MARTIN COUNTY — Off Pratt Whitney Road in southern Martin County, a bumpy dirt road leads to staples of Florida nature: alligators swimming in marshes, wood storks stretching their wings and pine trees anchoring a flat landscape.
The unpaved road also leads to unnatural signs of human life: a makeshift shooting range, weathered camping trailers and dspanmspanged wetlspannds that have been degraded into manmade mudding venues for pickup trucks and four-wheelers.
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The nearly-9,000-acre area, known as the Palm Beach Heights section of Pal Mar, historically has been used for hunting and recreation, but an uptick in private land ownership in the past 1½ years has caught the attention of county code-enforcement and environmental officials.
Unauthorized buildings have sprung up, wells have been dug and pockets of land have been cleared without permits across the ecologically sensitive landscape. It’s all elicited a crackdown on code violations, according to the county.
The first formal notices were served in July.
“Although the land was divided into parcels in the 1960s, the plat was never recorded, and infrastructure, such as roads, was never constructed by the developer,” then-Deputy County Administrator Don Donaldson told landowners in a Jan. 27 warning. “Therefore, development rights that typically apply to parcels within a recorded plat do not exist within this area.”
Ten notices of violations — mostly for improper storage of camping equipment such as trailers, cooking grills, tents and generators — have been issued, and more could be coming “with ongoing investigations continuing,” according to county spokesperson Martha Ann Kneiss.
Landowners face fines of up to $1,000 per day if they don’t comply.
But the county’s concerns over Pal Mar go far beyond a handful of code violations.
The Palm Beach Heights area is a checkerboard of private and public parcels, mostly ranging from a quarter-acre to 1 acre. The ambiguous, unmarked boundary lines, and an uptick in recreational activity and development, have impacted public lands, according to county officials.
‘They’re going to love it to death’
Michael Yustin, senior project manager for the county Ecosystem Division, illustrated the issue one recent morning as he walked over a stump where a pine tree once stood. It had been bulldozed to create an unpermitted dirt road on public land more than a year earlier, video shows.
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The road leads to an apparent camping site and borders a makeshift shooting range with targets set up in front of an unpermitted, manmade berm, according to Yustin. Moreover, code-enforcement maps and documents show structures such as sheds and mobile homes with wooden porches have been built on public property across Palm Beach Heights.
“They’re looking for a place where they can recreate, but they’re going to love it to death and destroy it,” Yustin said of the landowners.
Uptick in private landownership
Tammy Crowe purchased her half-acre property in Pal Mar in March to go hunting, camping and four-wheeling on the weekends, she said. She believed landowners couldn’t build permanent structures such as concrete-slab houses, she said.
Although she has not received a violation notice for her property, the notices issued to her neighbors say otherwise.
“Some of the ‘structures’ that I’ve seen out there … they’re still movable, they’re not permanent. They could be put onto a trailer and pulled out of there,” she said.
Crowe and her neighbors remain confused by the county’s development codes but have had few questions answered about what they’re allowed to do with their properties, she said.
“You can have a hunting blind or a tree stand, and you can have all this other stuff, but you can’t have X, Y and Z,” Crowe said. “Are we allowed to have things or are we not?”
Crowe bought her property from Stuart-based real estate company Be A Man Buy Land, she said, the same company that sold land to all 10 landowners who were cited for violations, deed documents show.
The company website advertises recreational and residential properties that can be used to “hunt, fish, shoot, four-wheel, camp or build.”
The company recently had more than 600 properties listed for sale statewide. All but two of the 85 Martin County properties are in Palm Beach Heights and range from $5,000-$75,000.
Owner Zach Gazza did not respond to requests for comment.
Gunfire noise, Trailside complaints
Martin County Sheriff’s Office Detective Robert M. Smith, who has patrolled Pal Mar for about eight years, said he’s dedicated more time to the area, especially in the last year, because of an increase in complaints of gunfire by residents of the neighboring Trailside residential community.
“They’re allowed to shoot on their property … as long as they’re doing it in a safe manner,” Smith said.
And there’s nothing law enforcement can do to control the noise, he added.
But one notable instance of criminal activity that’s appeared, or allegedly was connected to Palm Beach Heights, was a Christmas Day incident in the neighboring Trailside community.
Deputy Jason Slay discovered a bullet hole in a Trailside resident’s garage door, which faces the Palm Beach Heights area, according to the sheriff’s report. The bullet had cut through a steel beam and two Rubbermaid totes before stopping in a comforter.
The incident wasn’t reported for six days, which made finding a suspect extremely unlikely, Smith said.
“Short of a confession, it’s going to be very difficult to prosecute,” Smith said. “It was obviously a high-powered rifle round.”
Sharon Massaglia, vice president of Trailside Homeowners Association, said she hears gunfire from her home all day on the weekends, which spooks the 11 horses at her private boarding facility.
In June, gunfire noise caused one of her boarded horses, a thoroughbred named Flying Approval, to kick Massaglia in the arm with his hind leg, she said. She couldn’t work for three days.
“I grew up with guns. I have no problem with guns. But there’s a time and place for everything,” she said. “(The noise) makes my job super dangerous.”
For her part, Crowe, the Pal Mar property owner, said that if Trailside residents purchased their lots next to a hunting area, they should expect to hear the noises that come along with it.
“Shooting has been going on forever over there,” Crowe said. “You bought in Trailside, which backs right up to a hunting property. So there’s going to be gunfire.”