Miami-based Reserve Residential Village, LLC wanted to amend Vistana development to permit rental apartments

FORT PIERCE – A Miami-based developer withdrew his application Sept. 27 to amend the Vistana Resort at the Reserve Planned Unit Development in PGA Village to permit rental apartments instead of timeshare units in the face of residential opposition and a denial by the St. Lucie County Planning & Zoning Commission.

Representatives of the Reserve Residential Village LLC initially appeared before the P&Z Commission on July 15 to explain the request to amend the PUD and rename the undeveloped portion of the PUD as the Vistana Resort at the Reserve & Residential Village. According to county staff, the original development agreement with Sheraton had been approved for a total of 27 three-story buildings housing 387 timeshare vacation units. Only 42 units in three buildings were ever completed, however, due to a downturn in the timeshare market. The amendment request resulted from Sheraton wanting to sell off the undeveloped land so the Miami-based LLC – whose principle is listed as Ricardo Blas – could built nine buildings housing 324 rental apartments instead.

That request launched a firestorm of protest in PGA Village, led by the opposition movement’s de facto leader PGA Village Property Owners Association President Steve Navaretta. Despite a persuasive argument that evening by Landscape Architect Dan Sorrow that nearly half the 25-acre site would be dedicated to preservation and green space, Mr. Navaretta claimed his Architectural Review Committee listed 17 reasons for opposition after meeting separately with Mr. Sorrow and other Reserve Residential Village representatives.

“If you look at Section 51 of the development order resolution, there’s absolutely no ability to convert from timeshares to apartments,” he said last July.

Once the P&Z Board voted 7-2 to recommend the St. Lucie County Commission deny the request, the HOA president mustered the troops for the Aug. 17 hearing. Their efforts were short-circuited that day, however, when the Planning & Development Services Department requested a continuance of the hearing until September. After Associate Planner Kristopher McCrain recommended the date of Sept. 27 to the Board of County Commissioners for the continuance, Chairman Chris Dzadvosky invited the PGA residents and other members of the public in attendance to speak. One of those was James Gilenbach, the chairman of the Architectural Review Committee, who insisted the 12 proposed three-story buildings would be out of character with existing PGA architecture.

“This is basically a project designed for some other community and brought in here and plunked on the site plan,” he said Aug. 17. “There was no consideration for our community in the design of these buildings.”

The HOA president’s wife, Mary Jean Navaretta, also lambasted the Reserve Residential Village’s proposal, which included flat roofs on the 12 buildings instead of the more ornate design of the existing timeshare units.

“The proposed development fails to integrate into the natural landscape,” she said. “The proposed buildings look industrial and institutional and not at all like the single-family homes in their midst where not a single flat roof is evident.”

Two members of the public did speak out in favor of the project that same evening. One was realtor and PGA homeowner Anthony Gamberdela, who believed more reasonably priced housing was needed in the area and got booed down by his neighbors for his effort.

“We have seven years of backlog for anyone to live in this county that’s going to be affordable because people are moving here,” he said. “Everyone in this room is saying it doesn’t look nice. Well, they can change the aesthetics. We’re asking for a little bit of time to redo this.”

None of the applicant’s representatives spoke Aug. 17, although one of them – Stuart-based Land Planning Attorney Bob Raynes – did submit a letter suggested a continuance date of Sept. 21, which didn’t work for the County Commission. When some of the PGA residents wondered why county staff would want to continue the request rather than have the Commission vote on it that evening, Assistant Planning Manager Kori Benton emphasized that it was a need for more clarification on exactly how much of the original PUD was needed for the development.

“It appears there was a discrepancy in the owner’s authorization [of] scope, and the corresponding survey, site plan and legal description considering the acreage and the particular land considered for the new PUD for consideration by the Board,” he said.

Commissioners then voted unanimously to continue the hearing to a special session on Sept. 27. On that date, County Attorney Dan McIntyre opened the hearing and dropped the bombshell on the 10 or so members of the PGA Village in attendance.

“We have received a withdrawal request that’s been provided to the Board,” he said. “Under the Code, since the hearing was advertised and then continued, the Code says that we actually have to formally accept the withdrawal. Staff is recommending approval.”

Because the rescheduled hearing had been quasi-judicial, Chairman Dzadovsky asked the county attorney if commissioners needed to disclose any ex parte communications they’d had with the applicant or his representatives. That latter nixed that idea.

“First of all, I think we probably disclosed that the last time we were here,” Mr. McIntyre said. “The withdrawal would trump that if you accept. If you choose not to, you would need to have the disclosures. I think at this point procedurally we’re at a point where the applicant has decided they are not going to proceed. So, we initially just need to say we accept or don’t.”

None of the Reserve Residential Village LLC representatives identified themselves as present that evening or offered any explanation for the sudden withdrawal, and Chairman Dzadovsky did not invite the 10 or so members of the public in the Chambers that day to speak. The Commission subsequently voted unanimously to accept the withdrawal, which was followed by a round of applause by contented PGA residents. The Commission chairman then acknowledged those involved in the public hearings to-date.

“I want to thank the public for being so participatory in this process,” he said. “We want to thank all the applicants’ time and energy, certainly our staff, and we appreciate the effort.”

The Hometown News sent a series of questions to Mr. Raynes on Oct. 1 to find out the reasoning behind the sudden withdrawal and whether the Reserve Residential Village LLC had plans to revise the architecture of the proposed apartments or to build a commercial development on the same land, which it had a right to do. The attorney, in turn, forwarded those questions to Stacy Weller Ranieri, the president of The Firefly Group that handles the developer’s public relations. In her email response, Ms. Weller Ranieri did not specifically address some of those questions and referred to the AHS Residential development company for which Mr. Blas serves as the chief operating officer.

“We have withdrawn our plans for the project at this time for technical reasons,” she wrote Oct. 4. “AHS believes, however, that the need for high quality rental communities such as the one we proposed is only going to grow. Had the Reserve Residential project moved forward, it would have helped meet the market demand for this important housing option. AHS would have made over a $50 million initial investment in St. Lucie County while creating hundreds of jobs and generating millions of dollars a year in recurring tax revenue for the county.”

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