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Martin County Fair organizers plan on holding 2021 fair on new Citrus Boulevard site

STUART – The ball is now in the Martin County Fair Association’s court on whether the annual county fair will relocate in 2021 to a 107-acre, county-owned site on Citrus Boulevard near Indiantown after the Martin County Commission voted 4-1 Dec. 17 to approve a 50-year option/lease contract on the land.

Commissioner Ed Ciampi called the lease approval and planned relocation of the fair from its historic Dixie Highway location in Stuart “an end-zone moment” and lauded the work done by the multitude of county staff working on the project.

“It’s been a long process, [and] there’s a lot of moving parts,” he said. “I know our utility folks, engineering – everyone – this was basically a full, across-the-spectrum county government involved in something like this, and you have done very, very well. I’d like to thank Jupiter Island Mayor Todd Wodraska and their Town Manager Gene Rauth because we also needed some assistance and negotiations in good faith with our friends from Jupiter Island.”

The commissioner made reference to help the county received from Jupiter Island officials in resolving a last-minute legal challenge that could have potentially derailed the fair move altogether. In mid-October, the Town of Jupiter Island filed an administrative challenge to oppose the adoption of Martin County’s Comprehensive Plan amendment extending the Urban Services Boundary in order to supply water and wastewater services to the new fairground site. That municipality suggested instead that utilities be provided by the Indiantown Company through an agreement with South Martin Regional Utility instead. County Spokeswoman Martha Ann Kneiss said via email Jan. 3 that the two municipalities resolved the issue in mid-November.

“Martin County is responsible for extending utilities to the property,” she said. “It will be up to the Fair Association to work with other utility providers to have utilities on the property. As for resolving the challenge to the Comprehensive Plan Amendment, the Town of Jupiter Island and the county entered into a Joint Stipulation of Settlement and Dismissal on Nov. 15, and the Division of Administrative Hearings issued an Order Closing File on Nov. 19, which allowed for the option to lease to proceed.”

Commissioner Ciampi specifically lauded Assistant County Attorney Elizabeth Lenihan, Real Property Manager Carla Segura and Assistant County Administrator George Stokus for their efforts in the successful option-lease negotiations. For his part, the latter emphasized the complexity of the agreement negotiations.

“Today before you is the long-awaited approval of an option to lease to the Martin County Fairgrounds for the purpose of running a fair,” Mr. Stokus said. “The option-lease was prepared by the county Legal Department, as well as the Real Properties [and] Administration. On Jan. 8 [2019], the Board did ask staff to come into an agreement with South Florida Water Management [District] and the United States Army Corps [of Engineers] for the utilization of that property. Both of those entities have approved the use of the fairgrounds at that property. Also, the Board adopted a resolution initiating a Comprehensive Plan amendment to allow for the proposed additional driveways and extension of utilities to the property.”

In accordance to the provisions of the contract, the Fairgrounds Association has until Nov. 16, 2020 to finish its due diligence and exercise its option on the lease. Although the county has been receiving $10 annually for the use of the current fairgrounds, the Association will now only pay the city $1 a year for the new location. Martin County may also face additional expenses related to the provision of water and sewer services to the property.

“The costs to Martin County at this time are unknown,” Mr. Stokus emphasized. “However, we will be coming to you at a later date with a CIP [capital improvement projects] sheet for the extension of utilities from the utility provider in Indiantown, as well as probably grants that will be coming from a U.S.D.A. role.”

Commissioner Ciampi then made the motion to accept the terms of the lease, crediting his fellow board members for allowing him to take the lead on the fairgrounds move since the land obtained from the South Florida Water Management District in a land swap lies in his district. He admitted there was still a long road ahead.

“Obviously until you’re cutting a ribbon at the brand- new fair, this is just the next leg of the journey,” he emphasized. “I’m excited to have the fair go out there, and I think the folks in the community are excited.”

Commissioner Stacey Hetherington then seconded the motion, which was followed by several questions of staff by Commissioner Sarah Heard, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the proposed lease due to several concerns.

“The first question that I had is about subletting,” she said as she read from the lease. “So I’m on page nine: ‘the lessee shall not assign this lease or sublet the premises to any other party without the prior express written approval of the county.’ Who do you mean by county?”

“That would come through the Real Property Division,” Ms. Lenihan replied.

“Who makes the decision?” Commissioner Heard continued prodding. “It’s 107 acres – it’s a big county asset – so who’s going to make the determination whether or not a sublease can occur?”

“Usually we would go to the county administrator,” the Assistant County Attorney clarified.

Commissioner Heard then turned her attention to the allowable uses being granted to the Fairgrounds Association and the use of the word “may” in a sentence describing the different educational, horticultural and livestock facilities the organization would potentially construct on the property.

“Shouldn’t that read shall so that we have some control over allowable uses,” she asked. “It seems that may is very permissible.”

Ms. Lenihan explained the aforementioned language was purposely “written to be permissible,” which further frustrated Commissioner Heard.

“The County Fair takes place during one week a year, [and] this will be a facility open 365 days a year or something more than one week,” she fumed. “I would like to see the county have more authority over the allowable uses. May just seems too permissive for me – that’s a deal-breaker.”

When the opposing commissioner realized county staff would be the ultimate authority on approving or denying the specific fairground facilities instead of the Commission, she cemented her opposition.

“It just doesn’t give me the reassurance that there’s any accountability and the transparency that I need in order to have confidence,” she added. “It should come back to the Board – it’s the taxpayer’s asset, not staff’s.”

County Attorney Sarah Woods then jumped into the fray to defend and praise the work done by staff on the option-lease, which she insisted has been used successfully with other non-profit entities in the past.

“The most notable example is the Treasure Coast Children’s Museum where the checks and balances are within the option and within the lease,” she said. “We believe as a staff [that] provides a good path forward to the fair that allows a path to success without putting too many unreasonable restrictions that would hinder them.”

Commissioner Ciampi also defended the contract language and staff having oversite instead of the Board.

“I think the Fair Association has earned the right to have some flexibility on how they will manage their affairs on the properties because they have a 60-year history of doing that,” he said. Commissioner Heard then insisted she had no qualms with the historic fair itself.

“I fully support the concept of a Martin County Fairgrounds, that’s not the issue for me,” she exclaimed. “My first responsibility is to protect the taxpayers, and unfortunately this contract doesn’t do enough to provide the reassurances that I need. Certainly, your dreams are noble and your mission is terrific, and I hope that you are very, very successful, and I am able to eat these words.”

The Commission then voted 4-1 with Commissioner Heard dissenting to approve the option-lease contract.

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