start the Comp Plan amendment process six months early so it could honor a contract. Unusual, maybe, but certainly doable for a valuable new industry most Martin Countians will never see, hear or smell.
Indiantown is 20 miles west of Stuart. It is home to less than 4 percent of Martin's population yet provides 16 percent of its ad valorem taxes. It is the ideal place for heavy industry. Pure and simple, it's a tucked-away economic engine that bothers virtually no one.
About once every 10 years beginning in the 1970s, the Indiantown industrial area has welcomed a new industry to the area: Florida Power & Light Co. (Martin's largest taxpayer), Caulkins juice plant (now Louis Dreyfus Citrus), Indiantown Cogeneration, Bay State Milling and Tampa Farm Service (owned by Cal-Maine, Publix's largest source of eggs). EcoGen would have been the next. And the Indiantown community would have blessed the day.
Sadly, FPL is alleged to be close to a buyout and subsequent shutdown, of Indiantown Cogeneration. If that happens, taxpayers will take another bath. Double bubble.
EcoGen was a prize. Now Martin County will have to watch it rise and enrich another county.
I hope Martin government, shadow or otherwise, proved its point.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith