Under Chair Ed Ciampi, the BOCC set a very bad precedent at the August 8, 2023, meeting.

About 150 residents of Palm City, organized with some assistance by Ciampi, were there to protest a “by right” development which they found unacceptable. Many reasons were articulated during the public comment section.  “It’s too close to the road.” “It’s too close to schools.” “It would add to the traffic problem.”

The reason that was voiced by many speakers was “I moved here to escape the congestion of Boca, Lauderdale, Miami, NY.” Several other places were named. At least two speakers said they had moved to Danforth three years ago to find peace and serenity.

The developer, who has every right by law to build this project but sensing the public’s ire, offered a compromise. He suggested that the county could purchase the parcel for $4 million. Chair Ciampi has decided to do just that.

Though no public use was designated for the property, using it for a park seemed preferred. Martin County currently has 72 parks plus acres of conservation land not counting the recently 1000 acres plus in Newfield in Palm City.

We applaud citizens for attending a public meeting to voice their concerns. We understand that some may believe this is not the appropriate place for that development for reasons we will explore. However, one statement that brought this home to MCTA was made by Commissioner Heard when she suggested that this is a regulatory problem.

In our opinion, the two reasons that so many found this project objectionable were the density (90 units) and how, because of the CRA code, the building needed to be close to the sidewalk. The latter requirement is because of what CRAs are supposed to be. They are meant to be in a much more urban setting. This clearly is not that. The allowable density is also more attuned to a downtown setting.

Chair Ciampi went through the explanation of how the entire section where the property is located was added to the Old Palm City CRA. We are assuming he gave all correct information, including adding the shopping center that was built to house the now defunct Stuart Fine Foods. That should have never been why the CRA boundary was adjusted by current and past commissioners, which has now resulted in this property being given the zoning and property rights it has.

In most instances, it is the developer that is asking for something, but in this case, he needs nothing because of the CRA status. The property allows 90 units to be built and dictates that it be done in a manner more fitting for Mapp Road than Martin Highway.

Now Commissioner Ciampi has proposed that the taxpayers (though at this point it could be the ones that are in the Palm City CRA only) bail out the mistakes of the commission. That is why Sarah Heard’s statement regarding a regulatory problem is so on the mark.

No matter how the deal for the county to buy this property is structured, MCTA cannot support it. There is something seriously wrong with using limited tax money to appease the few over the many. We wonder if anyone was at the recent budget hearings…including the commissioners.

Where were they when the budget was being arduously scrutinized?  Every item was sliced by some amount. The BOCC agonized to keep the increase in ad valorum taxes to a palatable 2.46%. They postponed capital improvement projects, including those for parks and now want to add another that will be inadequately maintained if current practices are followed.

Now the same commission is arguing to borrow up to $4 million to buy 6 acres of land because their administrative decisions resulted in angering some residents and voters. This property, if built as currently designed would add in our estimation about $150,000 to Martin County’s tax rolls not to mention the increased utility and impact fees. If the county buys the property, then nothing will be collected.

It was also mentioned that ad valorum tax collection would increase by $21 million next year. $16 million additionally will go to the Sheriff over this year. Millions more will go to Fire/Rescue. Those two departments alone will consume much more than any increase in revenue from this year to next. That is why there were so many cuts to the budgets of other departments.

To cast this as a growth problem is also not correct. The county has, in fact, only grown by less than 2% per year. If we continue to buy land to take off the tax rolls, few of the protestors in that room will be able to afford the increased taxes they will incur to live here. Perhaps the county could give the developer some incentive to change the project such as setting it back from the street so it would be more palatable to the neighbors.

Before the county buys the property under Florida Statute 125.355(b), there will need to be two appraisals according to County Attorney Sarah Woods. The two appraisals will be averaged to come to a value the county should pay. If the value is less that the $4 million price suggested by the developer (and we assume it will be), then the county will need a super majority vote for the purchase.

Like Pandora’s Box, this precedent will be mind boggling. There are several projects which will have just as many protesting residents in the commission chambers. Projects that are much more expensive to buy. Are we going to mortgage our futures each time?

Mr. Ciampi said he will be using his district MSTU and the Palm City CRA funds to pay for the bank loan for this purchase. He will need a short-term loan from the county’s reserves. If there is a hurricane, then the county may not have the liquid funds necessary for the clean-up and rebuilding. Once again, this use while legal is not the purpose of CRA taxes. Those funds should be used to construct and maintain the needed infrastructure in the district.

A 1/2 cent sales tax was brought up during discussion by Commissioner Smith. A group of citizens had been urging a sales tax to buy sensitive conservation lands in Pal Mar, IRL South, and other areas. Those are lands that currently are paying little or no taxes and most of which cannot be developed. Commissioners Smith and Ciampi wanted to include property like this also.

MCTA has just begun analyzing what this sales tax could accomplish and whether we believe it is in the Martin County taxpayers’ interest. We have already concluded that if the commission includes the buying of non-sensitive lands that will be used to take property off the tax rolls to appease a few constituents, then we could not support it.

A ½ cent sales tax would bring in $18.3 million per year. To use any amount of it to solve a political problem is not in the interest of the taxpayer. Tallahassee has already pre-empted the commission in many aspects. It seems that for the sake of the taxpaying public more preemption may be necessary.