Polo Club loses bid to change lot sizes

Two Martin County commissioners, Patrick Hayes and Sarah Heard, took different avenues last week in their approach to development changes at the Hobe Sound Polo Club, but arrived at the same destination—rejection of the developer’s Comprehensive Growth Plan amendments.

Both commissioners joined in the unanimous denial August 30 that would allow the agricultural ranchette designation (one unit per five-acre lot) on the Polo Club’s Bridge Road property (Groves 14) west of Hobe Sound, as well as a proposal to “cluster” a number of two-acre lots on the southern portion of the development.

The developed 1,404-acre portion of the Polo Club’s tract of land is currently zoned agricultural (one unit per 20 acres) and 75 acres of its 452-acre unplatted tract at the far north end of their property is currently designated rural density (one unit per two acres).

The developer had proposed in a text amendment that they would voluntarily “cap” the property’s density at its current level of 121 units, instead of the potential 351 to which they are entitled under current zoning, therefore adding no increase in density to the project overall.

Commissioner Hayes had advised the developers in April to come back to the August commission meeting with a plan for a “significant” contribution to the county of their property between the Atlantic Ridge State Park and the south fork of the St. Lucie River to allow the land’s return to natural wetlands in return for considering the zoning change from agricultural to agricultural ranchette.

The property owners chose not to do that.

Hayes expressed his disappointment at the developer’s decision. “I think we had an extraordinary opportunity here,” he said, to improve water quality and to restore historical water flows to the St. Lucie River. Hayes added that he also could not support the creation of two-acre lots within agricultural ranchette zoning without a set-aside for agriculture, since he also considers “preserving the agricultural lands in western Martin County” as much a priority as environmental restoration.

In his presentation to the commissioners, landscape architect Morris Crady, of Lucido & Associates of Stuart, acknowledged Hayes’ previous suggestion of a land donation, which was followed by public comments from nearly two dozen citizens who had spent an hour outside the county administrative building to protest all westward development in Martin County, including that at the Polo Club.

Their tract of land, once predominately wetlands before it was drained to grow oranges, now is higher than surrounding properties and acts like a dam within the riverine system, blocking natural water flow into the St. Lucie River watershed, according to park officials.

“For the last 100 years we have ditched, drained and diked south Florida to the severe detriment of our water quality, our estuaries, our water supply and our ability to rehydrate our aquifer,” Hayes said. “We’re coming under more and more pressure from the federal government and the state government to do water-cleaning projects that will require significant dollars, but I don’t see any local or state funds coming our way for projects which we’ve neglected for far too long.”

Crady told the commissioners that the two-acre lots “on the border of a state park are more valuable than any potential density increase that could be negotiated at this time,” adding that the property owners “had spent two and a half years working with park officials” and others to create a plan for an environmentally sound, water flow-way and polishing pond on the tract’s northern border that would be “in agreement” with the park’s management plan, but ownership of that property would remain with the the developer.

Crady called construction of the flow-way and polishing ponds “a public benefit.”

“That’s an insult,” said Commissioner Heard. “That ‘flow-way’ is nothing more than a ditch to clean up your own pollution on your own property.”

She also said the clustering of two-acre lots on the southern portion of the property would create “a suburban enclave” at odds with all surrounding properties and would spur a “march toward leapfrog development.”

Heard also said that “numerous inconsistencies and incompatibilities” between the developer’s proposals and the county’s growth plan, in her opinion, were sufficient to deny the transmittal of the applications to the state for further review.

She also expressed her opinion that the text amendment and land use map amendment had to be considered separately, not jointly as the county staff had done, thus the impact of “351 homes, 351 wells and 351 septic tanks” had to be reviewed, although the text amendment capped the number of homes at 121.

In addition, the Local Planning Agency and the Growth Management Department staff recommended moving the secondary urban services boundary off the northern edge of the Polo Club development because of the inherent difficulty in providing water and sewer lines for property bounded by the Atlantic Ridge State Park.

Growth Management Department Planner Harry King confirmed to the commissioners that the two-acre lot size would allow septic tanks and wells. The developers still would need to submit a plan for review, but it would not require any growth plan amendments, added Director Nikki Van Vonno.

“You are forcing us to develop those properties with water and septic tanks on the park’s boundary,” Crady added.

“If that was a gung-ho marketing opportunity,” said Commissioner Ed Fielding, “then you wouldn’t be here today.”