Why Talk about Jupiter Island?

Why Talk about Jupiter Island?

Before answering that question, allow me to correct two mistakes made in the 4-part series, “Jupiter Island on a Bumpy Road:”  First, Nathaniel Reed sold his 60 percent share of the Jupiter Island Club to its members in 1996, not in the late ’80s, as published; and the town newsletter, Island News, is not Village News. Sorry about that.

Should you spot other factual mistakes, please email a correction to barbara@martincountycurrents.com.

So, why write about Jupiter Island? That’s a question that cropped up in all kinds of ways — in chats while in check-out lines, in phone calls, texts, and emails: “Who the heck cares about Jupiter Island, except maybe the people who live there?”

Writing about this little town of 900 or so on this little island (that contributes about a third of the county’s ad valorem tax revenue) can well illustrate lessons to be learned right now in real time for all Martin Countians, not just for Jupiter Island.

The first lesson is one you likely learned while in a middle-school civics class: You don’t abdicate your duty to a properly functioning democracy just because the U.S. is a republic that elects representatives.

Attending local governmental meetings, or regularly watching their videos, is part of the inferred contract that comes with citizenship. The key word is “regular.” What you lose between meetings spells the difference between being truly informed and being self-delusional about what’s happening.

The First Lesson Recap
Jupiter Island commissioners routinely bend over backwards to make sure they have an informed constituency.

In the recent controversy over revisions to their waterfront setback line, they undertook legitimate, thorough studies by experienced engineers, then presented those reports in person to answer questions, before making amendments to the town’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan and its land development regulations.

The town sent agendas in advance of their meetings and a town newsletter that recapped and forewarned residents of the topics being discussed. The setback line was a topic listed on nine agendas discussed at nine public meetings, with actions covered by the town’s newsletter, all before the setback-line revisions became part of the town code in 2019.

Despite this extraordinary effort, one couple said they weren’t notified, so didn’t know about the town’s decision to move the island’s rear-yard setbacks – or the effect of moving the line – so after a development application was submitted for review, they sued the town for an improper notification .

Was the town responsible for not forcing them to read the agendas or newsletters? Should the town commission have required attendance at meetings?

This one couple, and around five or six neighbors in the same 300 block with some still-undeveloped parcels, simply abdicated their responsibility as citizens to pay attention – until it affected them directly.

Yes, that’s typical human nature, but Jupiter Island residents generally do not consider themselves “typical.”

What’s really sad is that one of their own town commissioners, Penelope Townsend, who sat in every meeting, listened to every report, apparently without asking questions, said during the Nov. 16 commission that she and the entire commission “don’t know what they don’t know” about the effect of moving the setback line – although the location of the new line was shown on satellite photos of the beach.

They expected their staff to understand all the political ramifications of commission decisions and to give them answers to the questions they failed to ask. In advance.

Townsend also implied during the Nov. 16 meeting that the reason the line was moved was only to accommodate one homeowner, Jane Doggett, who previously lived at 303 S. Beach Road.

The Doggett house bore the most egregious impact of the old 2000 waterfront setback line: It went through the middle of the home.

It was not discussed further during that meeting, because the mayor denied Townsend’s allegation immediately. No, it was not the Doggett house, Pidot said. The town faced 11 variance requests in 2018. It was obviously prudent, more transparent, and would provide more consistency and fairness to look seriously at revising the setback line as a whole, instead of continuing the town’s piecemeal approach.

Before the commission could move the entire line, however, the commissioners had to consider that the beach had changed significantly over the past 21 years due to its beach restoration program.

Their beach manager, engineer John Duchock, reported that in 2019 alone, more than 1 million cubic yards of sand were added to the beach from Martin County’s dredging projects. The program has caused the width of the beach to grow by more than 180′, according to his report.

Duchock recommended to the town commission that revisions to the waterfront setback line be considered every five years, instead of waiting another 20 years. Beach conditions change; erosion never stops; and sea level rise is real.

The decision on the validity of the 2019 waterfront setback line will be decided in circuit court, either by a judge’s ruling on petitions for summary judgment Dec. 17 or by a trial in April.

It will not be decided through public outcry, and that’s the lesson Jupiter Island should learn from Martin County.

Find the Hidden Agendas
Understanding the underlying motives of individuals is not always as easy as it sounds, in part due to “White Hat bias.” We give white hats figuratively to good guys like nurses and firefighters without their having to earn our trust first.

In Martin County especially, we consider any environmental activist a White Hat engaged in a noble fight against Dark Hat developers.

They’re effective at winning our support, including monetary, because we give White Hats the benefit of the doubt. We don’t question their motives – even when we’re slapped in the face by incontrovertible evidence of unethical or illegal activities.

It’s how White Hat environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla wreaked havoc – is still wreaking havoc – in Martin County, but her true motives for shutting down the Lake Point Restoration project wasn’t found until a public records request.

The result revealed a private email to a commissioner conducting business on a private computer with a private email account that told a commissioner that she “could get a better deal” for Martin County with a new contract.

The environment was not even a consideration, according to the 2015 court record.

Following the same playbook, the 300-block protestors in the Jupiter Island controversy formed a new environmental organization, Jupiter Island Forever, ostensibly to protect the sand dunes, the vegetation, and the turtle nests of Jupiter Island’s undeveloped parcels, including those that already held approved development applications.

The dunes, the beach, the vegetation, the turtles were never mentioned in their private emails. Instead, they talk about the probable lack of the new 300-block landowners’ “suitability” for membership in Jupiter Island Club, and even that a denial for construction of a beach house might discourage them from building on Jupiter Island at all.

You don’t need a law degree to see the town’s vulnerability here. Fortunately for Jupiter Island, however, one of the most respected attorneys in the eastern U.S. is its mayor.

Should even one member among the families who bought parcels in the 300-block over the past year be of the Jewish or other faith, it seems they’ve now got ammunition aplenty to file a federal housing discrimination lawsuit against the town.

And when Jupiter Island Forever founder Adena Testa warned commissioners about “the challenges” that Jupiter Island was facing, the mayor tried to get her to name even one challenge.

It seemed obvious then she was speaking between the lines about club members losing control of the town commission and administration – revealed only by uncovering those secret emails. Now, they’re in print and very much in the open.

Jupiter Island’s dilemma will not end tomorrow (Dec. 13) with the town commission’s decision whether to uphold or reverse the development applications they’ve already approved. That decision, however, will say a lot about their ethics.