As Martin County Commissioners Consider Overhauling Community Redevelopment Areas, Residents Are Rallying To Defend Their Neighborhoods
With every available chair in the 270-seat auditorium occupied, late arrivals lined the walls. Even later arrivals—turned away by a Martin County employee citing fire marshal concerns—overflowed into the hall of the Armstrong Wing at the Blake Library in Stuart.
For a Monday night meeting after the July Fourth holiday, the comments from the Martin County Commissioners should have echoed in an empty room. Instead, more than 300 people attended, expressing their sentiments in groans, whistles, applauses and standing ovations.
The source of all this passion: Martin County’s seven community redevelopment areas (CRAs) and their uncertain futures.
The CRA controversy gained momentum in May when a 3-2 county commission vote shut down two long-anticipated CRA projects. The first project was undergrounding utility lines and reconfiguring an intersection in Hobe Sound. The second was addressing flooding concerns and parking problems in Old Palm City. Since then, the commission has removed individual CRA projects from its 2016 capital improvement plan. The CRAs are Jensen Beach, Rio, Indiantown, Old Palm City, Golden Gate, Port Salerno and Hobe Sound.
County Commission Chairman Ed Fielding, and Commissioners Sarah Heard and Anne Scott voted against the funding, citing concerns about the county’s $250 million budget shortfall for infrastructure maintenance. Commissioners John Haddox and Doug Smith voted to preserve the CRAs, emphasizing the importance of focusing improvements in a concentrated area.
As a result, members of the all-volunteer, commission-appointed neighborhood advisory committees, who are tasked with researching and recommending CRA projects, are forced to wait and see whether the county decides to support, change or remove the CRAs.
Taryn Kryzda, county administrator, says the commission is considering changing the boundaries of each CRA, calling for projects that offer “countywide benefits.” For now, the funding for each CRA will remain in each area’s individual trust account. Those dollars are derived by increases in CRA property values and must be reinvested within those areas. Still, many members of the community are skeptical now that projects they’ve worked on—in some cases for more than a decade—have been slammed to a sudden stop.
“We’re never going to be able to do the project we worked on for 20 years,” says Hobe Sound community leader Harold Jenkins, referring to an effort to bury utility lines and improve traffic flow at the intersection of Bridge Road and Dixie Highway, which many Hobe Sounders consider to be a dangerous nuisance.
After serving as director of an emergency room in a Phoenix trauma center, John Hennessee looked forward to a quieter life on the water. He discovered Port Salerno in 1992, which was still reeling from a fishing-net ban that put many out of work. At the time, this “roughneck fishermen’s village” showed little economic promise.
“Restaurants couldn’t last more than a year,” recalls Hennessee, who owns the building housing Salerno’s popular Twisted Tuna restaurant. “The boatyard wasn’t in very good shape. It was more of a boat junkyard than it was a boatyard.”
But that changed in 1995 when locals united to form the Port Salerno Revitalization Committee to protect the community’s rustic charm. The committee prevented Dixie Highway—Port Salerno’s main thoroughfare—from expanding to four lanes. Later, the Port Salerno CRA, headed by Hennessee, implemented a project to install traffic-calming devices along Dixie Highway, slowing motorists. As a result, people driving through Port Salerno began stopping for lunch and dinner at restaurants along the roadside and waterway.
In a small community 20 miles west of Port Salerno, another CRA was also making great progress with Carter Park. In 2011, a 12-acre lot in the troubled Indiantown neighborhood was worth $19,000. But that drastically changed when five CRAs contributed nearly $1.5 million to the community, and the state and other agencies awarded Indiantown grants to pay for infrastructure improvements, affordable housing and more. The community was able to build sidewalks, treat environmental runoff and, with donor support, even build a 20,000-square-foot Boys & Girls Club.
“Look at Carter Park if you want an absolutely shining example of how the CRA, NAC and independent people—Indiantown Nonprofit, Habitat for Humanity, Boys & Girls Club—all pulled together,” says Craig Bauzenberger, chair of the Indiantown neighborhood advisory committee.
The county also reaped immediate benefits in impact fees from the improvements in Indiantown. “It’s almost impossible to calculate the increase [in property taxes] the county is going to get on 40 homes over the next 30 years,” Bauzenberger says.
Other benefits of the project go beyond the monetary value, Bauzenberger says. Carter Park’s retention pond was originally envisioned strictly for function. With input from the neighborhood advisory committee, it was redesigned with gentle sloping sides to accommodate fishing.
“Almost every night the kids are out there fishing,” Bauzenberger says. “Instead of getting into trouble, they’re out there doing something fun, recreational and productive.”
An uncertain future
Neighborhood advisory committees are meant to provide ideas that will improve the community, says Tom Kenny, a former county commissioner and project manager. But he agrees with CRA critics that the boundaries of redevelopment areas may require more examination.
“Locally focused citizen advisory committees act like quasi-local governments and are important because they work,” Kenny says. “You get good ideas because you’ve got on-the-ground feedback. But I think in some cases the footprint of the CRAs has been made large on purpose so it can drag in residential construction to support commercial infrastructure. I can see some concern there.”
Even as the commission majority considers changes to the CRAs, Commissioner Sarah Heard says she sees a role for the neighborhood advisory committees. “No one is talking about doing away with them,” she says. “If people in their neighborhoods want to work hard to protect their neighborhoods, I would hope they would participate.”
Heard has called for answers on how each CRA used its funding. Since the inception of the program in 2000 to 2001, the county has invested an estimated $25 million in all seven CRAs.
Kev Freeman heads up the county’s CRA department. Although he understands the commission majority’s concerns, he says past CRA successes still deserve recognition and some perspective—particularly from a cost concern.
“We are under a tight infrastructure squeeze,” Freeman says. “But we shouldn’t just throw away everything we’ve worked toward. When it seems like the $25 million that has been put into the CRAs, when you look at the number over the last 15 years in seven CRAs, it’s about $200,000 each.”
A hard road
Commissioner Anne Scott says she sees any resistance to questioning the CRAs as a red flag.
“Anytime you have this many people who object to a review and analysis of what they’re doing, it makes you wonder—is this being done right?” Scott says, using the Railroad Avenue project in Golden Gate as an example.
Once a dirt road plagued with dumping and drainage problems, Railroad Avenue in Golden Gate underwent a $1.3 million transformation through the CRA, purportedly to provide easier truck access to nearby businesses and spur economic growth. It’s now paved and landscaped.
CRA critics say that spending that much money in a remote area that’s sparsely traveled was a waste and a result of poor judgment. But critics are missing the full picture, says Jan Dalcorso, chair of the Golden Gate neighborhood advisory committee.
“It was storm-water management,” Dalcorso says. “When the storm water hit it, it was picking up all this crapola—[toxic waste]—and carrying it across Golden Gate, and it was ending up in the [Indian River] Lagoon. After they paved it, they measured the storm water. The pollutants have reduced by 78 percent.”
The CRA is also credited with reducing gang violence through more Sheriff’s Office deputies, and increasing property values through more stringent violation codes.
“Crime went down and the gangs went out,” Dalcorso says.
An added value
The involved neighborhood advisory committee members offer an intangible value, says Ann MacMillian, who helped revitalize downtown Stuart.
“These commissioners, they can’t know what’s going on in the whole county,” she says. “You rely on the people that live there—the people that care about the community—that’s what the CRAs are all about.”
Along with citizen engagement comes expectations that deserve consideration, argues Joan Jefferson, a former Stuart mayor and commissioner active in Stuart’s early resurgence.
“If you’re going to invite people to [be] hands-on in their community and then spend that time and energy at no cost, you don’t change it mid-way and tell them, ‘Oh well. We’re not doing it like that and we’re going to do it this way,’” she says.
The neighborhood advisory committees give a voice to citizen concerns that go beyond CRA projects, says Angela Hoffman, chair of the Hobe Sound neighborhood advisory committee.
“[It gives] the residents access to county employees, to county-appointed board members,” she says. “Their comments go on record and are documented and given to commissioners.”
Most benefits are tangible, Hoffman says.
“Commercial buildings [in Hobe Sound] are being leased, new businesses are opening up,” she says. “Property owners are painting the buildings, they’re landscaping. They’re maintaining the buildings better. For property owners, knowing they’re in the CRA helps local Realtors market those properties.”
That’s true, says Dennis Fadden, president of the Realtor Association of Martin County.
“When I’m showing properties in community redevelopment areas to potential buyers, they’re always interested to learn that the local government and the local community have an official investment and an active interest in improving the area,” says Fadden, whose 900-member organization formally urged commissioners to leave the CRAs alone.
That happened in Port Salerno, says Hennessee. He studied the values of key commercial properties in the CRA, including, among others, Stuart Yacht Sales, Manatee Island Grille, Manatee Marina, Shrimpers, Twisted Tuna and the business he owns—Fish House Art Center. In 1999, the combined assessed property value was $4 million. In 2008, it was $11 million; and in 2015, it stands at $8.8 million.
Spreading the wealth
For nearly four years, county budget discussions have left commissioners perplexed on how to address the burgeoning backlog of infrastructure maintenance. In 2012, after years of heated debate, a divided board voted to put a one-cent sales tax out to referendum. It failed by 64 votes.
“The county faces significant accumulated backlog of maintenance and repair of roads, septic to sewer conversions and stormwater treatment projects,” Fielding says, adding that directing CRA funding to the county’s infrastructure backlog brings “benefits to all citizens.”
The “all citizens” emphasis, plus Fielding’s comments at a summer meeting regarding a Rio CRA project where he expressed concerns about “individuals that will personally benefit from the communal tax base,” prompted a response from Julie Preast, the first chair of the Rio neighborhood advisory committee.
“What he doesn’t recall is that prior to the CRA these seven neighborhoods were struggling, not getting any tax dollars—all the monies were going to the suburbs,” Preast says.
Like Preast, Rick Zurich, chair of the neighborhood advisory committee, is hopeful about the incoming Rio Town Center—a three-story live-work concept featuring residential, retail, restaurants and 140 boat slips—approved by the county in August.
Zurich has witnessed the steady exodus of economic opportunity. Restaurants leaving. Businesses failing. The sting is personal. Although Zurich had sold it at the time, the new owner couldn’t make his former business, Casa Rio Boat and Motor, profitable. He closed up shop.
“There is no specific project where tax dollars are spent that benefits everybody,” he says. “The whole concept is the more one area is improved, the more it benefits the entire community.”
Each area of the community that improves gives a boost to the economy and tax base, says Commissioner Haddox, providing long-term relief to the county’s budget challenges.
“[The CRAs] offer the best potential for economic development and increasing our tax base, which is essential to helping solve the problem of our infrastructure deficit,” Haddox says.
Commissioner Smith says he fears the CRA program will “fade away” unless a majority of his colleagues on the commission respond differently to the strong showing of public support.
“You have 300 taxpayers show up to a meeting on a Monday night following the Fourth of July to support a program they believe in,” Smith says. “That’s no casual show of five or six or seven residents on a Tuesday morning. That’s a significant commitment in support. To be that dismissive of your residents says an awful lot.”
A Stuart Success Story
With the help of a few visionaries, and the community redevelopment agency, the city’s downtown has become a charming and bustling community.
Driving Colorado Avenue into downtown Stuart requires tapping the brakes to navigate the narrowing of the roadway before negotiating the newer round-a-bout.
This forced slowdown draws eyes to the existing businesses—exactly as the City of Stuart’s community redevelopment agency (CRA) envisioned. The road reconfiguration also beckons investors.
Certainly, it caught the entrepreneurial eye of Jennifer Crow. After a mild health concern prompted her to adopt a vegan diet, Crow realized the local limits of options for vegans. So she and a business partner explored opening a store offering vegan, non-GMO, organic groceries and prepared meals.
The thoroughfare feel of Colorado Avenue was an attraction and an inspiration for the business. Vegan on Main—so named to evoke the growing “main street” appeal of the fare—opens in late October, replacing a pawn shop.
“That’s where things are happening,” says Jennifer Crow, also marketing director for Visiting Nurse Association of Florida. “That’s where the sophisticated, hip crowd goes to hang out.”
The Colorado expansion marks one of many achievements by Stuart’s CRA. Established in 1998, the agency is governed by the city commission and two representatives from the community redevelopment board. Some of the CRA’s achievements include a downtown tram, the addition of 150 parking spaces, an upgraded sewer and water service, landscaping in Woodlawn Park and Frazier neighborhoods and more, says Teresa Lamar-Sarno, program director for the Stuart CRA.
“The CRA is the thing that ties it all together,” says Paul Nicoletti, Stuart city manager and director of the Stuart CRA. “It’s a medium which lets the commission laser-focus improvements on a given area. Our recent experience is, for every buck we put in, the private sector puts in three.”
The CRA receives funding from additional property tax money that the county collects when property values increase.
In the mid to late 1980s, downtown Stuart bore no semblance to its modern-day assemblage of chic boutiques, coffee bars, pubs, packed restaurants and plenty of places to enjoy live music. The two anchor businesses—FPL and the Post Office—had moved out. Vagrants moved in.
“I looked into the Post Office Arcade to put my office, bums were sleeping in the arcade … It was a wasteland,” says Tom Lucido, a land planner and owner of Lucido & Associates, a 26-year-old landscape-architecture firm that’s designed scores of development projects around the Treasure Coast.
A handful of visionaries recognized that at least one old, dingy gem—The Lyric Theatre—could regain its long-lost luster with some loving attention. Operating as a church, it was about to be sold and used as an office.
With then-resident Roy Layock, an admirer of historic architecture, spearheading negotiations with the church, supporters raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase and then preserve the theater. Perhaps most improbably, they also overtook its operations. The first act of the reminted Lyric was two-time Grammy-winner Rita Coolidge.
Across town, Joan Jefferson and her husband, Peter Jefferson, arrived in Stuart in 1967, when “there was nothing downtown,” Joan Jefferson says.
The Jeffersons—including their four children, dog and two monkeys—bought a place on East Ocean Boulevard. A portion of the Arcade building was slated to be torn down for parking, so the Jeffersons teamed up with David and Ann MacMillan to purchase the Arcade and renovate it. Agreeing to serve only retail or restaurants—no flea markets—they got a variance to live at the premises in 1993 during their improvements.
The Economic Council of Martin County and Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, with the support of then Mayor Joan Jefferson, brought in acclaimed planner and new urbanism expert Andres Duany to help shape a design vision downtown that addressed setbacks, architectural elements, walkability and functionality.
The Jeffersons and McMillans pored in their sweat equity and their personal equity. A neurosurgeon, David MacMillan—when he wasn’t at the hospital—joined Peter Jefferson on restoration and repairs while Ann MacMillan and Joan Jefferson handled painting and whatever else needed to be done. Early on, many doubted their rosy outlook.
“It was one big, ‘What are you doing?’ Why are you throwing your money away?’” Ann MacMillan says, whose Arcade Book Nook became a favorite haunt. “You either see potential or you don’t.”
As evidence of their elbow grease emerged, many skeptics started to experience their own epiphanies. “It was almost immediate,” Ann MacMillan says. “We had people calling us before we were even able to rent spaces.”
Today, the pursuit and execution of that vision from decades ago is felt throughout the community.
“We used to say that we wanted to make sure whatever we did if people came back to Stuart, it would still be Stuart,” Joan Jefferson says. “I came back after 20 years. It still seems like Stuart to me.”
Both sides of the CRA debate share their thoughts.
1) “The whole thing needs review to see if it’s working, because there are plenty of indications that it isn’t.” —Commissioner Anne Scott
2) “I’m really incredibly proud of all the people who have participated and have shown up. I’ve never seen such a commitment to pride as our CRA supporters have.” —Commissioner Doug Smith
3) “For Palm City, continuing CRA projects can create an atmosphere for the ... 10 vacant lots to be developed, create tax base and resolve flooding problems. Eventually we can eliminate septic tanks that cause pollution ... [helping] our river and lagoon.”—Commissioner John Haddox
4)“We need to prioritize countywide. If a sewer project in Palm City is a countywide project, it needs to be prioritized. If there is a glaring inefficiency or a significant deficiency in our county, we need to prioritize it.”—Commissioner Sarah Heard
Neighborhood Advisory Committees
1) “All over the country, the CRA concept has been a way to revitalize a blighted or distressed area. Martin County CRAs have been designed very differently. As a result, there are complications in implementation.” —Commission Chairman Ed Fielding
2)“It’s a proven mechanism for revitalizing older areas, older downtowns. ... It allows them to have input from the people who actually are affected by the government influence on their quality of life.” —Frank Wacha Jr., Chair of the Jensen Beach NAC
3)“All we are is an advisory committee. That’s all we are. They hold the cards.” —Chuck Smith, Chair of the Palm City NAC
)“I understand that budgets are budgets. I have a checkbook and understand that I can’t overspend. But this truly appears to be a vendetta of some sort and I can’t understand why.” —Catherine Winters, Chair of the Port Salerno NAC