This is how rural Florida disappears: One comprehensive plan amendment at a time

Residents against the Rural Lifestyle amendment protest ahead of the Martin County Commission meeting Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Stuart.

The assault on rural Florida is intensifying.

Florida counties all have comprehensive plans, roadmaps designed to shepherd development into areas that can handle it, and away from those that can’t — like rural Florida.

But all that open rural acreage is a siren song to developers. There’s gold in them thar flatlands.

So in county after county developers are asking local elected officials to change the rules, amend the comprehensive plan, rezone the land over the objections of local citizens and let them jam in more housing.

And county commissioners are putting up as much opposition to wet toilet paper. Actually the toilet paper might do a better job of holding it all back.

On Tuesday, Martin County commissioners passed a “rural lifestyle” amendment to the county’s vaunted comprehensive plan, paving the way for the “Atlantic Fields” development west of Hobe Sound. The amendment allows one unit per 5 acres on land typically designated for agricultural use, up from the previous requirement of one unit per 20 acres.

In a hearing that lasted all day, commissioners heard from residents passionately opposed to the plan. Supporters, by contrast, claimed more intensive development of the county’s western lands would somehow preserve the area’s rural nature, and insisted the supposed $20 million in tax revenue generated by the project was a windfall the county couldn’t turn down.

Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the comp plan changes, with commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Ciampi dissenting. But, in a concession to opponents, commissioners also voted “to hire a planning consultant to analyze future county development aspects such as residential capacity, environmental preservation and rural development elsewhere in the county,” according to TCPalm.

That may sound wise. But there’s always the chance the consultant could recommend more rural development, not less.

Something similar is happening in Sarasota County, where a developer wants to plunk down 4,000 homes in the rural northeastern part of the county. As in Martin County, this required a change to Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan; as in Martin County, the push to change the way the county grows came not from citizens who have the best long-term interests of the community in mind, but from the developer.

And as was the case in Martin County, Sarasota County Commissioners folded despite major opposition from residents.

These are hardly isolated incidents. In Hillsborough County residents of the Keystone area have sued to stop a national developer from building 194 homes in their rural hamlet, claiming the project violates the county’s comprehensive plan. In St. Johns County residents are banding together to fight a proposal that would rezone land along Fruit Cove Road to build townhomes and apartments in the rural community.

This is how rural Florida disappears; death by a thousand comprehensive plan amendments, the new development built on promises of preservation and bountiful tax revenues that never seem to live up to the billing.

But the ultimate culprits are local elected officials who grant developers more consideration than citizens, who change the rules, even invent new land-use designations, to allow more intensive development of our rural lands.

The tail is wagging the dog; the developers are allowed to call the shots and decide the very future of our communities.

It’s got to stop. But it won’t — until we elect public officials who will listen to the people first.