MARTIN COUNTY -- Whether it was environmental activist Maggie Hurchalla being slapped with a $4.4 million fine after losing the Lake Point Restoration trial, Martin County agreeing to move its sacred Urban Service Boundary to accommodate a 3,411-acre development on Citrus Boulevard or a historical meeting of the Lake Okeechobee water managers in Stuart, 2018 was a banner year full of both good and bad news, the perspective frequently depending on which side of the issue you stood.
County voters decide on new commissioner and tax revenue for schools
Sixty-four percent of Martin County voters voted for Republican Stacy Hetherington over independent opponent Joe Banfi in the race for the District 2 Martin County Commission seat being vacated by retired commissioner Ed Fielding. Fifty-seven percent of registered Martin voters also opted to tax themselves an additional half-cent to pay for desperately needed school infrastructure, while 60 percent voted to continue appointing the school superintendent rather than begin having an election to fill the top School-Board position. On the Stuart political scene, residents elected two new faces to the City Commission, Merritt Matheson and Mike Meier.
Six-member jury finds Maggie Hurchalla guilty in Lake Point Restoration trial
The jury of four men and two women only needed 90 minutes to find renowned environmental activist Maggie Hurchalla guilty of tortious interference with the rock mining contract the company held with Martin County. The charges stemmed from her alleged influence over sitting Commissioner Sarah Heard and former commissioners Ed Fielding and Anne Scott. During the trial Ms. Hurchalla joked that all she could offer the owner of Lake Point was a 14-year-old Toyota and two kayaks, and indeed after the trial, the Martin County Sheriff’s Office confiscated those items. She also accused 19th Judicial Circuit Judge William Roby of bias during the trial and asked him to recuse himself, which he refused. Ms. Hurchalla is currently appealing the judgment and the attempted garnishment of her checking accounts.
Martin approves Comprehensive Plan amendment for Pinelands Prairie
The majority of the Martin County Commission gave its blessing to one western property owner’s vision of a unique village northwest of Palm City when it transmitted a request to the state for both a Comprehensive Growth Management Plan amendment and an amendment to the future land use map for the Pinelands Prairie project.
Commissioners voted 4-1 April 24 to extend the Primary Urban Service Boundary westward in order to provide municipal utilities to approximately 4,200 new residences. Commissioner Sarah Heard cast the lone dissenting vote, objecting to the newness of the novel future land use district needed to permit the development and worrying about setting a negative precedent.
Hobe Sound Ranch sues Martin County over property rights
Circuit Court Judge William Roby was set to hear a lawsuit Dec. 17 filed by Hobe Sound Ranch against Martin County for allegedly hindering the development of 2,600 acres off Bridge Road between I-95 and the Florida Turnpike. The company asked the County Commission to extend both its Primary and Secondary Urban Service Boundaries to provide county utilities for the development. Hobe Sound Ranch wants to develop the Harmony Ranch site with up to 2,400 homes, but needs to change the underlying agricultural zoning that limits development to one residential unit per 20 acres. Martin has long hesitated to change the zoning for fear that Palm Beach County would then explode over the line with development. Comprehensive Planning and Site Compliance Administrator Clyde Dulin recommended denial for fear of encouraging urban sprawl April 24, the same day the county approved the massive Pineland Prairie Development just to the north. The results of the trial were not available at press time.
Martin declares state of emergency over Lake Okeechobee discharges
The Martin County Commission officially declared a state of emergency Aug. 7 in hopes of freeing up state funds for emergency responses and potential financial aid for area businesses suffering due to an onslaught of blue-green algae that contaminated the St. Lucie River Estuary for several weeks after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates in early June. Congressman Brian Mast led off the discussion that day, announcing that he’d invited all the water managers in Washington D.C. over Lake Okeechobee to Stuart to see the damage for themselves. The Deputy Secretary of Ecosystem Restoration for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Drew Bartlett, also spoke at the hearing, along with a few residents who complained their livelihoods had been negatively affected by the discharges.
Lake O water managers meet in Stuart
The top brass of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District joined Congressman Brian Mast and the other members of the Everglades Restoration Task Force in a historical meeting Aug. 17 in Downtown Stuart to discuss the Lake Okeechobee discharges and blue-green algae plaguing the area since mid-June. More than 300 people packed the Stuart City Hall Chambers and outside foyer trying to get within earshot of those who had the power and authority to change the situation. Congressman Mast attempted unsuccessfully to convince U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander Colonel Jason Kirk that the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule needed to be changed. Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane put a Southwest Florida face to the discharges, saying the algae-laden releases were destroying his area’s economy.
Stuart targeted by Miami serial plaintiff
On Dec. 10, the City of Stuart became the third Treasure Coast community to
to settle a lawsuit with the now-renowned and legally-blind Miami resident suing every municipality and business he can find whose websites hold documents inaccessible to his high-tech document reader. Both Martin and St. Lucie counties paid identical $10,500 settlements to Mr. Gil earlier this year over alleged website inconsistencies with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The legal counsel for all the municipalities said they would spent up to $60,000 on court costs even if they won, prompting them to save money by settling. Mr. Gil and his South Florida attorney have won settlements from fast-food chains to Godiva, the Ultra Music Festival and the University of Miami, as well as an $105,000 settlement against the Winn Dixie supermarket chain handed down in 2016 by Federal Judge Robert Scola Jr. that is currently under appeal.
Stuart firm breaks ground on new facility
Waterblasting Technologies Inc. broke ground Aug. 17 on a $10 million, 65,000-square-foot facility at 3920 S.E. Commerce Ave. Founded as a one-man operation in 1988 by James Crocker, the company has mushroomed over the last three decades to employ dozens and is poised to more than double that with the expansion to 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The company manufactures a large variety of road- and runway-maintenance machines and it’s latest line developed over the past four years -- Stripe Hog, Paint Hog, Thermo Hog, Rumble Hog and Surface Hog -- have led to the addition of Hog Technologies to the company name. Both Senate President Joe Negron and Congressman Brian Mast attended the groundbreaking. Mr. Crocker began the business in a small storage shed he built on a tiny parcel rented from the Hobe Sound Bible College after graduating from the institution that same year.
Stuart elects to bring interim city manager onboard
The City Commission voted Sept. 24 to offer Interim City Manager David Dyess the permanent position he’d occupied provisionally since commissioners forced former City Attorney Dave Ross to resign from office May 14 after only seven months on the job. The entire Board lauded Mr. Dyess -- the former Stuart Chief of Police -- for improving morale at City Hall, whose previous decline they attributing to the dismissed city manager. Several members of the public also spoke during the hearing, all in support of keeping Mr. Dyess on in the position.
Martin approves 24 new fire-rescue personnel
The Martin County Commission voted 4-1 May 22 to approve a Fire Rescue Department request to begin hiring 24 new employees in order to maintain minimum response times mandated by the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan. Martin County Fire Chief Bill Schobel described the need for additional fire-rescue workers as “critical due to rising call volumes,” particularly in the outlying regions of the county where his forces were stretched thin. Chief Schobel asked the Commission to approve his receipt of a federal Staffing For Adequate Fire & Rescue grant that would fully fund the salaries the first year and then gradually reduce the funding until it stopped after three years. Commissioner Sarah Heard cast the lone dissenting vote, worrying how the county would pay for the new employees after the money runs out.
“You know that grant is real helpful for the first year, somewhat helpful the second year, and by the third year it’s on the backs of the taxpayers of Martin County again,” she said.