Part5: Brown Perfects His Sleight of Hand
WHAT HAPPENED TO INDIANTOWN’S GRAND VISION?
Part 5: Brown Perfects His Sleight of Hand
Indiantown’s vision of what it can be – Indiantown, only better – grew from nearly 20 years of citizen ideas that created a blueprint for the future. Dozens of residents spent hours meeting monthly as the Neighborhood Advisory Committee for Indiantown’s Community Redevelopment Area to write their plan.
Finally, in 2010, the county’s new redevelopment team of Kev Freeman, community development director, and urban planner Edward Erfurt began translating Indiantown’s vision into reality.
After just two years, Indiantown saw the Boys and Girls Club, construction of Carter Park’s first of 40 Habitat for Humanity homes, stormwater drainage for 200 acres of Booker Park, McDonald’s, the Dollar General store, Dunkin’ Donuts and the Village Square II shopping plaza become part of daily life.
All the projects fit into the CRA’s vision and its own identifiable aesthetic – Indiantown, only better.
Progress ended with Indiantown’s plan unfulfilled when the 2012 county commission majority took power and sought to end all CRA programs. They favored countywide projects instead of funding small projects selected by citizens in the historic areas of the county, like Indiantown, that were in dire need of redevelopment and capital investment.
Public outcry saved the CRAs, but the 2012 commission majority cut the funding, which is based on keeping a percentage of the increased revenues as a result of rising property values within the CRAs, not new taxes.
Indiantown’s incorporation meant dissolving its CRA within the county’s structure; however, Indiantown’s new council members sought to reestablish the Indiantown CRA quickly as an initial priority. They directed their planning consultant, Bonnie Landry, to prepare the “findings” (justifying the need for redevelopment) required by the state to establish a new CRA.
When Landry submitted her $4,500 quote to the village, discussion ensued, and some council members questioned the need for a CRA since the previous one had shared the village’s boundaries. “I don’t get it,” said Councilwoman Jackie Clarke. “What’s the point of having both?”
The point is that Indiantown could capture more of the tax revenue going to the county’s general fund to target Indiantown’s CRA redevelopment projects identified by citizens as priorities; CRA projects get the state’s first consideration for funding; special financing opportunities exist for CRA entrepreneurs; more grants are available; plus other advantages simply due to CRA preferences provided in state statutes.
Although the village council already decided they would sit as the CRA board to retain full authority and add two at-large members for citizen input, they scrapped the program altogether after Brown became village manager.
“It’s up to the council; whatever you want to do,” said Village Manager Howard Brown Jr., himself a certified planner, but he offered little more. The facts, which became apparent over time, demonstrate that Brown appeared to want less citizen involvement in charting Indiantown’s course, not more.
That one decision left millions of dollars untapped that could have funded Indiantown’s long-sought CRA plan as never before, and could have easily achieved one of Clarke’s personal objectives – Indiantown beautification.
Although Landry had served as a CRA project manager in the county’s program for seven years, and knew well all of its advantages, she offered little in answer to Clarke’s question, “What’s the point?”
She took Brown’s lead, folded her hands on the table in front of her, sat silent, her eyes blinking. She was now a Brown loyalist.
Later, she would be rewarded.
PATTERNS BEGIN TO EMERGE
Landry had balked at having to write the village’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan as a committee, and Brown likely commiserated with Landry. The 10 members of the Comprehensive Plan Review committee appointed by the council included many Indiantown incorporation leaders, activists and supporters. They were committed to keeping regular meetings, open to the public and informal to encourage public participation, which likely would add time to the project.
Landry reminded council members of the state’s three-year post-incorporation deadline, which needed to be met, and that the Land Development Regulations, opening Indiantown’s door to investors and new jobs, could not be written until the Comp Plan was largely finished.
Although Landry attempted at their first meeting in January 2019 to convince the council the Comp Plan Review Committee was not needed until she completed writing the entire Comp Plan, the council voted to keep the committee intact, to continue as initially planned, and to adjust Landry’s timeline to provide more time.
That was prior to Brown’s official arrival, although he sat in on the meeting where Landry announced her preference to proceed without the review committee.
The council rejected Landry’s proposal and directed her to bring a revised timetable to the next meeting. One week after Brown arrived, council sentiment swung in the opposite direction. They voted to “sunset” the citizen committee.
Despite compelling arguments by council members Guyton Stone and Susan Gibbs-Thomas imploring the council to keep the committee and encouraging Landry to lean on the expertise of its members at no cost to Indiantown as originally planned (and would later be recommended in the Kimley-Horn economic strategy) the vote went against them.
Immediately, Landry’s writing task was simplified, her $110,000 contract remained intact, and Brown had successfully sidelined the most knowledgeable group of Indiantown residents, business owners and land owners with barely a blink.
Landry produced a Comp Plan nine months later that was stricter in many regards than Martin County’s; had topics like sea level rise that were irrelevant in Indiantown; forced developers to have a minimum number of houses on each parcel of land; and combined the zoning and future land use maps into one unworkable map, contrary to Florida statutes, among other issues.
The chamber’s Government Affairs Committee hurriedly dissected the plan chapter by chapter, line by line, with members of the disbanded Comp Plan Review Committee assisting, plus a dozen other chamber members and residents offering comments, suggesting changes, meeting with Landry and Brown, until Landry felt she was finished.
Landry submitted the plan to the state in October 2019, only to discover that she had omitted the village’s mission statement and the Capital Improvement Element that projects the village’s five-year plan for capital improvements. Landry scrambled to add the missing elements.
Indiantown’s Comp Plan was finally approved by the state in December 2019, exactly one year ahead of the state’s deadline.
And this is the point where a pattern begins to emerge.
A PATTERN REVEALS BROWN’S INTENTIONS
Brown continued to keep Landry on the village’s payroll even three months after Indiantown’s new, full-time staff planner, Althea Jefferson, community and economic development director, arrived from Broward County in June 2020.
The Comp Plan was nearly done as the members of the chamber’s Government Affairs Committee again volunteered to dissect the draft land development regulations as written by Calvin, Giordano & Associates (CGA), chosen by the council from among three engineering firms in July 2019.
The proposal by CGA, ranked the highest by staff, stood out significantly from the other firms due to its lower cost by $10,000 to $20,000, and its short nine-month completion time, guaranteeing even state approval within that period.
“This is a no-brainer,” said then-Mayor Guyton Stone, thus CGA was tapped, the $110,000 contract and its nine-month timetable was signed in August 2019 – but with no start date, which went unmentioned by Brown during council deliberations.
The council also likely was unaware that the proposals were not sealed, which requires posting a public date for opening all at the same time, thus prohibiting any firm from knowing what others are bidding.
The council also likely did not realize CGA’s previous connection to their village manager.
“Mr. Brown doesn’t want us to mention Opa-Locka,” said CGA planner Alex David, in a feigned whisper to the council. “I don’t know why .. but we rewrote Opa-Locka’s comprehensive plan ….”
Fifteen months later – a delay blamed on COVID-19 – and a few weeks of intense line-by-line scrutiny by the chamber’s Government Affairs Committee, fixes, comments, suggestions, meetings among village staff, consultants, and residents, and two public hearings (not counting the public launch meeting or the three charrettes) Indiantown celebrated completion of its first land development regulations.
The LDRs did not include code for tiny-house developments or an illustrative form-based code in simple language “…so I don’t have to hire an architect and an engineer to see what I can build in my back yard,” said Linda Schwiesow-Nycum, who spoke at the public launch meeting in November 2019.
The code’s first draft was stricter than Martin County’s, stripped property rights in some cases, changed allowable uses of some landowners’ properties, and did not clearly protect established business owners’ right to expand when zoning was changed by the village.
Eventually, after multiple meetings, Jefferson emailed each member of the chamber’s committee and those who requested it, the “final” version of the LDRs, showing strike-throughs for deleted text and underlines for new text.
The final version also was posted on the village’s website.
The council approved the final version at its public hearing with all the changes included – except, it wasn’t the final version that had been provided to chamber members, landowners or posted on the village’s website.
It did not include all the agreed-upon new language specific to established businesses.
Attached to the agenda was a different version, printed and provided to council members, who had not attended any of the chamber committee meetings, so likely were unfamiliar with landowner issues.
When Jefferson sought final council approval, she did not point out that the version before the council was a different version than the final version posted on the village’s website and that Jefferson personally provided to the public.
The failure to make the agreed-upon corrections could negatively affect landowners in Indiantown, Scott Watson, president of the Indiantown Independence movement and a vocal critic of the village’s change in direction, is one of them.
An unintentional staff error, or deliberate retribution by a vindictive village manager, no one can say definitively; however, Watson has retained legal representation. Indiantown may soon be facing its first court challenge, which could prove costly for the new village.
REWARD FOR MEETING BROWN’S EXPECTATIONS?
Despite their less-than-exemplary performances – or because of them – Brown extended and expanded CGA’s contract and reengaged Bonnie Landry & Associates as a planner.
CGA will now conduct development application reviews to ensure they conform to both the Comp Plan and the LDRs, as well as be responsible for code enforcement. The village also terminated their contract with GFA, the village’s first building department, and awarded that contract to CGA.
Landry will conduct development application reviews to assist Jefferson, since the village anticipates a flood of new development applications with the final LDRs in place, Brown told the council.
Suddenly, the village now has an Economic Development Department (Brown calls it a Division). He has already advertised for an economic development specialist to work for Jefferson.
A clue that an economic development department was in the works came during the September strategic planning session, when Councilman Anthony Dowling called for a separate department for economic development at least half a dozen times during the session.
Jefferson’s title all along has been Community and Economic Development Director; therefore, Brown, who will be able to claim all credit for Indiantown’s economic boom, slid the creation of a separate new department into village government simply using a magician’s distraction technique.
While looking here, something else is going on there.
– Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
Yes, there’s more to the story, so watch for Part 6 How Did Indiantown Get So Far off Track? in the series, WHAT HAPPENED TO INDIANTOWN’S GRAND VISION? on Saturday, April 3.