Part 3: Jupiter Island on a Bumpy Road
Taking a Closer Look at a Town’s Competing Interests
On the surface, not much seems similar between the still-ongoing legal morass Martin County caused itself that began in 2012 and the ruckus that swirls around the Town of Jupiter Island now. The details, however, reveal the similarities … and the potential threats.
Martin County’s journey began with the election of Jupiter Island resident, Anne Scott, to the county commission in 2012 that shifted power on the board, resulting in the election of county Commissioner Sarah Heard as chair, followed by Scott.
Scott’s opponent in the county election, former Commissioner Patrick Hayes, a staunch environmental advocate with a history of working to restore the Loxahatchee River, was smeared for his misunderstood attempts to wrangle concessions from developers that would increase the movement of water south through Martin County to the Loxahatchee and beyond.
He also supported property rights, including those of Lake Point Restoration’s, thus he was labeled a developer’s lackey throughout Scott’s campaign. She easily defeated him.
The new power majority then of Heard, Scott, and former commissioner Ed Fielding, after declaring Lake Point’s operation “environmental heresy,” led the county to ignore disastrously Lake Point’s state and federal permits, to openly violate the county’s four-year-old contracts and agreements involving Lake Point, to accept payment for a Lake Point application then fail to honor it, and to help fan the public’s ire against Lake Point with what was later proved in court to be a misrepresentation of facts and numerous outright fabrications by environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla.
Martin County voters booted Scott out of office in 2016 after one term.
Scott re-entered the political arena this year for a seat on Jupiter Island’s town commission, where she had served six years previously. Apparently, Scott saw the controversy swirling around a new landowner’s application to the town’s Impact Review Committee in January 2021 to build a beach house on undeveloped land as a newly opened door of opportunity.
Scott’s campaign during the March election focused on her allegations of the island’s “out-of-control development,” moving the waterfront setback line unnecessarily, a “heavy-handed” administration, and the need to take ownership of county-owned S. Beach Road, according to a TCPalm interview.
Scott’s attempt to unseat Mayor Whitney Pidot was unsuccessful, but she continued her political machinations in a largely behind-the-scenes role.
After Town Attorney John “Skip” Randolph told the town’s Impact Review Committee members that their review of the development application for 310 S. Beach Road must be based solely on meeting the town’s pre-set criteria and on the 2019 waterfront setback line, Scott began a campaign to get Randolph fired for not allowing objections to the revised setback line.
In one of Scott’s emails June 25 to new Jupiter Island Commissioner Michael Brooks’ private email account uncovered through a public records request and now in the court record, she said, “Mr. Randolph often has been discourteous to and dismissive of residents while refusing to answer their concerns. This is unacceptable.”
Her negative review of Randolph’s performance and justifications for his firing filled a page and a half.
This wasn’t the first time Scott revealed her philosophy that political considerations bear more weight than having the courage to advise commissioners and committee members not to make decisions that contravene the law. She took the same tack in 2012.
Scott joined Heard in the decision to reject Assistant County Attorney David Acton’s application for the county’s top legal spot after County Attorney Stephen Fry announced his retirement.
Acton had successfully defended the county previously against multiple lawsuits filed by Stuart attorney Virginia Sherlock, Maggy Hurchalla’s personal attorney. He also had earned a reputation for standing his ground, even during public commission meetings.
Instead, the county commission majority chose attorney Michael Durham, who represented them during the county’s most litigious four-year period (2012-2016). From there, the legal department doubled in size. Then, in 2016, after Scott lost her seat, Durham purportedly was asked to resign.
Durham now is the personal attorney for Jupiter Island Commissioner Michael Brooks, and will defend him in the public records lawsuit filed by attorney Ethan Loeb on behalf of his clients, “The Good Neighbors of 300 Block.”
The Development of the 300 Block
Without question, the landowners who purchased their properties in the 300 block of S. Beach Road relied on the 2019 waterfront setback line that allowed construction of a small beach cottage where none had existed previously.
Jupiter Island Compound owns the parcel at 310, and Dolphin Suite owns the parcel at 322.
All the properties, including another purchased in January 2021 for $12 million, were zoned for residential development before and after the setback line was revised.
Jupiter Island’s residential zoning allows construction of one primary residence and two accessory buildings with living quarters on the same parcel, regardless of whether they’re built east or west of the road, or if the road splits the parcel into two lots – it remains one parcel.
Prior to purchasing their parcels in the 300 block, however, the new residents confirmed with both the town’s building director and beach manager exactly what could be built east of the roadway on the ocean side. The owners did their due diligence.
“These owners – the Ronerts, the Humphreys, the Feldstines – did nothing wrong,” said Loeb in his presentation Nov. 16 to the town commission. “They followed the rules, and all they want to do now is what they were told they COULD do – build a beach house on their own property.”
Every day’s delay adds attorney fees and the inflationary rise in the cost of materials, plus the extraordinary costs associated with a trial that could possibly reach close to $100 million should the town (or the court) overturn its decision to revise the waterfront setback line, or the town commission denies their development applications after the IRC once approved them both.
Town commissioners were warned at the Nov. 16 meeting that the town’s $5 million insurance policy to cover errors and omissions would be grossly insufficient even for a $15 million settlement should the town be sued under the Bert J. Harris Act for a taking of landowners’ property rights.
Even that “best-case scenario” would mean an additional $30,000 added to every resident’s tax bill, according to Town Manager Michael Ventura in an email this week to update residents. The costs to the town thus far already have exceeded $200,000, he added.
Apparently, the Testas and the members of Jupiter Island Forever refuse to back down. The court-ordered mediation Wednesday resulted in an impasse, according to the court.
It’s nothing short of sad, particularly since Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection granted the 310 parcel its required DEP permit for building on the waterfront, even after investigating the allegations by the Testas.
DEP scientists said in their permit that construction poses “no significant adverse impacts to the dunes/beach, or to adjacent properties … the work will not adversely affect nesting sea turtles, their hatchlings, or their habitat …”
In response, the Testas’s new organization, Jupiter Island Forever, engaged its own environmental expert to counter the DEP permit, just as Martin County opponents did in the Lake Point Restoration lawsuit nearly a decade ago. Clearly, the battle lines are drawn.
Tomorrow is Part 4 of Jupiter Island’s Bumpy Road
– Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
Martin County Currents