Cable ski park on its way to County Commission

Arguments fall on both sides of the issue as to whether or not justification exists to allow construction of a high-tech, motorized-cable water-ski park on Bridge Road between the Turnpike and Interstate 95. The Martin County Growth Management Department, whose mandate is to analyze proposals requiring changes to the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan, said, “No,” but also conceded that their analysis was “subjective” and “conservative” and that the ski park “might be a good utilization of that parcel of land.”

After listening to the staff’s analysis, as well as to rebuttal arguments from local designer Don Cuozzo representing the developer, and hearing public comments at its March 15 meeting, the Local Planning Agency said, “Yes,” in a 3-2 vote that kept the proposal alive.

The final say will come April 17 at a public hearing before the Martin County Board of County Commissioners.

Jim Moir, the District 4 representative on the planning agency, was the most insistent that if the proposed amendments are approved to allow a free-standing public services district, which currently is permitted only for industrial sites, that a precedent with “unforeseen consequences” could result—the basis of his dissenting vote.

“This expressway-oriented piece of property is being used as a fulcrum to leverage the urban services onto the preferred section of property,” he said, “to develop the park on an otherwise unpermittable piece of property.”

The 114-acre parcel, bound by Florida’s Turnpike, I-95, and Bridge Road, includes 1,320 feet on Bridge Road already zoned for Expressway Oriented Transient Commercial Service Center (EOTCSC) land use—which allows construction of a restaurant, gas station and hotel—and a 24-acre, man-made lake. The remaining 52 acres are zoned for agricultural, of which approximately 30 acres are protected wetlands.

The developers, Jennifer King and Marcel Mullet of Palm Beach Gardens, want to build the park in two phases: The first phase will be an indoor-outdoor skateboard park, cabins, and RV and water park on the northern parcel, before building a gas station, hotel, and restaurant on the south end of the property with the EOTCSC zoning.

“They should develop that expressway-oriented property first…build the gas station, the restaurant, the hotel first,” Moir said, in order to be in compliance with the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan. “I am not personally in favor of any urban services outside the urban services boundary, but with the expressway zoning, we don’t have any choice about it. It’s already there.”

To build the water park, the county commission must first approve the developers’ request for a Future Land Use Map (FLUM) change from agricultural and Expressway Oriented Transient Commercial Service Center to a new land use designation, which would be called “Extreme Sports Water Ski Park and Hotel;” and approve text amendments for the new land use designation, as well as allow the establishment of a freestanding Urban Service District.

After the text amendments and map changes are approved, the way is clear for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) that provides the plan specifics for the development of the site.

Richard Lawton, the county planner who submitted the report, said that none of the four criteria for making a land use change were met by the applicant, and that the isolation of the parcel that is surrounded entirely by agricultural lands would contribute to urban sprawl.

Cuozzo argued that construction of I-95 itself constituted a significant change to that parcel of land, which the county failed to acknowledge. Had they done so, he said, the first criteria would be met.

Lawton also charged that the language in the proposals “lacked specificity,” therefore, the county could not verify that adequate buffers existed, that building heights would not be limited to four stories, or that at least 30% of the property would be left as open space, as required by the comp plan.

Cuozzo asserted that the major roadways and their rights-of-way provide more than adequate buffering. “We have no neighbors,” he said, “except the Turnpike and I-95.” The PUD site plan will give the specifics of building heights, which Cuozzo “guaranteed” would not exceed the county’s four-story limit and that also must receive commission approval.

“There’s no issue with open space,” he added. “Just considering the lake and the wetlands you’re talking about at least 60% open space, and I’d estimate that it’s going to be 65%-80% when we’re done with the PUD. I mean, that’s obvious, if you just look at the aerial (of the parcel). It’s open space.”

The county’s report also stated that the site would become “a destination” rather than a “service” site for travelers on I-95, contrary to the intent of the expressway-oriented zoning, which Cuozzo insisted would make the park an asset to the county, not a detriment.

“We’re talking about small potatoes here,” he added, not like a major Disney tourist attraction. “The ski park will draw about 15,000 visitors a year. They’ll come here, spend money, and leave happy….The county gets a tourist attraction without spending a dime. No taxpayer money is being spent. No state incentives. This is all privately funded.”

Jim Haley, LPA representative from District 2, said that he “had no problem” with the park, but was concerned that the Growth Management Staff did not recommend transmittal of the amendments to the county commission. He asked Lawton if there was “any way or any wording” that could be altered to change the report’s outcome, and Lawton replied that the staff is bound by law, and there was nothing he could see that could be changed. Haley voted against transmittal.

LPA Chairman Conrad Damon, III, John Leighton III, and Barbara Essenwine all approved transmittal. Leighton called the 50 or so acres of agriculturally zoned land a “de minimus” amount, especially considering the positive attributes of the ski park. Essenwine concurred, but was particularly mindful that when her children were young, the up-and-coming sport was soccer, which few people played. “Now, we have a new up-and-coming sport,” she added, and hoped that the county would approve the park to encourage new recreational and sports activities for youth. She also applauded the young couple’s entrepreneurship spirit “in these tough economic times.”

Damon admitted that when he first saw the report he got one impression, then after hearing everyone’s comments, he’d changed his mind.

“This is a ‘no-brainer’,” he said, “….and if this is against our law, then we need to change the law.”