Citizens living in Rio, Indiantown, Palm City and Golden Gate applaud the changes that have come to their communities in the past two years, in large part due to the public-parivate partnerships engineered by the county’s Community Development staff and the Community Redevelopment Agency. Derelict properties razed in Rio, a completely new, interconnected neighborhood in Indiantown, a revitalized Mapp Road in Palm City, and five of nine businesses already connected to Golden Gates’ new sewer lines.
“I have been involved since the beginning, all the way back to the NOW Visioning charrettes,” said Saadia Tsaftarides, the Golden Gate representative on the CRA, “that’s been what, 10, 12 years?… and I can tell you this: The past two years, we’ve accomplished more than in all the previous 10 years put together.” She attributes that progress to two things: creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency to focus on revitalization of the seven redvelopment areas, and the personal convictions and work ethic of Community Redevelopment Director Kevin Freeman, and the public-private partnerships he’s been able to forge.
The most recent proposal that Freeman took to the Board of County Commissioners was for the CRA to purchase a derelict mobile home park in Rio, which lies between Stuart and Jensen Beach. His plan would resolve a particularly egregious situation, residents say, with an area so blighted that it affects all of Rio’s property values.
Rich Zurich, who represents Rio on the Community Redevelopment Agency and is also the vice president, facilities, of Martin Memorial Health Care Systems, addressed the county commissioners at its March 28 meeting to urge them to support Freeman’s proposal to purchase the mobile home park, relocate any tenants living there, demolish the trailers, clear the title and the property, then sell the property to a developer with the understanding that it be developed under CRA guidelines and standards.
“This has been an on-going problem in Rio for years,” said Zurich, a Rio resident. “This property is on 707, which goes right through the heart of Rio’s Town Center.” The county’s system of imposing fines for code violations, which went unpaid and violations went unremedied, exascerbated the problem, Zurich added. The $600,000 in code enforcement fines blocked any possibility of sale to another investor or developer. “We asked Kevin not to give up, that we had to find a solution,” he said, “and he did. I urge you to support this.”
The owners of the two-acre site of 40 mobile home lots at 1055 N.E. Dixie Highway, valued at about $1.2 million by the property appraiser’s office, agreed to pay the current and past due taxes on the property, which total $91,430, Freeman told commissioners. The county’s CRA will pay $250,000 for the property. In addition, Freeman asked the commission to agree to a reduction of the code violation fines and costs that totaled $666,575, which he had negotiated to $65,000. Site preparation will include installing sewer lines, developing stormwater drainage facilities and burying utility electrical lines, Freeman said, which he expects completed at an unspecified additional cost by August.
Freeman’s proposal was criticized by commissioners Ed Fielding and Sarah Heard, in part because they felt it incomplete, but predominantly because neither commissioner supports the role of the Community Redevlopment Agency, which has its own budget based on a percentage of the taxes from the rise in property values–if there is any–in each Community Redevelopment Area. “This is not a criticism of you, personally,” Fielding told Freeman, “but I just think we could make your job easier if the CRA served strictly in an advisory capacity.” Fielding also said that he “does not favor” the idea of creating value in property through the use of taxpayer money that will benefit a private investor.
Heard concurred with Fielding, calling the deal “preposterous.” “This is not a controversial proposal, like changing an urban services boundary, but an opportunity to support an established program of community redevelopment,” Zurich told the commissioners. “This is a golden opportunity to remove a decaying blight and clean it up, prepare the land, provide the necessary infrastructure, partner with the private sector and provide a shining example of what is possible. And it’s in the very heart of the Rio Town Center.” The proposal was approved by Commissioners Patrick Hayes, Ed Ciampi and Doug Smith, with Heard and Fielding dissenting.
Another partnership project, Rainbow Cottages on Route 707, was also undertaken last year in RIO by the CRA by negotiating with a potential buyer of another derelict property on Dixie Highway, so that the CRA would absorb the approximately $75,000 cost of relocating tenants and clearing the property, as long as the new owner agreed to develop it along CRA guidelines. Julie and Ed Preast bought the property for $155,000 at auction in late May, and the Rainbow Cottages razed. The new development will closely follow the original layout, according to Julie Preast.
“The future Rio Porches cottages are sited similarly,” she said, “around a pedestrian access courtyard fronting Dixie Highway with garage enclosures for vehicles on the side and rear.” The preliminary site plan has been developed, and the Preasts currently are working with Freeman and his staff “to fine tune” the plans for county review.
The largest and most complex CRA project underway is in Indiantown where a new traditional neighborhood will be created through a CRA partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the Boys & Girls Club of Martin County. Plans call for 40 single-family homes with a community multi-purpose building on 11.75 acres. The front porches of some of the homes will look out onto the stormwater treatment central lake that will treat water run-off from about 350 acres. The $2 million project is partially funded by grants. “This unique partnership will transform six vacant parcels into a vibrant traditional neighborhood,” said Freeman. Their partner, the Boys and Girls Club, plans to build a 20,000 square foot urban community club. The Carter Park project will not only connect to the Booker Park neighborhood, but to two other neighborhoods, as well, Freeman added, acting as a catalyst to wider community revitalization.