Harmony Ranch developer answers critics of proposed development

Hobe Sound resident and former county commissioner Tom Kenny, vice president of Harmony Ranch, wants “equal” time with area citizens. “I just feel that if people know the facts,” he says, “it will change their perspective.”

He recognizes that residents’ perceptions of the proposed development west of Hobe Sound control its future—either positively or negatively—so he spends much of his time now talking to local people to counter what he considers a “bombardment” of misinformation.

“When I see a petition that states 36,000 people are going to invade Hobe Sound, I just shake my head,” Kenny says, “because that’s so far removed from fact.”

The facts that Kenny wants residents to know to answer the most common questions are these:

The 4,000 homes planned for the proposed 2,716-acre Harmony development west of the turnpike along the Pratt-Whitney Road would result in an estimated 8,128 residents at the end of a 20-year development timetable.

Excess water will go to Martin County Utilities from donated wells on the development, and all infrastructure costs of expanding the urban services district will be borne by Harmony.

More than $1.4 million in beach impact fees paid by Harmony can be used to underwrite either new beach access or a beach shuttle bus.

Employment for local builders will be provided for the next 20 years, plus additional employment will come from a major employer relocating to the Harmony development.

“I know from what people are telling me that their biggest concern is those 4,000 units,” he says, “but those homes are not going to appear overnight. The first one could not be built probably before 2014, and then we’d build only about 200 additional homes each year.”

Comparison of Harmony to Hobe Sound demographically

According to the most recent U.S. census, the population currently in Hobe Sound is 12,549 residents. At the end of the same 20-year timeline, the population in Hobe Sound (with a 1.1% growth rate) will be more than double that of Harmony’s. Geographically, Hobe Sound’s area is 3,378 acres, more than 660 acres larger than Harmony.

“Do we need more houses today? No, probably not,” Kenny answers his own question. “But will we need them in five, ten or 20 years? Yes, we’d better be needing them, or it means we’re not growing at all, and without at least around a 1% to 1.5% growth annually, then we’re a dying community.”

Housing construction will continue over the next 20 years, and not by well-known Palm Beach developer Buz DiVosta, who owns the property, but by local builders who will buy the individual lots then build a house to sell, or by purchasers who buy the lot themselves, then contract their own builder. Kenny says there also will be no “preferred-builder program” at Harmony, he says.

“Our local construction industry, our local builders are really hurting,” Kenny adds. “Many, many of them have had to move out of county, or out of state, but if they hadn’t, our unemployment figures would be much higher than they are now.”

As a result of the diversity in builders, Harmony will be similar in character to the Foxwood development south of South Fork High School, Kenny says, where each house is unique. At Harmony, minimum requirements will be set only for construction and design, not the complete package.

“It’s really hard to look out in front of yourself 20 or 30 years,” Kenny adds. “It’s really hard to know what, exactly, you’re going to need in 30 years, but that’s another reason it’s so important to plan.”

Kenny was a commissioner who worked to develop the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan that has been the blueprint for growth in Martin County over the past three decades, and he believes in the value of planning.

“But you would not believe the number of people who screamed and hollered at us not to do that at the stime,” he says. “Some of them were fiercely opposed to it. Some people also were for it, too, but we had to have public hearings in the Martin County High School auditorium because of the number of people.”

The Harmony development, with the Pratt-Whitney/Bridge Road intersection at the heart of its proposed commercial district—which Kenny says will be about the size of the Publix shopping mall in Hobe Sound—lies outside of but adjacent to the current Martin County urban services district. Harmony developers have requested an extension of the district to include the 2,800 acres of the planned community in their application submitted in September, which has sparked local protest.

“It is not an urban services boundary, like you’ve got in Miami-Dade County, where you’re not allowed to build beyond it,” Kenny says. “We are allowed to build beyond it in Martin County, and we’ve changed the urban services district many times over the past.”

The primary objection to expanding the urban services district so far expressed to Kenny is the associated costs that taxpayers must bear for the extension, he says.

“And that’s just not accurate. The developers are required by law to build all the infrastructure required,” Kenny says. “We will be the ones responsible to pay for all the lines, make all the connections, build the roads, whatever is required to support the urban services …Those costs do not fall on the backs of county taxpayers. Those are entirely ours.”

More than enough water to meet demand for ‘low-density’ project
There also is plenty of water available, according to Kenny, since about three billion gallons of water per year currently flow through the Harmony tract from the 14,000 acres that lie west of it.

“We will stop the flow-through, clean it up, and discharge it at a more natural pulse,” Kenny says. “This will help re-hydrate the existing wetlands, recharge water tables and help the (St. Lucie) Rivers.”

After the development is completed in about 20 years, Harmony will require 470 million gallons of water annually, Kenny estimates.

“We will buy treated water from Martin County Utilities (that has current excess capacity) capable of serving our build-out needs,” he says. “We will donate six new well sites on our property to Martin County capable of producing more water than we will buy. Four of those wells are deep wells (1000-3000′) down to the Floridan aquifer, the other two are shallow (100-200′) wells. This raw water will be sent to Martin County Utilities.”

In addition, Harmony will buy waste-water treatment from Martin County, sending its waste water to the MCU plant, which will treat it, then resell it to Harmony as irrigation water.

“So we recycle everything we bought from Martin County Utilities,” he says. “We’ll also be able to improve the drainage for South Fork High School and the Foxwood development at no cost to them…and they do have drainage problems there.”

Some Foxwood residents, whose development abounds the Pratt-Whitney Road, have criticized Harmony’s request for a density increase from one unit per 20 acres, which is its current zoning, to an average of 1.5 units per acre. Foxwood is zoned at one unit per two acres.

“Our plans call for the same density as Foxwood on the adjacent land to the south,” Kenny says. “On the east will be conservation land with no houses at all.” Harmony’s most dense area will be four units per acre, he says, which is near its commercial zone at the Bridge Road/Pratt-Whitney Road intersection..

“If you look at the CRAs (Community Redevelopment Areas, of which Hobe Sound is one) the density permitted there is 11.2 units (per acre),” he says, “and they also would allow four-story buildings on Bridge Road, which I just don’t think is right—probably because I grew up there and don’t want to see that—but that’s the way it is.”

By comparison to Hobe Sound, then, Harmony Ranch is “low density,” Kenny says, along with Atlantic Ridge, Canopus Sound, and the Hobe Sound Polo Club, all bordering Bridge Road, with Jonathan Dickinson State Park to the south.

“Hobe Sound has pretty much encapsulated itself with low-density (developments),” he adds, and an advantage to approving Harmony’s development would be to “lock in” that low density. “You’ll know what it’s going to be, where it’s going to be, how many people, and no one can come in down the road and change that,” Kenny says.

Promise of keeping jobs, creating jobs should be priority

The most important factor to consider, Kenny says, is the increase in employment opportunities, not just from the construction that would eventually end in 20 years, but in keeping Martin County businesses in Martin County by providing options for expansion and by attracting new business here.

“We’re talking now to a Martin County business that needs to expand, but they’re looking for a building that’s 100,000 square feet larger than the Super WalMart in Stuart,” he says. “There’s no building that large in Martin County, and not only that, there’s no place that one can be built, not with the fiber-optics they need, not with the natural gas they need, so what will they do? They’ll have to move out of Martin to expand.”

Harmony also has been talking with a major company that wants to consolidate its offices from throughout the state, but it, too, would require a building with too large a footprint to be easily found here.

“And that company already has a lot of employees who live in Hobe Sound,” he says. “If they relocate their corporate office here, then those employees have less of a commute.”

Decreasing employee commute time increasingly carries more weight among urban planners than in the past in determining environmental impact and in improving overall quality of life. “That’s why major employers look for a complete package,” Kenny says, “so that their employees can live close by.”

Those three words, quality of life, are the words most often spoken when locals talk about the impact of Harmony Ranch on Hobe Sound.

“What I don’t think those of us with jobs think about enough are those who have no job,” Kenny says, “or those of us with jobs who don’t know when we’ll be next to have to live on $275 a week, or have to leave this county just to work. What about their quality of life?”

Providing opportunities for Martin County’s children a critical need

He says he thinks also about the 17,000 children currently enrolled in Martin County schools. “I’m sure their parents probably want them to make their homes in Martin County, but how many will be able to do that after they graduate,” he asks. “Not many, unless they’re planning on living with their parents.”

An exodus of middle-class families already has begun, he asserts. “You know, just a few years ago, people were clamoring for more affordable housing in Martin County,” he says. “Housing prices were sky-high, and who could afford to buy a 20-acre lot to build a house? Now, prices have dropped, and there are plenty of affordable houses, but you’ve got to have a job in order to buy one.”

A formidable opponent are the 340 residents of Jupiter Island, he adds. “We all know that the people who live on that island want nothing to change,” he says, “and I don’t expect to get a lot of support from the businesses in Hobe Sound who depend on Jupiter Island to survive. I understand that, but Martin County has a lot more to think about than just what Jupiter Island likes or dislikes.”

Which is more important, Kenny asks. “I don’t have the genes that allows me to live on that island,” he says, “and I don’t care about that. What I care about is the future of this county, what’s good for the people who live and work here, and what we need to do to ensure the futures of our children, so that they can afford to live here, too. That’s what I care about.”