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Knight Kiplinger Gives Us The Inside Scoop On The Proposed Pineland Prairie

A little optimism, a little skepticism, but overall, a willingness to listen. That was Steve Mullin’s mind frame when he first learned of a proposal for a large-scale community near his home in rural Stuart West.

“Martin County has for a long time been very controlled, very slow growth,” says the 45-year-old husband and father of two who owns a web development and marketing business. “So, talking about a project of this magnitude, you have to be a little skeptical about it, but you’re always hopeful at the same time.”

Then landowner Knight Kiplinger put on a presentation to about 75 of his neighbors from Stuart West and Cobblestone. As president of Stuart West’s Property Owners Association, he cautions that he’s a “conduit, not a spokesperson” for his community. But as the presentation progressed, he realized something.

“Most of my skepticism fell by the wayside,” Mullin says. “I was really focused and interested in all the positive things—I didn’t see any negative things. I was searching for them, but they didn’t reveal themselves.”

Pineland Prairie shares few—if any—parallels with other development proposals to emerge in Martin County throughout the years. Kiplinger—a nationally known economic journalist whose local ties trace back three generations—unfurled his vision for Pineland Prairie in a most unusual fashion: He went public.

From his insistence on an extended listening tour to gather public input before filing a proposal, to his pledge to leave 70 percent of his 3,400-acre parcel as open space, to presenting a town design more in keeping with Old Florida than South Florida, Kiplinger continually shuns conventional wisdom. It’s obvious to keen observers and casual onlookers alike that Pineland Prairie is something different. And that’s exactly how Kiplinger researched it.

“As a journalist who specializes in economic forecasting, I’m keenly aware of trends in demographics, lifestyle, employment and retail that will affect every locale in America, including Martin County,” says Kiplinger, who lives in Sewall’s Point and Washington, D.C. “My vision for our family’s large, beautiful property in Palm City reflects those trends, to help keep our county healthy—economically and environmentally—for current and future residents.”

Knight Kiplinger

The Property

In 1952, W.M. Kiplinger, Kiplinger’s grandfather, purchased property in Sewall’s Point. As a highly philanthropic man, he would later donate land for the Woman’s Club of Stuart, the county’s first library and Martin Memorial Hospital, among others.

In the late 1970s, the Kiplinger organization purchased more than 4,000 acres in western Palm City, mostly from General Development Corporation, the force behind the earliest construction of Port St. Lucie.

Ever since, Pineland Prairie—bracketed between Interstate 95 and the turnpike, bisected by Citrus Boulevard—has remained in agriculture, mostly in citrus and sod, with cattle grazing, too. When greening decimated the orange and grapefruit groves, potatoes and sweet corn served as replacement crops.

In the passage of time, surrounding properties changed in character and complexion. Martin Downs developed on its east. Construction in Stuart West and Cobblestone—to the property’s west—started in 1984. To the north, homes were built along the C-23 Canal on the Port St. Lucie side. Most recently was the 2013 addition of Canopy Creek on the property’s south side.

“While rural in feel, it is actually a huge, open ‘infill’ site,” Kiplinger says. “We’re surrounded by residential development on all sides, which was gradually built over the past 35 years while we kept our 3,400 acres open.”

The Pineland Prairie plan envisions limiting all residential, retail, office and school space (three campuses totaling 130 acres) on the roughly 1,000-acre area already impacted by agriculture. The “Main Street District” will straddle both sides of Citrus Boulevard. The plan designates 300 acres for employment space, 150,000 square feet for retail, 140,000 square feet for professional offices and 2 million square feet of workspace. Rejecting larger shopping malls and strip centers as passé, the plan includes “smaller stores designed into the fabric of a community,” Kiplinger says.

This approach is both progressive and in keeping with Martin County, says Ted Astolfi, CEO of the Economic Council of Martin County.

“As a council, we’re concerned about ensuring Martin County is a sustainable, high-quality community,” Astolfi says. “After hearing the Pineland Prairie presentation to our staff, we feel like they’re working toward that same goal.”

Architectural styles mimic cottages, bungalows and shotgun houses of various sizes with front porches facing sidewalks, “so people can interact more easily with their neighbors,” Kiplinger says.

“It’s a style that was specifically built to weather the South Florida climate,” says Pineland Prairie town planner Marcela Camblor-Cutsaimanis, of Marcela Camblor & Associates Camblor-Cutsaimanis. “Homes raised with deep porches and verandas, careful site orientation, windows and room layouts to take advantage of cross breezes and keep cool. Steeply pitched roofs to move water and circulate air and provide better cross-ventilation. It’s a building style that’s context-conscious. The whole sustainability emphasis comes not just from the principles that are being applied in design and construction, but also those time-test approaches that are true to our climate and our region.”

The Approach

Development proposals generally follow a well-worn track. Investors calculate the number of residential units and commercial space needed to ensure profitability, build in varying degrees of wiggle room to bargain with and submit plans accordingly. In the ensuing hearings—depending on the reaction of the public and politicians—the numbers get negotiated (usually downward). If approvals are granted, the developer is still well positioned with a project that will yield a worthwhile return.

This method makes good business sense. Kiplinger—a journalist with more than 40 years covering finance and economics—understands good business. As editor-in-chief of The Kiplinger Letter, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine and kiplinger.com, he counsels disciplined saving, debt avoidance and generous charitable giving.

Yet here, Kiplinger eschews the safe route.

Rather than “announcing a completed plan that was created in secret,” Kiplinger says, “I wanted my plan for this site to emerge gradually from a uniquely transparent public process never before used by a large landowner in this county.”

He started with full-page newspaper ads announcing his intents and enlisting public input. Going beyond requirements to mail announcements to more than

9,000 neighboring residents, he conducted a five-month listening tour of more than 700 people.

“As a journalist, I know that my job requires listening carefully, gathering good ideas from all sides and sharing those ideas with others,” he says.

On pinelandprairie.com, he shared those ideas—from all sides. Most proved encouraging:

•    “I applaud your consensus-building approach.”

•    “Eager to see conservation-minded, responsible growth management.”

•    “One of the best sites in Martin County for future development.”

•    “The principles of this kind of planning are solid and proven to be the most environmentally friendly.”

Kiplinger also shares the less flattering comments suggesting that he “leave it the hell alone,” “stop the building” and convert the land into a “free state park” for “kayaking, fishing, walking and biking trails.”

At the public meetings, Camblor-Cutsaimanis employed live polling technology that allowed participants to immediately and anonymously weigh in on facets of Kiplinger’s vision and express concerns, as well as rank the significance of various challenges facing Martin County.

Alongside fears over increased traffic and loss of open space, respondents registered excitement about a large swath of conservation land controlled by a conservancy and available to the public for hiking and horseback riding.

The trail-riding community, which is always eager for new natural environments to explore on horseback, warmed well to Kiplinger’s idea.

“I love being on my horse in nature and seeing wildlife—it brings me peace,” says Sibyl Dance, a resident of Palm City Farms and board member of the Palm City Farms Trail Association. “There are a lot of nice places to ride, and this one looks exceptional. Everyone I’ve spoken to is very excited about the possibility of riding that property.”

Reaction to the site hosting a traditional town center—anchored by independent retailers, a small-scale grocer, parks, playing fields and schools all well within walking distance—also proved positive.

“Little wonder,” says H.B. Warren, president of the Realtor Association of Martin County. The proposal rests on several widely supported planning principles.

“RAMC emphasizes the importance of planning for future growth and development because its value can’t be overstated,” Warren says. “Many of the key principles we stand behind—such as density transfers, mixed-use, and allowing the private sector to preserve open spaces—are in play here. So, we certainly see those positive concepts being advanced with what Pineland Prairie is proposing.”

Citizen feedback also prioritized river protections, attracting businesses to employ young adults and protecting agriculture and providing broader selections of housing in style and price.

“People seem ready for innovative concepts in land-use planning that are far preferable to suburban sprawl and have been implemented very successfully in other parts of America—but not yet on the Treasure Coast,” Kiplinger says.

The Plan

In September, Kiplinger—incorporating feedback from his public outreach—submitted to Martin County plans to construct during the next 22 years 4,200 homes, 200,000 square feet of commercial space and 2 million square feet of workplace space on his 3,400-acre Palm City parcel. For comparison, consider Martin Downs. When approved in 1983, the Palm City community also included 4,200 homes, four times the square footage of industrial, commercial and office space at 800,000, as well as three golf courses—all over a total of 2,418 acres.

As an amendment to the Martin County Growth Management Plan, Pineland Prairie’s application creates a new zoning category and an alteration to the boundary around the primary urban service district.

The urban service district includes or allows infrastructure for water and sewer services. Areas beyond the boundary generally rely on septic tanks and well water. Citing both feedback from the public forums and personal concerns related to studies indicating septic emissions worsening river conditions during discharges from Lake Okeechobee, Kiplinger frequently affirms his conviction that new development should use sewer systems.

Some 600 acres of Pineland Prairie currently sit within the primary urban service district and is zoned for light industrial.

“That’s among the most intense land uses that exists in the comprehensive plan,” says Marcela Camblor-Cutsaimanis, who worked for the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council as well as led town planning and design projects across the state. “This entire section could potentially yield up to 10 million square feet of light industrial uses.”

The remainder of the parcel carries additional development rights with various restrictions, warns Camblor-Cutsaimanis, which actually inhibit conservation.

“Most of the time, people see green and open space and what looks natural and untouched and the perception is that it’s not entitled [with development rights],” Camblor-Cutsaimanis says. “But every square inch of Florida was entitled at some point. Local governments have to deal with this reality, and that makes preservation difficult.”

Conservation Space

Pineland Prairie is currently zoned for one unit per 5 acres. To demonstrate the difference between what he’s allowed to do and what he wants to do, Kiplinger mocked up a plan of what it could look like. The entire parcel—minus designated wetland and other protected areas—is carved up into 5-acre parcels.

Kiplinger calls it the “Over-My-Dead-Body Plan.”

Instead, the Pineland Prairie application proposes moving development rights from its 600 acres within the urban district to areas outside the boundary already impacted by agricultural activity.

Remaining protect would be the natural state—composed of slash pines, saw palmettos and cabbage palms flourishing over dry upland prairies alongside wetlands, which inspired the name “Pineland Prairie,” Kiplinger says. It encompasses the 70 percent of the 3,400 acres dedicated to conservation, preservation, recreation and open space.

“Martin County’s open-space requirement for new communities is often met by adding a golf course that isn’t usable by the broad community,” Kiplinger says. “By contrast, all of the open space at Pineland Prairie—more than 2,000 acres—will be truly open to the public, for all to enjoy.”

He envisions pastures for horses and cattle, space for equestrian events, ball fields, fields for community gardens and farm-to-table dining and small parks.

The C-23 Canal, which runs along the property’s northern border, is notorious for carrying nutrients from agricultural operations in St. Lucie County. Kiplinger says he’s exploring options to divert some canal water onto a 100-acre marsh on Pineland Prairie, with intents of it rerouting further downstream “a little cleaner than before.”

Protecting the Promise

Mindful that many Martin County residents remain cautious about growth and Pineland Prairie setting a negative precedent, Kiplinger says he hopes to “be a precedent-setter who set the bar high for future development with environmental quality.”

Kiplinger pledges to place open-space easements over the conservation land, stripping away all future development rights. He says he’ll record such easements in deed restrictions at the county courthouse to ensure the land is “protected in perpetuity and managed by a non-profit entity for the public good.”

Such strategies hold merit, says Ryan Smart, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a statewide non-profit advocating for planning principles that advance conservation and combat sprawl.

“New development should create places of such quality architecture, planning and environmental stewardship that residents will be proud to continue caring for them for generations,” Smart says. “Walkable neighborhoods with a close connection to nature like Pineland Prairie can set a template for meeting this aspiration. But they need to come with enforcement tools to ensure the design shown on paper actually gets built and that land set aside for conservation is preserved forever. Strategies like protecting undeveloped land with perpetual conservation easements that include third-party enforcement are key to ensuring well-intentioned promises are kept.”

The Lifestyle

The balance of housing Kiplinger proposes tracks along with any traditional Martin County community—65 percent single family, 35 percent multifamily. He takes a turn from the typical in the size and price of homes, envisioning lot sizes averaging around 50-feet-by-125-feet.

Kiplinger says his research into national trends, as well as feedback from the local forums, reveals a strong appetite among young families and empty-nesters for homes on smaller lots with closer proximity buffeted by large spaces of open land for public enjoyment. A variety of price and size ensures a multigenerational appeal to “those who delight in having neighbors who are in various stages and circumstances of life,” he adds.

The concept is quite the talker, says Carolyn Davi, executive director of the Palm City Chamber, which featured Kiplinger as speaker for a Council of Chambers event in October.

“There’s been a lot of interest about it among the chamber members and the broader community, as the last time a project of this magnitude came forward was Martin Downs,” Davi says. “Many people recognize the need for a new community with housing and services that appeal to our younger families as well as to our senior residents. His vision does just that in the most unique way I’ve ever seen presented in Martin County.”

With centrally located schools and mixed-use retail and commercial space, Pineland Prairie appeals to the environmentally conscientious seeking to lighten their energy consumption, irrigation expenses and car dependency by simply walking more, Kiplinger says.

Not all changes in behavior and living will manifest immediately, Kiplinger says. Which is why he anticipates the timing steadily coinciding with the Pineland Prairie’s anticipated decades of building.

“Healthy communities are constantly evolving, adapting to changing circumstances,” Kiplinger says. “Over the 20 or 25 years it will take for Pineland Prairie to be completed, many things will change in our county. Some things, I hope, will remain constant or get even stronger: Our shared love for the natural beauty of our region, our commitment to water quality, our small-town sense of neighborliness, our support of our fine public schools and much more.”

Knight Kiplinger, editor-in-chief of The Kiplinger Letter


 Knight Kiplinger, editor-in-chief of The Kiplinger Letter,  Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine and kiplinger.com, studied government at Cornell University and international economics at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. He has since been nationally recognized for his expertise in economic journalism.

Locally, the Sewall’s Point resident is known and appreciated for his philanthropy, supporting the Elliott Museum, Stuart Heritage and the Lyric Theatre. He and wife, Ann, have three grown children and two grandchildren.

What do you love most about Martin County?

The natural beauty, our revitalized downtown Stuart, great public beaches and the friendly, small-town feel.

What are some of your favorite memories of life in Martin County?

When I was a boy visiting our winter home here in the 1950s, no one—I mean not a soul—lived on Hutchinson Island, and the only access was the low wooden bridge from Jensen Beach. I have vivid memories of lunches at the one eating place on the island, a hamburger-and-shake joint called The Sandpiper, near the end of the Jensen Bridge. For dinner, there were just a handful of restaurants—the Pink Pony on U.S. 1, Seymour’s (with live music for jitterbugging, where Conchy Joe’s sits today), and of course, Frances Langford’s Outrigger, for a fancy dinner in Polynesian style (today’s Dolphin Bar).

Tell us about your historic home, Bay Tree Lodge, on Sewall’s Point.

What we enjoy most are the serenity and river views. On an evening at dusk, we’ll walk over to the Archipelago neighborhood to watch the wood storks, herons and magnificent frigate birds returning to roost on Bird Island. We get endless joy from the birds that live around Sewall’s Point… osprey, kingfishers, herons, pelicans and many more.

What do you like to do when you’re here?

My wife, Ann, and I enjoy going to shows at the Lyric, checking out the new exhibits at the Elliott and the Backus museums, local art shows at the Courthouse art gallery downtown, and stopping by the Stuart Heritage Museum at the Stuart Feed Supply Store for an intense dose of local history.