PSL Council decision puts temporary end to months of controversial debate over developer request

PORT ST. LUCIE – With notable frustration among some of its members, the City Council closed a three-month chapter March 22 on a hotly contested request by Riverland Kennedy to amend the development order on its massive development west of I-95 to incorporate age-restricted housing.

The controversy surrounding the latest requested amendment to the Riverland Kennedy Development of Regional Impact first boiled to the surface Jan. 5 when representatives from competing developers, Akel Homes and GL Homes, hammered Planning & Zoning Board members with contradictory information related to the original Southwest Annexation Agreement they both signed onto more than 15 years ago.

The two developers of the adjacent Wilson Groves and Riverland-Kennedy properties have battled it out publicly in the courts for years but Wilson Groves added more fuel to the fire by naming the City of Port St. Lucie as a defendant in its latest lawsuit against Riverland-Kennedy. The majority of the P&Z Board claimed they were incapable of making an adequate determination on the amendment request without access to the original annexation agreement penned in 2004 and recommended denial.

Attorneys for both developers spent hours during a special meeting of the City Council March 8 presenting the same arguments in an attempt to sway its members to take a side in the decades-long conflict. Mayor Gregory Oravec complained right off the bat that city staff had not prepared a traffic-generation presentation on the potential impact of the Riverland/Kennedy request to switch single-family residential uses for age-restricted senior adult housing.

Wilson Groves and Akel Homes have accused Riverland-Kennedy and GL Homes of using the change as a pretext to avoid the annexation agreement requirement of opening up Becker Road to the west and connecting the Akel Homes land to the rest of Port St. Lucie. Currently the only access to the property is via Range Line Road.

The March 22 hearing was the second reading on the amendment request, which the Council had unanimously approved on March 8 but now began with the mayor’s desired traffic-generation report prepared by City Traffic Engineer Diana Spriggs. The engineer analyzed both the previous Riverland-Kennedy and the Southern Grove traffic studies completed in 2020.

“We also hired a third-party consultant, WGI, to provide their review,” she said, referring to the Riverland Traffic Study. “It was found to be consistent with the master planned unit development. The relocated land uses within the overall master plan did not change the previously approved results or the timelines for the transportation improvements, and the applicant’s designation of age-restricted units does result in a lower trip generation estimate.”

The Port St. Lucie-based WGI firm also summarized the Southern Grove traffic study and utilized information from the Western Annexation Traffic Study to conclude the latest Riverland-Kennedy request to be in compliance.

“It did utilize the WATS for Riverland trip counts because it was prior to the Riverland Traffic Study,” Ms. Spriggs added. “The final response to comments did reference the age restriction in Riverland and that it would reduce the traffic trips by almost 12,000. That would potentially reduce the need for widening existing roads east of Riverland.”

Immediately following Ms. Spriggs’s presentation, Akel Homes’ outside counsel Al Malefatto came to the podium to repeat the same allegation he used for opposing the Riverland-Kennedy request on Jan. 5 and March 8 that Riverland-Kennedy was trying to avoid extending Becker Road to the Wilson Groves property in a sort of real-life version of the movie Groundhog Day.

“When we were here on March 8. Riverland made a commitment to fund construction of Becker Road,” he said. “Since then, we haven’t seen any action on their part towards meeting that commitment. Also, Mayor [Oravec], during the March 8 meeting, you stated you were going to declare a default under the annexation agreement because of inaction on Becker Road and other roadways. That hasn’t been done yet, but approving this ordinance tonight would render any future default declaration meaningless.”

Mr. Malefatto proceeded to read a letter from Akel Homes founder Ramsey Akel who was unable to attend the hearing. In that letter, the latter insisted the city postpone its decision on the Riverland-Kennedy amendment request because the two developers were currently in mediation.

“Can you tell your citizens with a clear conscience that they will not be responsible to build the roads that Riverland will never trigger the construction [for],” he wrote. “At the March 8 hearing, the city took its eye off the main issue when Riverland agreed to fund Becker Road. Becker Road is clearly their obligation, and their agreement to fund it comes at a small price if they can snatch the grand prize, never building the other required Phase 1 road network. This is not a Wilson Grove versus Riverland issue – it is a city versus Riverland issue.”

Mayor Oravec was the first member of the Board to speak, lashing out at Mr. Malefatto for the insinuations he made both directly and in the reading of Mr. Akel’s letter.

“I’ve been dealing with attorneys and attorney letters for a long time, [and] I know there’s a certain amount of gamesmanship that happens, a little tit-for-tat,” he said. “I’ve never been a huge fan of the nastygram or playing the games. Mr. Malefatto, the Council condition was March 31 – it’s not March 31 yet – so we know that’s the date we’re working towards. I don’t mind if you play games with the opposing counsel, but please don’t play games with me.”

Vice-Mayor Shannon Martin then made the motion to approve the amendment request, which was seconded by Councilwoman Jolien Caraballo. The discussion was not over, however, as the seconder of the motion referred to the delay in the Council getting Ms. Spriggs’ report.

“We need to have – coming forward when we discuss these items – that transparency to us so when we make that decision, we know there’s a potential reduction in [proposed travel] lanes,” Councilwoman Caraballo said. “If we have to make decisions because of master planned unit developments, I want to make sure staff is bringing us exactly what Diana brought us tonight… so that we are 100 percent aware of what’s happening as a Board.”

Mayor Oravec agreed.

“At a minimum, Councilwoman, the analysis provided today should have been part of the first presentation,” he said.

As he’d done previously, Councilman David Pickett asked GL Homes Vice President Keven Ratteree to promise his company would complete its portion of the Becker Road extension.

“Do we have your commitment tonight – under oath – that when the city approaches you with a bill for your section of Becker Road, you’ll cut a check for it?” he asked.

Mr. Ratteree again affirmed the company’s commitment.

“When the city approaches us with regard to funding our portion of Becker Road, we will cut the check,” he said.

In her closing comments, Vice-Mayor Martin chided Mr. Malefatto for his insinuations.

“Here again is a last-minute attempt to continue to muddy the waters, and to me, it’s a waste of time and energy,” she said holding up Mr. Akel’s letter. “This isn’t the city versus Riverland – it’s always been Wilson Groves versus Riverland. It’s sad, and it’s not fun. I just don’t believe it’s going to ever end. I can tell you, from now on, every time Riverland wants to come in with something, it’s going to continuously get opposed.”

The Commission then voted unanimously to approve the Riverland-Kennedy amendment.

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