Martin County Pressured to Weaken Conservation Rules

Why is Doug Smith’s Martin County commission weakening protections for the St. Lucie? It comes down to money and sugar.

King Ranch and US Sugar want more development--and more pollution--in the St. Lucie watershed

Whenever you call attention to the sugar industry’s responsibility for destroying Florida’s rivers, their executives immediately blame local communities for overdevelopment, wildly exaggerating residents’ share of pollution. Then they work behind the scenes to make their lie come true, pushing officials for faster growth and more local pollution to mask sugar’s contribution.

That’s what sugar-funded commissioners plan to do next Tuesday, October 24th: change the rules to help US Sugar and its allies hide their share of contamination in a flood of sewage and run-off from new development, while making their friends richer.

The rule change looks subtle: tweaking the county’s 40-foot/four-story building limit and chapter 2 in the Comp Plan, which determines which regulation to use when more than one apply to a proposal. But it paves the way for huge building projects and lots of pollution.

Here’s the story behind Tuesday’s agenda:

  1. It started when developer Morris Crady told commissioners that a Hutchinson Island landowner planned to sue the county over the four-story building limit, because he wanted to build a really tall house. With underground parking. Curiously, there doesn’t appear to be an open lot that could fit a house like this, but the county staff was urged to quickly change to rule to avoid the lawsuit.

  2. Then One Martin, a group of big landowners and developers, began aggressively lobbying for the change. Through King Ranch’s Mitch Hutchcraft, the group is connected to AgTEC, a 6 million square foot development approved by Doug Smith’s commission with an exception to the 40-foot/four-story rule. But that exception was eliminated after a legal challenge, and AgTEC still hasn’t built anything. Hutchcraft and Smith have close relationships with US Sugar, which wants more development like AgTEC in Martin County, and more local pollution to blame for algae blooms and health risks. Hutchcraft and King Ranch hosted the secret meeting between Florida lawmakers and US Sugar executives before he was named to SFWMD’s governing board; and US Sugar funds Smith’s political career.

  3. “Tweaking” chapter 2 in the county’s Comp Plan would help King Ranch get the building height restriction waived for AgTEC, and make it easier to develop more big projects like it in Martin County.

Getting rid of building restrictions would open the floodgates for more development and more local pollution to the local watershed. (Commissioners just raised septic system limits to 5,000 gallons/day.) The lie that US Sugar tells about Martin County poisoning its own river by developing wetlands and increasing sewage system loads would become more true. The industry’s pollution and the discharges caused by its water policy would be diluted by the community’s aggressive growth and the consequences of overbuilding. Martin County and the St. Lucie would become yet another sad Florida story with too many culprits to hold any one of them responsible.

So these “tweaks” to development rules are actually big changes, which ordinarily require public input or being put to vote as amendments. But Doug Smith’s commission is sneaking them past the public by calling them Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR) recommendations, which are meant for minor, technical adjustments to comply with changes in state law. Anything that weakens protection for the river and riverside communities is not minor–it shouldn’t happen behind closed doors.

No one but the voters–not US Sugar, not developers, not even county commissioners–should be allowed to change the rules that protect clean water and public health.

What You Can Do

Please come to Tuesday’s BOCC meeting, at 9:00am on October 24th. Email county commissioners at Call them (Doug Smith at 772-221-2359, Edward Ciampi at 772 221-1357, Harold Jenkins at 772 221-2357, Ed Fielding at 772-288-5421, Sarah Heard at 772-221-2358). Tell them to leave the 40-foot/four-story restriction and chapter 2 of the Comp Plan as-is.