They are coming! But can citizens say where?

The President’s Hoot
Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
June 2005

Headline news from the PJ states that our Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council predicts a 57% increase in the population of Indian River County. According to their prediction, our current population of 126,829 will increase to 198,700 residents in the next 25 years!

But, where are we going to put them? Mr. Robert Keating, Director of the County’s Community Development Department, has said in the past that at least 50,000 people can fill in empty spaces within the Urban Service Area, an area on the eastern part of the county where the County provides services such as water and sewer. Developers, builders, urban planners, and some agricultural owners who do not intend to farm any more understandably like the idea of new towns as they can then develop or sell their lands at potentially higher density and thus at a higher profit. Some would like to see the Urban Service Area expanded to include the entire county. Actually, owners of agricultural lands today can develop their property to a density of 1 unit (one household) per 5 acres, 10 acres, or 20 acres, depending where the land is. While agricultural land can be developed, it is important to keep a vigorous diverse agriculture in our county that gives us the security of providing our own healthy food instead of depending on foreign sources as well as maintain our green environment. The more agricultural land we can keep in agriculture, the better for our country.

Citizens, who moved to Indian River County because of its uncluttered, less dense, and open spaces, would like to keep it that way and would be interested in paying to keep and protect agriculture lands. Citizens are not interested in more traffic congestion as experienced by our neighbors to the south and north of us and lately at SR 60 and 58th Ave (just enlarged a few years ago), and along U.S 1 in our county. Recently, our county commission allowed 27th and 43rd Ave to decline from a “D” to a level of service “F” (as in failure), which allows the county to issue building permits to approve subdivisions without requiring the road to be widened. What a choice: 5 lane roads with more subdivisions or 3 lanes with even more subdivisions! Development has been allowed based on government “promises” to build necessary infrastructure. This has not happened. The 1984 Florida Growth Management Act called for adequate roads, water, schools and other public facilities to be available, or development is stopped. Concurrency, as it was called, was a no-brainer, but it was a joke. Surprise, school board chair now says “we were stunned” when told that the new school plan will require us taxpayers to borrow $125 million in new funds to build and refurbish our county schools because of existing and expected growth in only the next 5 years! Just last year, school officials said they did not need impact fees.

Even more disturbing, the county just recently spent a year going through an expensive visioning process ($200,000 for consultants) with plenty of opportunities for citizen’s input at workshops. The conclusion: citizens said they did not want any more new towns outside the Urban Service Area. Moreover at the oversight meeting to finalize the county’s visioning process, 24 elected officials from the four towns — including all our county commissioners — rejected the new towns concept. In fact, the oversight committee recommended closing a big “loophole” in the comprehensive growth plan whereby if enough land was purchased for development, agriculture land could be developed at one unit per acre! The county’s Planning and Zoning Commission also voted 4 to 2 to remove the “loophole.’”

This “loophole” will make a tremendous difference in the density at which our county is developed. If all of our agricultural land were to be developed at 1 unit/acre, 341,361 people – rather than 35,519 – would populate this area. While all agriculture lands would not be developed at that rate, those acres that are could be developed 5, 10, 20 times more than currently zoned. Do we want a Port St. Lucie in Indian River County?
After being lobbied by citrus leaders and filibustered by developers, four of the five Indian River County Commissioners (Davis, Neuburger, Lowther, and Bowden) changed their minds and voted to keep this “loophole” in our comprehensive growth plan.
There are other approaches to consider:

  • PIAS will be sponsoring a public meeting on June 15th for citizens to hear Dr. James Nicholas, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and Affiliate Professor of Law, University of Florida, discuss various possibilities on the transfer of densities that may give us wisdom on how to handle 71,871 new folks, preserve open spaces, and protect agriculture.
  • A rural land stewardship system is in place in Collier County, where building density can be transferred from certain lands so others can be developed. This may also work in Indian River County.

At moment, Commissioner Gary Wheeler might be right in saying “All this planning is just trying to..cram as many people we can into the county that’s possible, instead of deciding what we want for a maximum density and saying we aren’t going to allow any more (Press Journal, May 21, 2005).” Wheeler with support from fellow commissioners is trying to give citizens the power to approve or reject changes to the Urban Service Area by a binding referendum. This is very important as we have just found out that special interest groups, i.e. powerful growers and developers, can change the minds of 4 out of 5 county commissioners after lobbying. Please support this binding referendum by talking to your representatives. But more important, if citizens are going to make these important decisions on where to put 71,871 new residents in the next 25 years, we need to be informed.

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