A Morningside Drive developer’s request for rezoning ignites larger Martin County traffic discussion

STUART – A handful of Martin County residents helped launch a larger discussion on Martin County’s traffic woes upon protesting a zoning change requested by a Morningside Drive developer for a two-acre parcel located less than 600 feet from Southeast Federal Highway.

According to Principal Planner Catherine Riiska, the owner of the land, Summerland Place, LLC, had requested the change from the current R-3 Multiple-Family Residential District to the RM-10, High Density Residential District, to prepare for future development. Because the R-3 designation forms part of the county’s original zoning dating back to 1967, the land on the west side of Southeast Morningside Drive must be rezoned to the more modern Category A District needed to accommodate future uses of the property.

“The Category A Districts were created to implement the land use policies of the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan,” she said. “The R-3 zoning district is incompatible with the underlying future land use designation of high density residential, and therefore this rezoning is considered mandatory. There are two standard zoning districts available to implement the high density future land use policies of the Comp Plan: the RS-10 and RM-10 districts. The applicant is requesting the RM-10 high density residential district.”

Both Ms. Riiska and the applicant’s representative, Shaun MacKenzie of Palm City-based MacKenzie Engineering and Planning, reminded the members of the Martin County Commission the rezoning had already passed Local Planning Agency muster in March.

“This is a mandatory rezoning, and we do agree with staff and their expert findings that this should be rezoned to RM-10,” Mr. MacKenzie said. “We did receive unanimous LPA approval, and moving forward we do understand there are some neighbors who have concerns. We’ll be working with them as the site potentially moves through any development process.”

Three of the five public speakers decrying the change to high-density zoning were residents of the nearby Pinelake Gardens and Estates manufactured home community who worried about additional traffic complicating what they said was already difficult access from Morningside Drive to and from U.S. 1. Kathy Tomasco said she’s lived in the community for seven years and already heard of four deaths at the intersection of Morningside and Southeast Federal Highway.

“You go to work in the morning, and it might take you 10 minutes to get out,” she said. “I think if we had a light, we could get out more safely. We just had a lady maybe a month or six weeks ago that was trying to cross the street to go over to Cumberland Farms and she was hit because there’s no walk/don’t walk sign.”

Wilma Worsena insisted their development needed special considerations for a traffic light because it’s a 55-plus community.

“We have diminished sight, hearing and reaction problems,” she said. “It’s 55 miles an hour on Route 1, and it’s a very dangerous intersection for all of us. “If you increase the population of the traffic, we’re all going to be in a lot more trouble.”

Pat Taisy wanted the applicant to work with the Florida Department of Transportation to help prove the need for a traffic light at the intersection.

“Please consider carefully changing this to a high-density housing section,” she told commissioners. “We have 525 units, and our only access to Federal Highway is Morningside Drive. I don’t know if there’s been a traffic study done, and I ask that maybe Summerland work with the DOT and figure out something with a traffic study.”

Beth Priddy serves as the president of the Board of Directors for the Southern Pines Homeowners Association, the property owners in another Summerland development adjacent to the two-acre parcel in question. She echoed the safety concerns of the Pinelake Gardens residents.

“In my subdivision we have 27 units, so that’s approximately another 100 to 150 people,” she said. “There’s also a rental unit owned by Summerland Place… and they have a lot of single and younger people, so that makes for probably 1,100 to 1,200 people that are using this one small road to get out to U.S. 1. So, I support everything that they say about a light or something that can be done to help prevent further accidents there.”

Ms. Riiska then emphasized the nature of the current request to the worried neighbors.

“This is a rezoning application,” she explained. “It simply changes the zoning district and modernizes it to our current zoning districts and makes it consistent. It does not authorize any development of this site whatsoever. That will have to come forward in another application -- one that has not yet been filed -- and at that time any proposed development will have to comply with a traffic analysis to demonstrate that there’s no impact.”

District 4 Commissioner Sarah Heard, in whose district the area lies, asked staff about the criteria for building a new access road to such communities that find themselves overrun with traffic.

“I can’t imagine there’s about 600 homes that are accessing U.S. 1 off [what] looks like a really local road,” she exclaimed. “That’s 1,200 cars that are using Morningside Drive as their only access to their homes. So, when does a traffic engineering study rise to the level of requiring new access into a community rather than just continuing to use this single access for all these residents? I can see there’s water on each side, and I don’t see bridges and I don’t see a road, so I don’t see any proposed new roads that are going to access any of these developments.”

Deputy County Administrator Don Donaldson responded that Martin County has a single tool -- its thoroughfare plan based upon level of service for different roads – and no requirement to build new roads for such neighborhoods.

“Largely this area does not have plans for any new alternate connections,” he said. “We’ve certainly looked at the adoption of parallel corridors and even have an item in the Comp Plan to suggest interconnections. However, Martin County has grown with mostly single, dead-end community connections, and the expansion of local roads is difficult. So, we wind up expanding Kanner Highway and U.S. 1, and that’s the challenge that we have.”

Mr. Donaldson also believes former county officials basically tied the municipality’s hands years ago upon deciding to focus more on expanding major roads.

“We have large arterials bordered by local and minor collectors,” he explained. “And our ability to put new roads through like Willoughby [Boulevard], which at one time was going to extend to Cove Road, has been taken off the thoroughfare plan. So, there is no requirement to add parallel or new corridors. We are a community developed of dead-end roads and communities that branch off of it, and this one is no different.”

For his part, Chairman Ed Ciampi said the Commission should plan an agenda item to analyze traffic signal placement on U.S. 1 from the northern county line to the southern county line. He believes, however, that many Martin County residents would prefer to remain isolated rather than be connected to alternative thoroughfares.

“Most of us don’t want to have connectivity through our neighborhoods,” he said. “We don’t want a street that’s currently a dead end to have a little short cut that takes you back out to another road because people will use it. And you don’t want to start to have that pattern.”

Because the Pinelake Gardens residents complained they’d received no notification about the rezoning request, Ms. Riiska assured the Commission that notices had been mailed to all property owners within 500 feet. Chairman Ciampi explained that manufactured home owners who rent or lease their land would not have received such notices. As a result, he said they need to pay even closer attention to the developmental order signs on such vacant parcels.

“So, if a property owner was a universal property owner of a park, that person would have received it,” he said. “Obviously as the owner of the park, it would behoove them to notify their residents. Every time you see one of those [yellow] signs, there’s a project number and a telephone number. Those yellow signs mean something’s coming.”

Mr. Donaldson assured the nearby residents that the county had no legal right to limit development on the Summerland property.

“The land use was established a long time ago for this, they have a right to develop and this is a rezoning required by our Comp Plan,” he said. “I know it’s frustrating with the public to deal with this type of growth, but it’s in our Urban Service District.”

Chairman Ciampi agreed, emphasizing the importance of such infill development.

“It weighs heavily on all of us when neighbors either like a project or don’t like a project because you were there first,” he said. “But when we talk about infill, people don’t like everything being built on the outskirts of town -- it’s called urban sprawl. When everyone says build within the Urban Service Boundary, this is what happens: Some treelined lot near your home is now going to become houses.”

Commissioner Heard also emphasized that members of the public would not have a chance to opine on small projects such as the two-acre Summerland Place development because they would be considered minor site plans. Currently residential developments of 25 or fewer units are not required to go before either the LPA or the County Commission, and the Growth Management Department is currently rewriting the Development Review Procedures of the county’s Land Development Regulations to raise the limit to 50 residential units.

“This proposal, if it passes, and if a development proposal is proposed, it will be a minor development, so it will not come to this Board,” she said. “There will not be another public hearing: It will be approved administratively.”

Even so, Chairman Ciampi urged Summerland Place and its representatives to work with the adjoining residents to resolve any issues.

“My strong recommendation would be for the applicant and their representatives to work with your neighbors,” he insisted. “You heard what the questions were, so be neighborly, even if it doesn’t come back to the Commission. We would expect that.”

The Commission then voted unanimously to approve the rezoning request.

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