The Port St. Lucie Planning & Zoning Board again faced unhappy St. James-area residents resisting development

PORT ST. LUCIE – For the second time in a month, the Planning & Zoning Board here faced unhappy St. James-area homeowners who opposed granting a future land use change on vacant land so a developer can build housing instead of retail.

The latest developer request on Sept. 7 was to change the future land use from Commercial General to Low-Density Residential for land at the southeast corner of Northeast St. James Drive and Lazy River Parkway. The applicant, KTLC River Place, LLC, needs the change in order to build up 77 single-family homes on the 15.4-acre vacant property originally slated to be a shopping center. More than 10 citizens – mostly River Place Subdivision residents – addressed the Board that evening, insisting the dozens of new homes would strain the infrastructure and change the verdant nature of the riverfront neighborhood. On Aug. 3, homeowners on the opposite side of St. James Boulevard failed to convince the P&Z to deny a similar request from the St. Andrews Planned Unit Development, whose developer received the Board’s recommendation for a Residential Future Land Use instead of commercial on that property. Board’s members and the applicant’s representatives in both cases expressed surprise that homeowners would prefer commercial development over residential in their respective neighborhoods.

During the latest meeting, the city’s contracted landscape architect, Bonnie Landry, provided a brief description of the request as well as explained the basic difference between future land use and zoning. While the former regulates development intensity, the latter controls the land’s required setbacks and allowable uses.

“As you can see from the aerial [photo], the property is currently vacant and the zoning is planned unit development,” she said. “The proposed future land use amendment is supported by the goals, objectives and policies of the Comprehensive Plan. The traffic-impact analysis shows this change in land use will decrease the traffic volume for this parcel.”

After Ms. Landry recommended approval, Board Member Dan Kurek wanted clarification of what could be built under the property’s current future land use.

“Can you give me a short list of things allowed under General Commercial?” he asked.

“You can do a gas station with convenience [store], schools and retail, and that’s specific to the PUD,” she answered. “However, this application will have a PUD amendment. If this [residential] future land use goes into effect, those uses will change, but that’s not for tonight.”

A representative of the applicant, HJA Design Studio President Michael Houston, admitted he’d done the original planning on the River Place PUD and said he understood why the residents were proud of their neighborhood and fearful of change. That opposition prompted him to meet twice with the homeowner’s association and twice with the community development district.

“This is the first step as Bonnie said – this is land use – and we’ll be coming back with a revised PUD,” he said. “At that point, the specifics of the number of lots, accessory uses, [and] the size of the lots will be determined, which will be consistent with the existing PUD. Tonight is the first opportunity to bring in single family that’s very compatible with the existing single family in the community and to work with the community on establishing the standards.”

During the course of Mr. Houston’s presentation, P&Z Board Chairwoman Debbie Beutel wondered how he’d dealt with the local opposition to the future land use change.

“When you had the meeting with the residents, were there opposing items that you could assist them with?” she asked.

Mr. Houston’s response, however, failed to directly answer the question.

“There was lot of discussion, but we believe that the PUD will be supported,” he replied. “There’s a variety of items that will be in the PUD that were part of the negotiations between the applicant and the homeowners’ association. I think they’ll benefit the community.”

None of the current River Place residents who spoke afterward agreed with that assessment, however. Many of them, like Gail Ann Barnes, live on Canoe Park Circle and expressed a preference for a shopping center they could walk to rather than a slew of new neighbors.

“When we purchased our lot, we were promised a beautiful small shopping center at the entranceway with green space and a water feature,” she said. “The developer has a plan that does not follow the concept of River Place on the St. Lucie and is not good for Port St. Lucie. Traffic would enter from St. James and exit from Lazy River Parkway and would make a U-turn there and exit through our front entrance. The parcel should be the gem of River Place.”

One of her neighbors down the street, Darrel Bybee, insisted the property owners’ association had rejected the developer’s residential proposal on three different occasions.

“In every single case, it was voted down,” he said. “They later changed and began lying to us, telling what they could put in, what they wouldn’t put in. They tried to bribe us, offering us $150,000 if we would approve their plan. It’s not the development that we want for our community, and it certainly is not the developer we want.”

Bluefish Point homeowner Eric Romano particularly viewed Mr. Houston’s reference to what could potentially be built instead of single-family homes as an arm-twisting tactic.

“The applicant has threatened to build an eyesore commercial development with 24-hour lighting, rats, dumpsters and truck traffic right behind my house,” he said. “River Place was designed around the environmental vision to include a harmonious commercial development on parcel end. Our neighborhood would benefit from having attractive and well-integrated shops and amenities within walking distance.”

In order to alleviate some of their concerns, Mr. Houston insisted the project would protect the original green spaces guaranteed in the PUD and probably end up with fewer homes than the number Ms. Landry described. He also emphasized that Mr. Bybee’s bribery comment had to do with an offer to improve the aging clubhouse and pool area so that it could easily accommodate the new homeowners as well.

“That is specifically related to improving [and] expanding the clubhouse and some amenities,” he said. “It’s a lovely clubhouse but could use some improvements and other negotiated items, including a small park and some green space kind of amenities.”

After further discussion, Chairwoman Beutel called for a motion, which was followed by a couple periods of extended silence.

“It’s unfortunate, sometimes the motion isn’t what we wish, but it falls within the guidelines of what we need to work with,” she said. “If it follows the Comprehensive Plan – and there is no reason that it doesn’t – we really don’t have any footing to not recommend it.”

Vice-Chairwoman Melissa Stephenson concurred.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” she lamented. “We all are residents here in Port St. Lucie, and the Comprehensive Plan is written, and that’s our guideline. If a project falls within those specific guidelines, [then] it’s very difficult for us to just say no.”

Board Member Kurek then reluctantly made a recommendation of approval, which was seconded by Board Member Roberta Briney and passed unanimously.

Mr. Kurek encouraged residents to participate in the next hearing once it’s scheduled, although city staff had not yet programmed a City Council hearing on the request as of Sept. 17.

“Then you have the opportunity to talk to them, and they’re the ones that make the final decision as to whether or not this goes forward,” he said.

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