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State rules in favor of Costco, reversing judge’s ruling against Stuart in lengthy appeal

NewsState rules in favor of Costco, reversing judge's ruling against Stuart in lengthy appeal

STUART — A state commission ruled Tuesday that a mixed-use Costco project slated for South Kanner Highway can move forward. But the local resident who had challenged a key aspect of the project says she plans to take the ruling to court.

The Administration Commission — comprising Gov. Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — determined the Stuart City Commission properly assigned the neighborhood special district land-use designation to the property, which accommodated the project.

The state ruling comes 1½ years after resident Robin Cartwright filed the state challenge, arguing that the city violated its Comprehensive Plan when approving the land use. It was approved in August 2021 in tandem with the project itself — a Costco Wholesale Corp. store, 18-pump gas station, 378 apartments and stores and restaurant space.

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Tuesday’s decision reverses a finding by Judge Francine Ffolkes, of the state Division of Administrative Hearings, who ruled in favor of Cartwright in April, saying the city’s analysis of the Kanner property was “not supported by a professionally acceptable methodology.”

The city challenged that ruling, arguing Ffolkes had focused on site plans rather than the land use, which brought it to the Administration Commission. After brief discussion Tuesday, state officials asked that a final order be brought back to the commission to be finalized at its March 21 meeting.

‘Best course of action’

“There was a whole bunch of other evidence related to zoning and site plans, which can still be reviewed in another process,” Moody said. “This is the best course of action … Not only should we find this in compliance with (Florida Statutes), but that it was based on appropriate data and analysis as to the Comprehensive Plan.”

Cartwright plans to appeal the decision once the state ruling is official in March, she told TCPalm Tuesday. She said she was disappointed in Tuesday’s outcome and considered it a setback for other residents who have supported her throughout the process.

“I think frustration is probably where I would start, but I have a lot more emotions beyond that,” Cartwright said. “From Day 1, it has not been a fair fight.”

Developer Joe Marino, of M&M Realty, said in a statement he was “extremely pleased” with the state’s decision, adding that another appeal “will only ensure further costs to the city’s taxpayers.”

Developer “extremely pleased”

“This decision not only upheld the merits of the city’s review and vote of approval, but it also corrects some misleading public assertions, since the recommended order was issued in April of last year,” Marino said.

A Costco representative could not be reached for comment.

City Attorney Mike Mortell was confident the state commission would uphold the city’s decision, he told TCPalm.

“In all my years, I have never seen a commission spend the amount of time that the City Commission spent on the Costco project (more than) any other project,” Mortell said. “They had done it right, and they had followed the rules.”

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