Commentary

Cost of turning old Florida tree farm into a discount store is too high

A judge says city did it wrong, but our pro-development governor doesn’t see it that way

January 19, 2023 7:00 am

Workers clear land at an environmentally sensitive site destined for development in Stuart. Source: Robin Cartwright

Ask anyone to name the fruits we grow in Florida and they’ll say oranges, although citrus is in a steep decline these days. They miiiight also mention grapefruit.

But we grow a lot of other fruit, too: apples, avocados, bananas, figs, guava, persimmons, mangoes, mulberries, papayas, and peaches.

People hardly ever bring up pineapples, but they should. Pineapples aren’t grown here commercially anymore, but they were a hot commodity in the early 1900s. So many of the prickly Ananas comosus were grown in Martin County back then, it touted itself as the Pineapple Capital of the World.

I mention this because there’s a pretty prickly problem going on in Martin County right now, and this week it landed in front of the governor and Cabinet.

The dispute involves 49 acres of undeveloped land in the city of Stuart. The property used to be part of a tree farm. The owner now wants to turn it into a 160,000 square-foot Costco, an 18-pump gas station, and 378 apartments, plus adjacent stores and restaurants.

That’s a lot of modern development for a town with a population of 17,000 that a 2019 Chicago Tribune story described as being full of Old Florida charm. For instance, there’s a place on the St. Lucie River called the Owl House because that’s what its quirky construction resembles.

To make sure a place like that gets saved from the bulldozers that seem to be constantly tearing down classic Florida attractions, you really have to give a hoot (sorry!).

Plenty of folks in Stuart are unhappy the city officials gave no hoots at all about this Costco project changing not just the landscape but also the character of their town. Costco is a discount store, but they think the price for attracting one to their city is too darn high.

Some of the opponents turned out in 2021 for a protest at the site, where one of the protesters was heard to observe sadly, “I feel like Martin County is becoming Broward” County.

Despite this staunch opposition, Stuart’s city commission amended its comprehensive plan to designate that parcel as something new, approved a zoning change, and then voted for the site map change , all to accommodate the developer’s plans.

The new classification for that parcel was “neighborhood special district,” although a lot of the neighborhood thought a Costco/gas station/apartment combo would be whatever is the opposite of special.

The developer sent in machines to start clearing the land. But then one resident filed a legal challenge to the city’s decision.

And the situation got pretty interesting.

Everything everywhere all at once

Robin Cartwright. Source: Cartwright

The Stuart resident who challenged the Costco project is a rare thing for Florida: someone who grew up in the town she’s now fighting to preserve. Her name is Robin Cartwright.

Cartwright used to work for the Community Foundation Martin-St. Lucie. She would routinely speak out about various issues at city meetings. No one at her office objected — until the Costco project came up.

Then, she said, her CEO told her she had to choose.

“I was told at my job I could either be a community advocate or an employee,” she told me.

That shut her up for a while, but finally she decided she couldn’t stay silent. Others had been objecting to the city kowtowing to the developer’s plans, but now Cartwright joined in.

At one city meeting she stood up to speak and “was escorted out by the local chief of police for going over my allotted three minutes by 10 seconds,” she told me. “And I was asked to resign the next day.” (I contacted the foundation’s CEO about this, and she said she didn’t want to talk about Cartwright’s departure.)

The commission’s decision, which came at the end of a tumultuous eight-hour public hearing, was unanimous. A legal challenge followed, with Cartwright the plaintiff.

Cartwright’s complaints about the project, as presented by attorneys Richard Grosso and Shai Ozery, were far from minor or frivolous.

Take, for instance, the way the city designated the property for development.

Before the city annexed it, it belonged to the county, which had classified the land as “low-density residential.” That means it could have been developed, but only for a few houses, not some big monster project.

When the city absorbed the property around 2016, city officials didn’t alter the classification at first. No changes occurred until the developers of this massive Costco-apartments-restaurants-gas station complex showed up.

Then, as if aping the title of that wacky Michelle Yeoh-Jamie Lee Curtis science fiction comedy, the city commission did everything everywhere all at once.

“You’re not supposed to do it like that,” Cartwright said.

Yet in their rush, the city officials left a lot of important things undone.

More misses than the Dallas kicker

Cartwright’s case went to a state agency called the Division of Administrative Hearings. The administrative judge who heard Cartwright’s challenge, Francine Ffolkes, has been on the bench since 2017. A former attorney for the state Department of Environmental Protection, she has heard a lot of these kinds of cases from all over the state.

Francine Ffolkes. Source: Florida Bar

After hearing testimony from both sides, she ruled that the city had failed to do its job properly. In her ruling, she said she spotted a host of problems with the city’s decision-making process.

“The [land-use designation] is not supported by a professionally acceptable methodology that analyzes the availability of central water supply, wastewater services, and traffic impact on the level of service” on area roadways, wrote Ffolkes.

She had more to say: “The city’s analysis did not demonstrate that there would be sufficient infrastructure and service capacity available to support the proposed [land-use] change to neighborhood special district.”

There were a lot of things lacking. If I took the time to list them all, I’d have to produce not just one column but a series. Trust me — they failed more than the Dallas Cowboys kicker in this week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

My favorite flaws concerned the report produced by the developer’s environmental consultant, Ed Weinberg of EW Consultants.

He swore up and down that the property could be asphalted over with hardly any impact on the area’s flora or fauna. Here’s just one example from the judge of why that was wrong:

“The applicant’s environmental assessment … claimed that the site was not used by wading birds for nesting,” Ffolkes wrote. “But … it was not surprising that no nesting sites were observed since the surveys were conducted during the non-nesting season for most bird species.”

Oopsie!

Greg Braun. Source: Braun

Turns out, according to an environmental consultant working for Cartwright named Greg Braun, that the wetlands on the property provide habitat for wood storks, little blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets, great blue herons, and black crowned night herons.

“I also found endangered and threatened plants that were not disclosed by the consultant,” Braun told me when I called him. The city’s comprehensive plan calls for saving those from development where possible, he said.

But once that development gets in there, you can kiss all that goodbye.

“The Neighborhood Special District allowed uses are highly intense,” the judge pointed out. “From an ecological standpoint, the property is not suitable for the intense uses allowed by the Neighborhood Special District future land use designation.”

Eyes wide open

There were other, oh, let’s be kind and call them “mistakes,” in Weinberg’s analysis of the property. Take the matter of gopher tortoises, for instance.

Gophers — slow-moving reptiles who kept many Floridians from starving during the Great Depression — are now classified as a threatened species.

That’s because they keep getting in the way of development, although Weinberg said they weren’t a problem for the Costco.

“The gopher tortoise survey did not identify the occurrence of gopher tortoises, gopher tortoise burrows, or indicators of the presence of gopher tortoises,” the EW Consulting report noted.

A threatened gopher tortoise is photographed on the site of a proposed development in Stuart. Source: Linda Kay Richards

Yet last year a local resident named Linda Kay Richards emailed a photo to city and county officials of a real, live gopher tortoise toddling along on the property, with two tortoise burrows visible in the background.

Richards reported the presence of gophers to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency in charge of protecting them.

The wildlife commission staff informed her they were passing her concerns along to their designated gopher tortoise protection agent for the area — who turns out to be an employee of EW Consulting, run by Mr. Weinberg.

“So the oversight, the person who is responsible for ensuring the animals and their homes are protected, the person authorized by the state to survey and report, is employed by and paid by EW Consulting, which is paid by the developer,” Richards wrote in an email to city and county officials. “Do we all stand here with our eyes wide open and not see the conflict of interest?”

A nutty journey

The Costco project has been a prickly-as-a-pineapple subject for Stuart officials since at least 2018. That’s when then-City Manager Dave Ross filed a police report because, he said, one of the city commissioners threatened to “(expletive) come after him” over a meeting about the project.

The commissioner in question, a real estate broker, at first denied threatening the city manager, then abruptly resigned rather than face an investigation. Then, two months later, Ross himself resigned.

“It’s been a nutty journey,” Cartwright told me.

One constant amid the ups and downs has been the developers behind the Costco project, Jack Morris and Joseph A. Marino. They call themselves M&M Realty, presumably because of their initials and not because their tremendous clout melts in your mouth, not in your hands.

The company is not based in Stuart, Martin County, or even Florida. It’s out of Piscataway, N.J. Try saying that three times real fast.

According to a 2021 story, the partners have quite a few projects going on besides the Stuart Costco. There’s a mall in Orlando, a ranch in Pasco County, and the former Garden State Racetrack in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Morris is part of a group that turned the former Trump Taj Mahal into a Hard Rock Casino, in partnership with the DeSantis-supporting Seminole Tribe of Florida. Morris has been known to deploy his rather large yacht as a reward for compliant public officials.

But Marino’s the one who set the mark for political generosity in Florida.

Campaign records show that last month one of his other New Jersey companies, Heritage Bergen, donated $100,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, also known as the Committee to Elect Ron DeSantis President Real Soon. I’m sure the words “quid pro quo” were never uttered by either the donor or the recipient.

Meanwhile, the Costco case was awaiting a decision by the state Board of Administration, which is made up of DeSantis and members of the Florida Cabinet, namely Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson sits on the Cabinet but not the SBA board.

None of them has Ffolkes’ training or experience.

That group held two hearings on the Costco case, one in August and the other this week. During the first hearing, they heard from Grosso, Cartwright, and Stuart’s city attorney.

Then, in a discussion this week that took all of two minutes, they decided that Ffolkes — who has been hearing these cases longer than any of them have been in office — didn’t know what she was talking about.

The governor, who was chairing the meeting, made a motion to overturn the judge’s ruling. The Cabinet members all nodded their heads as if they were dashboard bobbleheads. Just like that, they tossed out Cartwright’s legal victory.

I have watched a few of these quasi-judicial Cabinet sessions since our current governor — who never met a developer he didn’t want a campaign contribution from — took the chairman’s gavel. I have yet to see one in which he’s ruled against the developer, no matter what the evidence said.

I asked Grosso, a former law professor, if he’d ever seen DeSantis back a judge’s ruling against a development plan. His experience is similar to mine.

“At least four I know of [resulted in] reversed recommended orders without a valid basis,” Grosso told me. The governor and Cabinet have repeatedly concluded that the judges, “despite all the land use planning cases they hear, don’t understand land use law. They get every case wrong somehow.”

He pointed out that developers Morris and Marino won this one without even showing up during the hearings.

“The governor and Cabinet need to be out of the land use planning businesses,” Grosso told me. “We should not have a political body voting on whether to uphold or reject factual and legal rulings that come out of a trial. The process and the overall approach lack integrity.”

Cartwright says she’s not giving up. She’s going to try to raise enough money to appeal this decision back to the court system. I hope she succeeds.

But while she’s doing that, the bulldozers sent by the Jersey boys will be busy too. They will be filling the wetlands and pushing out the endangered and threatened plants and animals while building that Costco. It’s the perfect symbol of how we so often discount the things in Florida that are worth saving.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified the person who found gopher tortoises on the property marked for development: Her name is Linda Kay Richards. Additionally, Robin Cartwright is not affiliated with We Care Martin. We regret the errors.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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