Comp Plan amendment and rezoning could potentially bring workforce housing to the area

STUART – The Martin County Local Planning Agency attempted to wade into the waters of affordable housing Oct. 17 but found some of its members loath to accept the higher densities needed on three Hobe Sound parcels in order to make the developer’s plans financially feasible.

The LPA eventually voted unanimously – albeit hesitantly – to approve High Density Residential Zoning on three contiguous lots located between Dixie Highway and South Federal Highway about two miles north of Bridge Road. The new zoning would enable 10 units per acre on the combined parcels, but the real conflict for Board members was the plan by Laurel Lane Holdings, LLC to dedicate a portion of the planned rental community for workforce housing. If eventually approved by the County Commission via the site plan process, the inclusion of an affordable housing component would give the developer a density bonus of five more units per acre for a total of 15 units per acre on the 13.6 acre property. Although the applicant’s representative, Hobe Sound Broker Michale Dooley, showed the LPA an artist rendering of one of the proposed three-story buildings, Senior Assistant County Attorney Krista Storey cautioned its members against considering that during their deliberations.

“This is a proposal to change a future land use map, so any indication of a perspective site plan is certainly not binding on either the Local Planning Agency or the applicant,” she said. “For purposes of a future land use map amendment, a site plan is not one of the criteria that should be considering because it’s not relevant to this legislative policy decision. That is not the criteria for considering a land-use change; the criteria that’s in the staff report – that’s the appropriate criteria.”

When Agency Member William Flanagan continued to worry that the developer would automatically seek the density bonus “because obviously he’s an investor,” Growth Management Department Director Nicki van Vonno offered further input.

“The land use amendment before you is to High Density, which is a maximum of 10 units to the acre,” she explained. “If he meets the criteria for a density bonus, and if his site plan can support getting that density bonus – because there’s a lot of other factors to a site plan besides how many units you get – he would have to document that he meets the criteria to be considered a workforce housing development. But that’s part of the site plan process.”

Ms. van Vonno also insisted that the applicant already had the right to request the bonus on one of the parcels due to its current Commercial/Office/Residential zoning that already qualified for up to 10 residential units.

“This density bonus can apply in those land-use designations as well if they do some type of affordable housing,” she added. “Workforce housing is, if you will, the high end of affordable housing.”

Mr. Dooley then chimed in, expressing the hope that the planned West-Indies style project would indeed help fill an affordable rental housing gap in Martin County while renters save toward home ownership in the future.

“I want to make sure that everybody understands our intent,” he said. “Everybody starts renting before they own, so I want it to be understood that we’re looking to do a rental community and workforce housing because that’s how everybody gets started up the ladder towards home ownership. Workforce housing has always been geared to, as I call them, the first responders: your teachers, your police, your firemen, your nurses. Those folks are at a certain income level as they start their careers, but they haven’t quite saved enough money to buy a home. So, this is a passion to try to generate housing for folks, and you help to move them along.”

Chairman James Moir then asked the applicant’s representative how he planned on handling density transitions in the area.

“There are three properties that you are sort of joining and trying to designate them as a single 10-units-to-the-acre, high-density housing development,” he said. “Can you talk to me a little bit about the transitions between the single-family residential on the Dixie Highway east side, and how this property as a high-density, multifamily development would jive with that neighborhood?”

Mr. Dooley, however, reminded the chair that the property was already surrounded by duplexes and other higher density projects on both the north and south. “I would tell you that Dixie Highway and the railroad line is a natural geographical buffer, and the distance between the single-family homes and our site is significant,” he emphasized. “The project to the south is a duplex community, and the project to the north is an eight-unit-per-acre rental community.”

Two Hobe Sound residents also addressed the LPA during the hearing, both opposed to the density change and the construction of a three-story apartment building in their neighborhood. The first was Kingsway Street resident Hazel King, who adamantly opposed the building depicted in the artist rendering and worried about increased traffic in the area.

“I have a home, and I do not go for this,” she exclaimed. “This thing will stick out like a sore thumb. We need affordable homes – that’s what I thought this was going to be – and not more apartments. We have enough apartments in that area.”

Ms. King went on to stress the need for affordable houses in Hobe Sound, however.

“We need affordable homes for everyone and not only for certain ones,” she added. “We have some new $300,000 houses down there right now that are empty. Those young people down there need homes. I’m 76 years old, but I’m looking for the younger people. So please think about us and help us out.”

The second public speaker, Mark Haller, told the LPA he owned one of the nearby duplexes and worried an apartment building bring down his own property value.

“I’m speaking for three owners in that area that live there, and we would prefer not to have a density change and to keep it low,” he said. “I mean it’s Hobe Sound: People live there because they like living in Hobe Sound. It’s quiet, it’s not busy, so for the record, we are saying no to density change.”

Instead Mr. Haller suggested the developer build either more single-family homes or duplexes on the property, but a brief Hometown News Google property search showed neither would qualify for the affordable homes category or really beat the price quoted by Ms. King. Duplexes in the area of Mr. Haller’s home are currently listed in the range of $275,000 to $300,000.

“Single-family homes would be awesome, duplexes would be fine, but please thing about the people who live there,” he pleaded. “Would you want this going in in your backyard?”

As soon as LPA deliberations began, Agency Member Donald Foley III expressed his support of the Comp Plan amendment request.

“I feel it’s a great thing for Martin County, and it would be nice to have this as a stepping stone and other projects made after this,” he said referring to the proposed apartment building. “I think it would turn out to be a great project. But again, we’re not here for that project, we’re here for the zoning change.”

Agency Member Scott Watson concurred, making the motion to recommend the County Commission approve the rezoning request.

“In our Comprehensive Plan we say we’re going to have mixed densities in our communities for different types of available housing,” he said. “On the workforce housing, we have almost none. We seem to find excuses not to allow the higher densities, and then we complain that we don’t have [affordable] housing for people.”

Agency Member Cynthia Hall seconded the motion without comment, while Chairman Moir continued to express his density concerns, saying he would have preferred having the proposed apartment complex in the Hobe Sound Community Redevelopment Area.

“I think this county definitely needs more multifamily affordable housing, and my concern is this is awfully dense, and it is awfully far away from the urban core of Hobe Sound,” he emphasized. “I think it would be almost a slam dunk if it was in the CRA. But this isn’t, this is a long way out. It is in a sea of single or duplex developments.”

Mr. Watson insisted the CRA had no such land available.

“The cost of apartments is outrageous in Martin County, so we need to do something,” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find in a CRA a piece of property big enough to put a development big enough to have the required density to bring the cost per unit down that this site here has. I don’t know of any sites in the CRA that large.”

The Board subsequently voted unanimously to recommend approval of the zoning change, with both Chairman Moir and Agency Member Flanagan nearly creating an alternative to the traditional up or down votes of such boards.

“Aye with reservations,” the former said. “I’m really concerned about this.”

The latter agreed with that idea.

“Thank you for that one because I was going to say nay,” Mr. Flanagan said. “But I can go with aye with reservations.”

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