Comp plan: do we follow its purpose?

Martin County has a long and storied history of holding our comprehensive growth management plan in high regard. This 1985 guide map to future growth management has been lauded as the holiest of works by some, and used as the justification of highly contested votes by others. But how much do we actually follow this guide, more to the point: do we understand it’s purpose?

            At the August 16th Martin County Board of County Commissioners meeting, what was assumed to be a quick public hearing for a “major” site plan change became a relative fiasco requiring several staff interventions. The former (proposed) Costco site on High Meadows Ave in Palm City was rezoned and a masterplan established several years ago under the title “Palm Pike Crossing”. This masterplan was brought in front of the commission in regards to a change of usage in one of its sectors. What was originally planned as a 4-story hotel, has now been approved as a 3-story residential storage facility. Following the traveling concerns spurred by the recent pandemic, and the subsequent flight of new residents into the county, hotels have fallen out of favor while storage facilities have become a hot commodity. As this was a quasi-judicial proceeding, it is the legal responsibility of our commission to vote solely based on competent evidence presented in regards to the project. If you vote in favor, it must be because the plan is within all applicable municipal requirements for zoning and land use; if you opposed- you must demonstrate that the project is in violation of our comp plan and land usage. The final vote was 4-1 with commissioner Campi in opposition.

            This particular item, though small in its individual repercussions, has exposed a quite pervasive issue within our county. Though we generally see deviations and rezoning as indicators of alteration/opposition to the comp plan, we rarely see opposition of a justified project as a violation. Which bares the question:

            How much do we support our comp plan, or is it just an excuse to do as we wish?

            An important piece of information to keep in context is that our comp plan predates the arrival of many of our county residents. Established in 1985, our growth management plan was executed to help guide the growth of a county a mere fraction of what it is today. In 1969, when Martin first began to analyze and author a growth plan, our population was under 30,000. Today, we are more than 160,000 strong- a growth of more than 498%. To put that growth into perspective, the population growth of Florida over the same time period was 227%, and the US was 64%. This information demonstrates highly that our future developmental projections (when used from their 1985 launching point) are outdated and struggle to be applied to today’s realities.

            Our original question (which is posed as rhetorical postulation: that the comp plan is not followed- but instead used as needed to justify the will of the commission) is only of value in determining how we go forward. We have seen decades of alteration to the comp plan taken in small and individualized matters, but when was the last time we had seen an organized effort to modernize the plan? Even when the comp plan comes to the commission as a body (every ten years or so), when have we given honest thought to its expansion and how it compares to the population and growth that is evident today?

            The issue we face today is clear: our community (commission and residents alike) cling onto sentimental remembrance of a lifestyle that has left us behind. No matter how much I yearn for the day’s past, when traffic was minimal and green spaces abound, it is naïve to use that mental image as justification for development decisions of today. In no way am I suggesting we abandon our growth management plans, that would cause disorganization and a lack of cohesive planning (even more so than today), but I do believe it is time we modernize that plan to accurately reflect the realities of today. What we have been doing has not worked. We have failed to ensure infrastructure is adequate for the residents use. We have failed to stem the flow of development in a manner that is in line with what our Comp Plan claims to achieve. Most concerning, we have now created a situation where our guide book, our plan of action, is so out of touch with reality that the plan itself is of little value. Last year, our commission- along with staff (wisely in my opinion) created a map of active projects and soon to be considered projects being developed in the county. That same forward thinking is now called upon in regards to our Growth management plan. Only after we get an accurate understanding of the realities of today can we make an actionable plan of what we can do in the future.

            I would end on this note:

            The Newfield/Kiplinger property proposed and subsequently approved for north Citrus Ave, in Palm City, is outside the Urban Services boundary. This property and proposal, though highly opposed by some, and lauded by others, is in a logical position to be built. It is adjacent to multiple development sites, base infrastructure is in place for access at minimum, and institutional infrastructure (such as schools and fire rescue) are within a reasonable distance. This property may be outside the urban services boundary, but is it out of place- or is the boundary line? Other examples like Cobblestone on west 714 and I-95, or the industrial/commercial infill along 714 from the Turnpike to Citrus (and beyond), are further examples that we have expanded beyond the USB, but in a quasi-organized fashion. These same forces are found on Bridge Road, where the USB and secondary USB are breached by growth in all sectors except the managed ecologically sensitive lands.

            Given the growth seen in Martin County from 1985 to today (some 37 years), it is only logical that we seriously consider expanding our USB from its existing position to the I-95 physical boundary. With a modernized USB, in a logically placed location given the factors on the ground today, we will now have solid footing to decline projects outside the USB. We will have practical locations to encourage projects of urban infill, and we will once again have a realistic position to protect undeveloped lands from rapid urban sprawl. Of course, there are free lands open inside the USB that should be protected as ecologically sensitive (think Pal Mar, Atlantic Ridge and adjacent slough, Etc.), and those lands should remain undeveloped and protected for their environmental benefit. But the developable lands in a reasonable urban area should be allowed to develop in a reasonable manner. Trying to halt all development only forces us in a circle of rapid growth, with little recourse to control it.

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