Fort Pierce was under the gun trying to untangle unfinished Comp Plan work left by previous planning director

FORT PIERCE -- The City Commission agreed to transmit a condensed version of the Evaluation & Appraisal Review of the city’s Comprehensive Plan to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on Aug. 19, several months behind schedule due to a slip up in the Planning Department.

Upon clarifying that Fort Pierce had been in non-compliance with state regulations since missing a Jan. 31 deadline for the EAR submittal and unable to amend its Comp Plan, Commissioner Thomas Perona asked City Manager Nick Mimms for assurances that such an important responsibility wouldn’t fall through the cracks again.

“When you lose the ability to do all the planning changes and amendments you need to do because we haven’t complied, it’s somewhat embarrassing,” he said. “Have we put in fail-safes to be able to catch this as we go forward? I mean this is every seven years, and I would hate it hooked to certain individuals that may or may not be here. If we lose those people and all of a sudden we’re not able to make any amendments, it’s a little embarrassing.”

In his reply, Mr. Mimms declined to assign blame but insisted Fort Pierce would meet all deadlines concerning EAR in the future.

“Moving forward, we shall not find ourselves in this situation again,” he said. “I believe that our Interim Planning Director Rebeca Guerra has done a magnificent job of getting us to this point. I’m not going to point any fingers tonight, but what I want to say is we did fail as an organization to meet our necessary deadlines and guidelines with regard to the Department of Economic Opportunity.”

Although the city manager refused to describe that evening how the city ended up non-compliant, Mr. Mimms did fire former Planning Director Rebecca Grohall last April 1 for failing to meet the aforementioned deadline. He subsequently appointed Ms. Guerra Interim Planning Director the next day and described via email Sept. 9 how the city proceeded in the interim.

“The City of Fort Pierce inexcusably missed the deadline,” he admitted. “However, the city took immediate action to remedy the situation by identifying consultants to work on expediting the approval of the EAR-Based Comprehensive Plan. Moreover, the City of Fort Pierce acted swiftly to address this matter by disciplining responsible personnel and improving internal processes that attentively monitor impending due dates. Based on these actions, the City of Fort Pierce shall not encounter these deficiencies moving forward.”

The consultant Mr. Mimms made reference to, Chris Dougherty of Orlando-based S&ME Inc., told commissioners during the August meeting that he’d worked closely with the interim planning director to create a matrix of proposed changes – primarily those coming down from the state level – and expedite the EAR process.

“We have outlined every change since the last major update to your Comprehensive Plan, so we’ve listed every single legislative change,” he said. We reviewed the entire Comp Plan to see if you were in compliance with that change or not, and then we’ve provided a recommendation on how we believe you’d get into compliance or to meet the change to the statute. What we’re recommending is to go ahead and get over this hurdle… and not worry about having to change the entire Comp Plan or rewrite all of the data and analysis. We’re just going to tweak some of the policies and make sure we’re in compliance and then in maybe a couple of years really look at the Comprehensive Plan and update it.”

Mayor Linda Hudson then prodded the consultant for clarification and assurances.

“We’re going to do what we’re required to do right now?” she asked.

Mr. Dougherty insisted the city would still be able to further update its Comp Plan if so desired before the next seven-year cycle and actually enjoy a more streamlined process to boot.

“You’re going to do what you’re required to do now,” he responded. “In the future, in-between the EAR cycle, if you do so choose to amend the Plan based on a new vision for the City of Fort Pierce, that would be the time to do it. Then you’re not under the state coordinative review process – you’re under what’s considered the expedited review process – and they only get 30 days and you only get comments from the agencies and you’re not technically required to address everything.”

Since Fort Pierce last amended its Comp Plan in 2010, the State of Florida itself has made several major changes that the consultant has incorporated into the city’s EAR, such as the elimination of developments of regional impact and some of the Florida Administrative Code regulations. He and Ms. Guerra also removed some outdated policies and added additional language the DEO was requiring a part of the Coastal Management Element.

“We updated the Coastal High Hazard Area, which is the area that is under threat by a Category 1 hurricane,” he explained. “Over time, the new models will change, and so we updated the new Slosh [sea, lake, and overland surges from hurricanes] model. We mapped the existing land uses within your coastal area, as well as the future land use, and updated the overall surge map.”

For her part, Ms. Guerra explained how she’d sought the assistance of DEO Plan Processing Administrator Ray Eubanks to help the city get current with its Comp Plan EAR.

“When I was first appointed as Interim, staff and I spoke to Mr. Eubanks, and we informed him that we were working diligently with a consultant to put together the proposal to move forward,” she said. “Mr. Eubanks recognized that the city was in fact working in good faith, and he gave us the extraordinary opportunity to move forward with not adoption, but the unprecedented step of being able to transmit. That has saved us effectively months, which could have delayed projects even longer.”

Mr. Mimms subsequently asked Ms. Guerra to expound on steps the Planning Department had taken over the last few months to ensure meeting future EAR deadlines, and the latter emphasized the inclusion of other related deadlines in the future.

“After we’re done with this, we’re mandated by state statute to revamp our land development codes to come in tandem with the changes that we make as a result of the EAR,” she explained. “So I’ve created a memo that takes place between the one year when it was due… to the next seven-year cycle, which addresses the land development code rewrite and our Comprehensive Plan rewrite, as well as any other changes that need to take place in-between. And that memo has been placed within our drive, which gets looked at every year as part of our review of Mr. Mimm’s strategic plan to make sure that we’re in compliance with the Comprehensive Plan.”

Because Mr. Dougherty had warned the Commission early on that his matrix was “about a thousand rows long, and quite extensive,” Mayor Hudson wanted assurances from him that the Board’s approval to transmit wouldn’t also be deciding on something hidden deep within those rows they should know about.

“What you’ve done is, you’ve brought things up to where the statute is, but you haven’t made any changes of the basic Comprehensive Plan that we have in place, something that we should know about,” she said. “Because reading all those charts would be a long haul.”

“That’s correct,” Mr. Dougherty replied. “We’re not proposing any land use changes, and we’re not changing a land use designation or category – it’s all staying the same. We’re just gone in and done the base statutory changes to the document.”

The Commission then voted unanimously to transmit the delayed EAR to Tallahassee.

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