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Two Hutchinson Island residents sue St. Lucie County over Atlantic Wellness Center approval

SOUTH HUTCHINSON ISLAND – Two residents here have filed a lawsuit against St. Lucie County for approving a 220-bed treatment facility here they say will forever alter the residential character of their neighborhood.

Local veterinarian Dr. Cindy Wasserman and fellow South Hutchinson Island resident Gary Cicalese decided to sue the county in June over the County Commission’s unanimous approval May 7 of the conditional-use waiver needed for the Atlantic Wellness Center to begin site preparation and construction on the 22.4-acre site just south of the planned Anacostia Place housing development. Commissioners also approved rezoning the property from its current Hutchinson Island Residential District zoning to Planned Non-Residential Development.

The pair have asked the court in the suit to invalidate both the conditional-use waiver and property rezoning and preclude any future development orders on the $87 million project. The St Lucie County Legal Department issued a response July 12, rebuffing the allegations and claiming the plaintiffs filed their complaint “for an improper purpose” of stopping the project from being constructed on the land based on the “not in my backyard” sentiment. Communications Division Director Erick Gill said Aug. 5, “The county doesn’t typically comment on pending litigation.”

Dr. Wasserman listed several reasons for her opposition in an Aug. 4 email to the Hometown News, alleging the county utilized a “flawed traffic study” and had no evacuation plans for the hundreds of patients who would be without cars while checked into the facility.

“What kind of a drain will there be on our current ambulance/first responder system?” she asked. “Can we handle this?”

During their discussion Aug. 16, several St. Lucie County Planning & Zoning Commission members expressed the same evacuation concern for emergencies such as a hurricane or potential problem with the nearby nuclear power plant. A representative of the applicant, Fort Pierce attorney Lee Dobbins, told them the patients would be taken by ground transportation to the closest similar treatment facility or hotels out of the evacuation zone. That explanation failed to satisfy then P&Z Commissioner Sean Mitchell.

“When we met last month and you said you were going to take them seven hours away to another facility, I had hoped that you would have been more in-depth this evening and have a much more comprehensive plan than what you’re presenting,” he said prior to voting with the majority to recommend denial of the facility.

Mr. Mitchell subsequently beat out then-incumbent Anthony Bonna last fall for the District 2 County Commission seat and voted with the majority May 7 to approve the 200,000-square-foot treatment hospital without mentioning his previous opposition. When asked by the Hometown News Aug. 5 to explain his change of heart, Commissioner Mitchell declined, citing the county’s policy of not commenting on active litigation.

Dr. Wasserman viewed both that change of heart and the County Commission’s refusal to take into consideration the P&Z Board’s recommendation as proof they don’t care about the feelings of the existing homeowners and residents on the barrier island.

“When the county decides to make major zoning changes, against a county Comprehensive Plan with no regard to their constituents already living there, I see a problem,” she fumed. “Against the loud opposition of so many of our residents and even against the [nearly] unanimous recommendation of the Planning/Zoning Board to not approve the zoning change, the BOCC decided that it was in their best interest to change the zoning to Planned Non-Residential Development. This decision was inflammatory to so many of the residents here. What will happen when the next large investment group approaches this BOCC for a large development such as this on this island? It will probably have to be approved.” 

The proposed hospital, which would treat both adults and teenagers suffering from drug and alcohol addictions, would be wedged on about five of the 22 acres between the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park and Middle Cove Beach, bordered by State Road A1A on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. The remaining 17 acres of wetlands would be left untouched. After County Attorney Dan McIntyre made it clear to commissioners at the May meeting they would need the approval of a super majority due to the Planning Board’s recommendation, Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky – in whose district the proposed project lay – made it clear the project had his support.

“As the district commissioner, I could take the easy way out tonight and vote no and still get it passed, but integrity is not defined by doing the right thing when nobody’s looking,” he said. “Today integrity’s defined by doing the right thing when everybody’s looking.”

During that same meeting, District 5 Commissioner Kathy Townsend insisted as a former island resident she understood the residents’ concerns but believed the county needed such a facility.

“This is an illness that is in every single family and affects every single one of us,” she said May 7. “Emotionally I would want to say no to this facility because I would want to support you [because] I see and understand your fear. My heart wants to be with you tonight and say no, but the commissioner in me, I have to think of the bigger picture.”

Dr. Wasserman, however, sees the approval as a clear violation of the Comp Plan, which she insisted only allows for the construction of small shops or convenience stores to benefit the local residents under the non-residential zoning.

“We no longer can trust this BOCC,” she said. “I guess our BOCC has decided on their own to just wing it and hope that their anticipated new tax revenue will justify the impacts on this island. We, as residents should have the ability to decide what is best for this area...for our residents.”

The Hometown News failed to get a response to email questions from Mr. Cicalese by deadline due to a reporter computer error. The two plantiffs have set up a GoFundMe to help pay court costs, which can be found at www.gofundme.com/f/residents-against-the-location-of-drug-rehab-hosp. As of Aug. 6, 45 donors had donated a total of $8,755.

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