Polo Club’s proposed plans offer unique approach to gain density

A county planner’s endorsement, an agency member’s praise and a designer’s professional Power-Point presentation at the county’s Local Planning Agency meeting March 17 nearly fell short of convincing that agency to send the Hobe Sound Polo Club’s plans on their way in the next step toward governmental approval—all for the lack of a second.

Following a motion by planning agency vice chair Conrad Damon to approve the Polo Club’s request to change its zoning and master site plans on 1,757 acres it owns north of Bridge Road in Hobe Sound, silence hung in the air of the county’s administrative chambers like a dense fog.

Just prior to his motion, Damon had pronounced: “This sounds like a win-win; it sounds like an excellent project.”

The agency members had listened and queried presenters for more than an hour. Martin County senior planner Clyde Dulin endorsed the project. Developer representative and project designer Morris Crady of Lucido & Associates boasted about the developer’s plans to build a water flow-way to enhance drainage into the south fork of the St. Lucie River at no cost to taxpayers. Jonathon Dickinson and Atlantic Ridge parks manager Mark Nelson applauded the developer’s water restoration project and its promise to create another segment in a trail connecting Jonathon Dickinson and the Atlantic Ridge state parks.

With no second to Damon’s motion forthcoming, followed by a pause that neared discomfort, LPA Chair Barbara Essenwine handed the gavel to LPA member Jim Moir, so she could second the motion herself. The final vote tallied 3-1 in favor of granting approval to the land-use change, with Moir as the lone dissenting voice.

The next step in the approval process and the second public hearing will be at the April 12 meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, where the developers will ask to have their permit applications “transmited” to the state Department of Community Affairs for further review by it and its multitude of county agencies.

The developer’s objective is to garner county and state approval of a land-use change to reconfigure the 1,456-acre luxury development of polo grounds currently platted with 50 lots of 20 acres each—the required lot size for property zoned as agricultural—to lots that will vary in size from two to 80 acres, as well as to designate its undeveloped 452 acres at the north end of its current development as agricultural ranchette, allowing one unit per every five acres.
Potentially, this would provide a total of 320 units on the property that originally was approved for 50 homes, a clubhouse, stables and other supporting infrastructure for its four polo fields, but developers will seek to cap the total number of units at 121. They stipulated that cap as part of their text amendment application to make it binding.

Crady explained that current market conditions are not conducive for attracting only those with the means to purchase 20-acre lots, and the redesign would allow the owners more flexibility without increasing their allowed density.

Currently, a 75-acre strip at the far north of the property is zoned rural density, permitting one unit per two acres. It also falls within the secondary urban services district, which would result in the county being required to supply public services, including water and sewer, to those lots should developers build homes on that portion of their property.

The developer has committed instead to withdrawing that portion of its holdings from the urban services district and to redesign the water flow-way and build a polishing pond within a 130′ easement that would improve water quality as it re-establishes a historical water flow between the wetlands of the Atlantic Ridge State Park and the St. Lucie River watershed.

“As the property now stands,” explained Crady, during an interview at his office last week, “it completely blocks this flow of water, because of the way the land—which originally was all wetlands—was drained and planted back then, probably around the early ’70s.”

Ditches were dug for drainage to create viable land for an orange grove, which has resulted in the land becoming slightly elevated, thus damming waterflow within the boundaries of the Atlantic Ridge State Park that abuts the Polo Club’s eastern boundary. “It just stacks the water right up,” Park Manager Nelson told agency members, “flooding that portion of the park during rainy season and affecting the types of plants and such that can grow there.” Nelson also said that not only would the flow-way be a boon to the health of the river and to the park, but less density at that end of the development would reduce the number of wells drawing water and the number of septic tanks that are close to the preserve’s boundary. “We don’t want to see 36 homes that close to our boundary,” he added.

The estimated cost to build the flow-way is approximately $250,000, according to Crady, who said that another “step-down” flow-way also would be built along the western boundary of the development that would empty into the polishing pond before being discharged into a ditch that leads to the watershed. Along that western flow-way, plans also call for a 25′-wide public trail that would connect Atlantic Ridge to Bridge Road.

“We hope to continue that trail through the Canopus Sound development (which lies directly south of the Polo Club) all the way to Jonathon Dickinson State Park,” said Crady, who also is the designer on the Canopus project.

After the flow-way is constructed, it will be maintained in perpetuity by the Hobe-St. Lucie Conservancy District that encompasses the Polo Club property. As a special tax district, the conservancy has the power to raise its own revenue for water conservation projects from Polo Club landowners and others within its district. No funds will be taken from current county or state budgets to maintain the flow-way, Crady added.

Ownership of the 75-acre strip will not be transferred to the state park or to the county, Crady said, but will remain part of the development. Nelson told the planning agency that the park does not have the funds to build the flow-way, so they are not seeking—nor do they want—ownership of it.

In defending the project’s application for rezoning the Polo Club as agricultural ranchette, Crady reminded the agency members that the overall development will have numerous large lots, including 80-acre, 20-acre and 10-acre lots suitable for farming, pasturing or ranching.

“As a matter of fact,” he added, “you could say we’re actually protecting the agricultural use of the land.”

The Polo Club developers are pushing to have the Board of County Commissioners vote for transmittal of their applications for land-use changes to the state Department of Community Affairs, even if they are not 100% sold on the project as it stands, in order to meet the mandated timelines to appear before the county commissioners for final approval by September.

Crady will face opposition among some county commissioners though, and a pivotal vote is likely to come from Commissioner Patrick Hayes of District 3, which includes Hobe Sound and the Hobe Sound Polo Club. Hayes said in a March 30 interview that he is “considering voting for transmittal in order to continue the review process,” but he also intends to continue discussions with the developer, whom he would like to see donate not only the 75 acres designated now to construct a flow-way, but to donate also a larger portion of the 1,757-acre lot to the state in order to restore natural wetlands and a natural flow-way.

“All that would require would be to plug up those canals, let the land flood and allow nature to take its course,” Hayes said, “but having flooded land on that end of their property is probably not what the developers want….I don’t have a problem giving them (the developers) the density they’re wanting, but the people should get something in return, something more than what they’ve been offered so far.”