Will Martin County Choose A New Direction?

Join The Martin County Conservation Alliance for a workshop on the future of Martin County

By Maggy Hurchalla

On May 23rd the Martin County Commission took the first step in what Commissioner Doug Smith said was a new direction.

Smith insisted that last year’s local elections showed that residents want to put jobs ahead of our environmental and ahead of planning policies that limit development options.

Commissioners Heard and Fielding made long, detailed, fact-based arguments in defense of the existing comprehensive plan. They pointed out that more larger septic systems put more pollutants in the river at the same time we were fighting to restore it. They pointed out how the urban boundary policies have given us lower taxes, better services, and a better quality of life.

The proposed amendment deleted wording that said development outside the urban boundary would be limited to agricultural and small scale services in support of agriculture.

The amendment set the precedent that urban services such as sewer and water could be provided outside the urban boundary when a property owner asked for it.

For anyone familiar with the River’s problems, it looked like more bigger septic systems would hurt the river.

For anyone familiar with the urban boundary policies in the comp plan, it looked like encouraging more intense development outside the urban boundary and extending urban services outside the urban boundary would make the boundary line meaningless.

 Commissioner Harold Jenkins pushed for a compromise. He rejected Smith’s suggestion that the only way to have a strong economy was to weaken our environmental protections.

Jenkins pushed for a special exception process that would allow the larger septic systems in special cases with special additional protections.

He also made clear that he would not vote for the amendment if it authorized utility  line extensions to rural areas unless it removed the potential for new sewage package plants at the projects that were requesting it.

Those projects included a partially built industrial park 2 miles west of Palm City and an not-yet-built commercial subdivision 5 miles west at the I-95 Interchange. Staff estimates that extending the full range of utility services will cost $3.9 million.

Both projects had gotten earlier approval based on the promise that the developer himself would provide all urban services including sewer and water package plants.

Neither project has built the promised package plants.

Both wanted a comp plan change that would allow regional utility lines to be extended to their project.

The industrial park agreed to Jenkins’ suggestion that there would be no authorization for line extensions without a commitment that it would not cost existing utility customers and, in the interim, there would be no new package plants or extra large septic systems.

The I-95 project said they could not agree to those conditions.

At that point Commissioner Ciampi took over making the motion for approval and some  of Commissioner Jenkins very good ideas got lost or were made less specific.

The motion directed staff to draft language and send it to the state for review.

That’s not the way it should work.   Wording is everything in crafting a legally enforceable Plan amendment.

A week after the Board action the public had no way of knowing what the commission had approved. Neither did the commissioners.

On June 1 the staff issued a 550 page memo on what they had decided the commission meant to approve.

It has been sent to Tallahassee. It will not be reviewed by the Board or presented to the public.

The waiver for the larger septic systems is written as a case by case decision that sets no precedent. That is not legally defensible. Special exceptions are possible, but they have to have predictable objective standards. Many of the suggestions Commissioner Jenkins made in regard to specific standards didn’t make it into the final version.

The new policy on extending utility lines includes a half dozen changes throughout the comp plan that weaken the urban service district concept. The I-95 project is still allowed to build a package plant. The wording calls for paying “a proportionate share” instead of making sure existing residents don’t subsidize the project

As written, this amendment definitely sets a new direction where faster growth is seen as a solution to economic.

Future commissions trying to turn down super sized septic systems will find themselves with legal challenges to their lack of standards.

Future commissioners who want to extend the urban boundary out into the rural area will no longer be hampered by comprehensive comp plan policies that make the boundary effective.

IF this is Martin County’s new direction, residents need to be aware that their quality of life and their pocketbooks are going to be affected.

Martin County is different because its residents have been willing to get involved.

 For those who care, this is the time to get involved.

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