Environmentalists unsuccessfully ask Stuart to withdraw its defense against Costco challenge
STUART — Area environmentalists are calling on the city to accept a judge’s decision that a key aspect of the proposed Costco project was approved improperly.
Friends of the Everglades, VoteWater and River Kidz are among the organizations and individuals that contacted city commissioners recently, asking them to rescind their objection.
They cite a memo from attorney Richard Grosso, who argues that the city can withdraw its objection without risking a lawsuit from the developer.
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Grosso represents Stuart resident Robin Cartwright, who filed the state challenge, claiming Stuart assigned the incorrect land use for the project: neighborhood special district. The City Commission amended its Comprehensive Plan in order to make the land-use change.
The Nov. 9 memo — forwarded to city commissioners by VoteWater Executive Director Gil Smart — claims the city doesn’t face liability because the Comprehensive Plan change never was finalized by the state.
City Attorney Mike Mortell refuted that argument, citing a state law that requires the city to give a developer a final decision on a proposed project within 180 days after a public hearing. The project has been in limbo for 14 months.
“(The judge) was so adamant in what she stated. I personally, and I know others, do not understand why the city is fighting this as hard as they are,” Cartwright said.
The City Commission approved the 49-acre project on South Kanner Highway in August 2021. It would comprise of a Costco Wholesale Corp. store, an 18-pump gas station, 378 apartments and stores and restaurant space.
A final decision on the city’s land-use assignment is expected Dec. 13 from the state Administration Commission. The commission — consisting of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — delayed a decision in August. Moody made comments appearing to side with the city.
Developer Joe Marino, of M&M Realty, said he found it “strange” for Cartwright to be asking the city to stop the legal process when she filed the challenge that started it, he told TCPalm in a statement.
“The local people who support the project, the city staff that conducted the reviews and the city commissioners who unanimously approved it over two public hearings and hours and hours of testimony deserve to see the legal process completed and the final order issued,” Marino said.
A representative for Costco could not be reached Monday.
The call for withdrawing the appeal was discussed at the Nov. 14 City Commission meeting, initiated by Commissioner Campbell Rich. Citing Grosso’s memo, he said the commission should formally discuss its options, such as withdrawing the appeal, at its Nov. 28 meeting.
But Rich’s call for more discussion failed, 2-2, with only he and Commissioner Christopher Collins voting in favor. Commissioner Eula Clarke was absent.
The split vote further reinforced the shift in the commission dynamic, brought about with the election of Rich and Collins, who both ran on slow-growth platforms. The Costco project was approved unanimously under the previous commission.
Rich was “very disappointed” by the vote, he said, especially since the city development staff which oversaw the approval process has since left and is unable to answer questions on the issue.
“To me, it is not unreasonable to ask my fellow commissioners to discuss all the opportunities that lie in front of us right now,” Rich told TCPalm. “They’re not saying no just to me, they’re saying no to all of the people who voted for me.”
Collins could not be reached for comment, despite attempts by phone and text.
Mayor Troy McDonald, like Mortell, disagrees with the judge’s ruling, which they say focused on the project itself instead of only the land use.
“I believe we did it right. I believe the judge erredMcDonald said. “The issue is not about zoning, but I do believe that we did a really good job on the zoning.”