Home News State hearing on Martin County rural-lifestyle land use focuses on compliance, impact

State hearing on Martin County rural-lifestyle land use focuses on compliance, impact

State hearing on Martin County rural-lifestyle land use focuses on compliance, impact

MARTIN COUNTY — A state hearing for a challenge against a controversial land use concluded Wednesday, setting the stage for a ruling in 2023 after the holiday season.

The hearing happened about 2½ months after Palm City resident Donna Melzer filed a challenge against the approval of the rural-lifestyle land use, which allowed for more intense development outside the county urban-service boundary on certain agricultural lands.

Melzer argued the county violated its Comprehensive Plan when the commission approved the land use in a 3-2 vote in September. The land use laid the foundation for the Atlantic Fields project, a luxury golf-course community slated for Hobe Sound approved in tandem with rural lifestyle.

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On Tuesday and Wednesday, Judge Francine Ffolkes of the state Division of Administrative Hearings, oversaw testimony from county staff, land-planning experts and Melzer on the topic.

During opening statements, Martin County Deputy Attorney Elysse Elder argued the land use complies with the county Comprehensive Plan and facilitates “textbook, classic rural development.”

“It provides for a community that allows for clustering, to preserve (agricultural) land, to preserve open space,” Elder said. “It’s better for the environment. It’s better for conservation land. It’s better for water bodies.”

In contrast, Melzer argued the land use is “ambiguous and is not meaningful and predictable,” specifically with regard to density and intensity guidelines.

“Rural lifestyle’s noncompliance (and) ambiguities create impacts that could bust the urban boundary, and the urban boundary is Martin County’s critical planning tool,” Melzer said.

The requirements to utilize the land use, which would allow for a maximum density of 1 unit per 5 acres, include:

  • Properties must be at least 1,000 contiguous acres and located next to the urban-service boundary in unincorporated Martin County.
  • 70% of the property would consist of open space, which includes golf courses and polo fields.
  • Separate property would be put into conservation or an agricultural easement if a project’s density is more intense than 1 unit per 20 acres.

Morris Crady, a land planner with Lucido & Associates who represented developer Tom Hurley during the rural lifestyle approval process, testified the land use was intended to create “an opportunity for a rural environment (with) quiet time, retreat, relaxation.”

“The whole concept was to create an alternative to equestrian and golf, or a combination of all that, that would allow for a rural community on the edge of the urban-service boundary,” Crady said, adding it would create “an equitable-use alternative for property owners.”

Land-planning expert Charles Gauthier, who was called to testify by Melzer, argued rural lifestyle lacks proper data and analysis, in addition to a basis for “land-use need, protection of rural and agricultural lands, and the efficient provision of public facilities and services.”

“I think there would be implementation problems down the road, if this goes into effect. It’s just too loosely drawn,” Gauthier said.

After the conclusion of the hearing, Hurley told TCPalm he believed testimony showed rural lifestyle met the required standards for approval and was compatible with existing rural uses permitted near the urban-service boundary.

“We were really impressed by Judge Ffolkes, who conducted a fair and thorough process,” Hurley, CEO of Becker Holding Co., said. “We’re confident in the case we presented.”

Moving forward, there is a 20-day window for Elder, Melzer and representatives of Hurley to submit proposed orders after the tran of the hearing is filed, which is slated to be complete in about a month. It is unclear when Ffolkes would issue her ruling afterward.

Moreover, Ffolkes in November 2021 conducted a hearing for a challenge against a key element of the Stuart Costco project. City officials objected to her ruling, and a final decision is expected to come from the state Administration Commission in January.


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