FORT PIERCE – The City Commission spent hours Jan. 22 debating the pros and cons of a major site plan amendment to the Harbour Isle development to permit the construction of a 11,050-square-foot shopping plaza on Seaway Drive that commissioners and residents alike fear will worsen traffic on the already-congested roadway.

Despite their concerns about traffic increasing between the roundabout at the entrance to the massive condominium complex and the Seaway Drive bridge over the Indian River, four of the five commissioners voted to approve the project. Commissioner Thomas Perona cast the lone dissenting vote after failing to find a way to limit left-hand into the plaza from westbound traffic, which he feared would cause backups as vehicles waited on oncoming traffic to pass. The Florida Department of Transportation has not approved a turn lane for the project or a traffic signal due to the proximity of the site to the roundabout but is permitting westbound turns out of the parking lot.

“I’d have a lot more comfort if it was a right-turn only out of the facility and find a way to come back to the east and not cause the problem that’s going on here,” he said right before the 4-1 vote. “I know that’s the access, there’s no light, there’s no anything. This is a unique type of a roadway -- you can’t go two blocks over and find a way around it. As this gets developed and moves forward, it’s a public safety issue, and for that reason, I’m not going to support this.”

Commissioner Jeremiah Johnson made the motion – which was immediately seconded by Commissioner Rufus Alexander -- to approve the site plan amendment with an additional condition that the six-foot buffer wall proposed by the applicant be extended to the end of the property line to provide additional screening from the Harbour Isle Shops.

“The developer’s done their due diligence, they’ve heard the residents loud and clear, they don’t want the connection internally and we played it out,” the former said.

Commissioner Johnson was referring to an internal driveway between the Harbour Isle condominiums and its sister commercial development that was originally proposed and approved in 2004 but eliminated in the current proposal after discussions between opposing residents and developer Craig Mason. Prior to making his motion, the commissioner asked Planning Department Director Peggy Grohall to opine on whether the original site plan version with the internal connection would have mitigated Commissioner Perona’s concerns about the westbound left-hand turns into the property.

“It’s my professional opinion from a traffic perspective that an internal driveway would put that left-hand turn movement back at the roundabout, which I think is a safer movement,” she said. “Coming out of the Harbour Isle development, they [motorists] would enter into the traffic circle on the right and circle around to head westbound instead of the way this happens now.”

Commissioner Johnson then reminded both his fellow Board members and the residents in the audience that a failure to pass the currently proposed amendment would revert it back to the previous format that so many residents had opposed.

“Can you go back to that dual plan?” he asked, referring to a slide comparing the 2004 and 2019 proposals. “If it’s not approved, the plan is in place -- right there -- and there is a connection to Seaway Drive. There’s a dual-movement connection right there, and there’s a connection internally to Harbour Isle.”

Both Commissioners Johnson and Perona asked City Manager Nick Mimms if Fort Pierce could legally prohibit the aforementioned left-hand turns into the property through signage or other traffic control measures. The latter shot down that idea immediately.

“I believe access to a state road is governed by the State of Florida,” he said. “So, unless we have a highway maintenance agreement for the access control going to Seaway Drive, we do not control that – that is completely governed by the Florida Department of Transportation.”

Harbour Isle resident Ann Marie Bodie was one of several residents speaking out during the quasi-judicial hearing and expressed concern about how the additional traffic would effect pedestrians such as herself.

“My concern is for traffic and pedestrians,” she said. “As you’re walking along right now, past the fire station, past the existing Cumberland Farms, you take your life in your hands when you try to cross in front of the driveways. It’s very frightening, and to think that now we’re going to have a plaza here.”

Her fellow resident Carol Noble is a bicyclist and echoed those concerns.

“I am concerned about the traffic,” she said. “Even without the development taking place, as it stands just now, cars do not stop. They just plow through the circle and they approach at speed. I don’t know what we can do to slow it down or to stop it a little more. I ride a bike, and there are times it’s very uncomfortable.”

Commissioner Perona then laid the responsibility of the latest traffic woes on the concession won by opposing condo residents with the elimination of the internal connection by the developer.

“If we pass this as it goes, because this is an accommodation -- a change from the original plan, which would have utilized the roundabout, this thing now adds another character to it,” he said. “It doesn’t impact Harbour Isle as much as it impacts the main part of the island, and that is the part that I’m representing right now. It’s going to cause some type of public issue… so, I’m having a real hard time with this right now.”

Jay Sizemore, president of the Harbour Isle East Condominium Association, said his membership, however, was satisfied with changes made to the site plan by Mr. Mason and his representatives. Those changes include, in addition to the elimination of the internal connection to the Harbour Isle Shops, a resident-only gate for pedestrian access, a change in the color scheme to more closely match the condo appearance and rooftop parapets to help hide the air conditioning units from view.

“We had some concerns that we addressed, and they have agreed to them,” he said. “One is the gate with the electronic key fob. They’re going to coordinate with our security staff to make sure we have the right one that will work for the east side and the west side. They’ve addressed the color scheme -- we want it to blend in with the architecture around there -- and to do the beige and the white with the blue accents is just what we need.”

After Commissioner Alexander seconded Commissioner Johnson’s motion, the Board once again debated Commissioner Perona’s traffic concerns and preference for the previous traffic flow design, but no one mentioned the possibility of reneging on the developer’s concession to the residents and restoring the internal connection to make the traffic flow safer.

“That’s going to be a problem regardless of what goes there,” Mayor Linda Hudson said.

Commissioner Alexander disagreed, inferring indirectly to just such a restoration.

“If you’re not going to allow them to come back into Harbour Isle, that’s where the problem is,” he responded.

When Commissioner Perona and Mayor Hudson began questioning the city manager once again about approaching FDOT with the idea of limiting left-hand turns into the property, Commissioner Alexander felt they were beating a dead horse.

“Call the question,” he said.

The major site plan amendment then passed 4-1, with Commissioner Perona dissenting.

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