By Sally Swartz, Palm Beach Post
The nondescript room in Martin County’s Building Department has tables up front with rows of folding chairs, separated by a narrow aisle. Administrative Law Judge Suzanne van Wyk, wearing a long black robe, sits at a table in front of the lawyers and the audience.
A state administrative hearing is not exactly the trial of the century, but it’s important.
It will answer a couple of very basic questions: Can Martin County residents control growth and development in their community through their comprehensive growth management plan, approved by their elected representatives?
Or do developers such as Hobe Grove and the real estate market get to decide how and where the county grows?
On one side of the room are lawyers from the business law firm Gunster, representing Midbrook 1st Realty and the proposed Hobe Grove development, a plan to build a city larger than Stuart just west of Hobe Sound.
On the other is former Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Linda Shelley, representing the county. Environmental lawyers Virginia Sherlock and Howard Heims represent the Indian Riverkeeper, 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance. Stuart, Sewall’s Point and Jupiter Island lawyers represent others siding with the county.
The audience, surprisingly, includes witnesses well-known in growth management circles such as former Martin commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, former state Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham and Charles Pattison, former director of 1000 Friends of Florida. There also are ordinary residents giving up a couple of hot September and October days, listening to testimony that could send the most determined insomniac to dreamland.
At issue are changes to the growth plan made recently to restore some of the protections the developer-backed Future Group removed from the plan in 2009.
Several groups that challenged the restored protections have settled their problems with the county.
They include Lake Point, the rock pit mining operation that hit Hurchalla with a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, King Ranch and Becker Holdings (Becker Groves.)
Midbrook continued its challenges for Hobe Grove, trying to show that restoring protections to the county’s growth plan is a part of a plot to stop all growth in Martin County.
The stop-growth plot, Hobe Grove lawyers claim, includes procedures such as using population projections to predict growth. Or the supermajority vote required to change the growth plan’s major protections, such as Martin’s cherished four-story building height limit.
Hobe Grove lawyers also are unhappy with Martin’s urban services district, where the county provides such services as water and sewer, claiming it restricts “real estate markets” from deciding where homes, businesses and industries should be built. Plans for Hobe Grove call for 4,300 homes and 4.6 million square feet of space for business and education on 2,800 acres south of Bridge Road, and west of Florida’s Turnpike. Martin’s growth plan designates the land for agricultural use, not development.
The case is important not only to Martin County but to other Florida counties and cities. When Gov. Rick Scott took office, he gutted the state’s DCA, a protective growth management agency, leaving decisions largely in the hands of local governments.
Martin County stepped up to restore old protections and strengthen its growth plan, knowing that it no longer has the state to turn to for help against developers who want to make their own rules.
Decisions in these cases usually take several months. In the past, judges have tended to side with local governments, rather than with challengers. That hasn’t always worked in residents’ favor, but in this case, residents hope it will.
Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is [email protected]