Salerno asks, ‘When will our voices count?’

Although Martin County’s Innovation Hub plan completely alters Port Salerno’s Community Redevelopment Area Vision Plan, last updated in 2009, Salerno residents are told, ”It’s not a CRA project, it’s a county plan.” They are sidelined.

When their representative on the CRA Board, Jaime Rolle, asked during the Feb. 26 CRA board meeting how residents could give input on the Innovation Hub plan, she was told by officials, “We have a Facebook page, you can comment there. Or Instagram, or X, or the ‘Request Service’ (portal)…or you can go to the BDB (Business Development Board) meeting this Friday.” The Innovation Hub is not on the BDB agenda.

Although Assistant County Administrator George Stokes told Rolle that the basis of the plan had been in the works since the 1980s, the final version of the Innovation Hub was presented to the Board of County Commissioners this year, on July 11. (Commissioners had directed Stokus to develop the economic recovery plan in 2021.)

Attached to the BOCC’s July 11 agenda, but omitted from the presentation, was a 120-plus page Recommendations Report that illustrated several major Port Salerno projects.

No vote was taken by the BOCC. No public hearing was conducted. The only notice was the agenda listing.

The Port Salerno projects in the attached recommendations report were not discussed when the Innovation Hub plan was first presented a month or so later to the Port Salerno Neighborhood Advisory Committee.

Stokus presented the Innovation Hub plan (again, sans the Port Salerno projects) to the county’s CRA Board for the second time Feb. 26, promising the plan would lift residents out of poverty — singing its praises to the point he sounded like a snake-oil salesman hawking his wares. Or, perhaps, in exasperated desperation.

What those watching the meeting may not realize is that Port Salerno residents say the Innovation Hub projects will irrevocably alter their quality of life. Unlike Stokus and Port Salerno’s District 4 Commissioner Sarah Heard, who say the changes they’re proposing will be positive; many Salerno residents say the changes are destructive.

They also say that’s not the point. The point is that they had zero input into the Innovation Hub, which touts the CRA’s participation in the process.

The controversial projects are familiar to Salerno residents. They first saw them during a 2022 Salerno Neighborhood Advisory Committee meeting when Jupiter developer Corey Crowley presented his own, self-designed “master plan” for Port Salerno. Heard made a rare NAC meeting appearance that night.

The NAC members rejected all of Crowley’s projects — on-street parking on the southern end of Commerce Avenue and its surrounding residential streets to mimic Osceola Street in Stuart; transforming Salerno’s natural, stormwater treatment area behind Basin Seafood into a public park with boardwalks and an amphitheater, plus more public parking; and extending the southern portion of Railway Avenue to intersect with Salerno Road (first proposed in the 2000 CRA plan, but rejected more than a decade ago by environmentalists and declared in September 2023 by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council as “not feasible.”)

Still, those projects did not die. In January 2023, the same Salerno projects were presented as Commissioner Heard’s “priorities for 2023,” as well as during a feasibility study of the projects commissioned by the NAC.

Six months later, they resurfaced as Innovation Hub projects. This month, Stokus requested permission from the BOCC to apply for a Florida Department of Transportation grant to improve Commerce Avenue, considered “the spine” of the Innovation Hub.

His justification to commissioners, however, did not mention the Innovation Hub. Stokus reminded the commissioners that they had designated Commerce Avenue as the Marine Transportation Route in 2018; however, he did not mention that the route for large boats commissioners added in that resolution was down Cove Road to reach Manatee Pocket’s waters, not Commerce.

During the Feb. 26 Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting, Cass pointed out that marine industry experts sitting in the MPO audience had told the MPO that the Marine Transportation Route is no longer needed.

“That boat has sailed,” Cass added, yet only one MPO board member questioned the sudden urgency by the MPO staff to place Commerce Avenue on its priority list for federal funds.

Susan Gibbs Thomas, Indiantown mayor and MPO policy board member, expressed concern that “without community input or buy-in” for the southern end of Commerce Avenue, the entire grant request could be jeopardized, including for the north end where the need is greatest.

Still, the MPO voted to seek funding, inserting Commerce Avenue’s resurfacing, safety, crosswalks, and stormwater drainage project as #8 on its priority list. Commerce Avenue will be widened through a portion of Salerno’s residential area, with on-street parking on both sides and a 10′ wide multi-model path alongside, with shade trees and, apparently, buried power lines to accommodate the Marine Transportation Route — still not being requested by marine industry business owners.

The road will be raised in some portions, according to George Dzama, deputy public works director. When the $3.5 million federal grant is received (the county pledged $1.5 million as a grant match last week), construction will begin on the southern portion from Dominica Terrace to Salerno Road, Stokus told the CRA board. The northern portion lies within the city of Stuart, which seems to explain why Thomas’ concerns about complaints possibly jeopardizing the grant’s northern portion went unheeded.

The Port Salerno CRA Vision Plan shows on-street parking along Railway Avenue after Commerce Avenue merges with Railway. It’s the route residents generally take to access its downtown and its waterfront.

That’s likely because the only voice being heard in Port Salerno is not from a resident. It’s from Jupiter developer Corey Crowley, who first proposed to Heard in 2022 these same Salerno projects along the properties he owns.

So confident that he will get the parking he needs to build his projects, Crowley boasted about it during a Salerno NAC meeting more than once, “because I have Commissioner Heard’s support.” Stokus pointedly reminded the CRA board that he has one boss, County Administrator Don Donaldson, who has five bosses, the five county commissioners.

“When the district commissioner asks you to look at things,” Stokus said, “the staff HAS to do that.”
In Crowley’s Facebook post Feb. 28, he says, “I’ll do what I want when I want how I want,” which seems to be true.

Crowley’s turned his vacant lot along Commerce Avenue into a parking lot for RVs and vans. He claims he’s not getting paid for the privilege, and since they’re not parking overnight, it’s not an RV “park.” Salerno neighbors are incensed.

Code Enforcement Magistrate Paul Nicoletti is weighing Crowley’s argument, and will rule on March 13. Crowley insists that his case will be dismissed before that hearing.

He told Nicoletti that Salerno businesses “love” the new traffic and that Crowley is “developing Port Salerno.” He often says he’s “saving Salerno.”

Crowley may be right. The S.O.S. nonprofit, now with its own office and paid staff, would not have been founded or funded by Cass had Crowley not bullied residents and business owners to sell them their properties. This week, Cass closed on a residential property that Crowley had apparently bid on. It will become a Port Salerno community garden.

Salerno watchers seem truly puzzled that Heard, considered by many to be the doyenne of anti-development efforts on the BOCC, now champions a Jupiter developer’s initiative within her own backyard. To Heard watchers, however, her actions are anything but surprising.

Port Salerno is decidedly a working class community, as is the Village of Indiantown. When Heard refused to listen to the desperate needs and long-held desires of Indiantown residents, they incorporated.

Port Salerno, although once a municipality, likely does not have that option today. They do, however, have Casey Cass, S.O.S., and the grit of hard-working fishermen. They won’t be going away.