MARTIN COUNTY — A controversial land use that would facilitate more intense development on agricultural lands violates the county’s in-house guidelines for growth, according to a judge who oversaw a challenge of the land use.
In a 28-page ruling Friday, Judge Francine Ffolkes, of the state Division of Administrative Hearings, said the county’s approval of the rural lifestyle land use is out of touch with its own Comprehensive Plan, citing a requirement that “new residential development with lots of one-half acre or smaller, commercial uses and industrial uses” be inside the county urban-service boundary.
Properties inside the boundary have access to water and sewer services and are closer to public facilities such as fire stations and libraries. Water and sewer lines could be extended to rural-lifestyle properties beyond the boundary at the expense of the property owners, which was a point of contention when discussed before the County Commission last year.
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Rural lifestyle, approved by the commission in a 3-2 vote in September, has the following components:
- Properties of at least 1,000 contiguous acres in unincorporated Martin County next to the urban-service boundary would be eligible for the land use
- Density on land typically designated for agricultural use could be increased to 1 unit per 5 acres
- If a project more intense than 1 unit per 20 acres is approved for a rural-lifestyle property, the developer must designate separate property as conservation or an agricultural easement
- 70% of the property must be used for open space such as golf courses and polo fields
The commission approved rural lifestyle in tandem with Atlantic Fields, a luxury golf-course community slated for Hobe Sound. Palm City resident Donna Melzer filed the state challenge in October, arguing that in approving the land use, the county violated its Comprehensive Plan.
Ffolkes conducted a hearing in December with testimony from Martin County staff and land-planning experts. It now goes to the state Administration Commission for a final decision, but it’s unclear when state officials will weigh in.
Atlantic Fields developer Tom Hurley, of Becker Holding Corp., said Ffolkes “identified a small inconsistency” between rural lifestyle and the Comprehensive Plan that he’s reviewing, he told TCPalm Monday.
“We’re reviewing the order carefully and determining the best avenue to bring the (land use) into compliance,” Hurley said.
County Attorney Sarah Woods could not be reached for comment Monday.
Details on the ruling
A focal point of Ffolkes’ ruling was the allowance of a “community store” with the land use. County staff maintained the community store was not considered a commercial use because it wouldn’t be open to the public. Regardless, Ffolkes stated, it’s a commercial use, and that laid the foundation for her ruling.
Melzer “proved beyond fair debate that the community store permitted by rural lifestyle is a commercial use and, as such, is inconsistent with Policy 4.7A.2,” Ffolkes wrote in her ruling.
Although Melzer said she was happy with Ffolkes’ ruling, there were aspects of it that she questioned, Melzer told TCPalm. Those included the determination that golf cottages were not considered a commercial use, but rather an accessory to the residential use. Cottages must be owned and operated by the golf course owner.
“I thought there were more issues than she did, but I have a great respect for (Ffolkes),” Melzer said. “The urban boundary is on the line here … It’s our Martin County difference.”
It was Ffolkes who ruled against the city of Stuart in a recent land-use challenge of a property slated for a Costco Wholesale Corp. store, 18-pump gas station, 378 apartments and stores and restaurant space. Ffolkes found that the assigned land-use that accommodated the project, neighborhood special district, was “not supported by a professionally acceptable methodology.”
Her ruling was reversed last week by the state Administration Commission.