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City Council squeaks through special exception for Verano 7-11 despite sea of red-shirted protestors

PORT ST. LUCIE – The City Council found its turn to tackle the special-exception request by 7-11 to build a 3,109-square-foot convenience store and fuel canopy on the southern edge of the PGA Village Verano development Oct. 28 no easier than the Planning Board’s 4-3 vote to recommend approval Oct. 1. At the end of a lengthy quasi-judicial hearing that evening filled with expert testimony by staff and the applicant and the complaints of nearly a dozen and a half residents, Council members voted 3-2 for approval along gender lines, with Councilman John Carvelli and Mayor Gregory Oravec dissenting.

At the onset of the meeting, Councilwoman Jolien Caraballo asked Acting City Attorney James Stokes for clarification due to what she viewed as misconceptions by Verano residents of the actual meaning of a special exception use.

“The residents feel we are providing some sort of favor in regards to consideration of this item, and that is not the case,” she said. “This is a use that is allowed in the planned unit development if they meet certain criteria and certain conditions. It makes it difficult for us, unless we have legal reason by our legal staff, to be able to deny such a request.”

Mr. Stokes then explained that special exception uses were synonymous with conditional uses and that both could legally be considered equal to the absolute permitted uses on a property if they met certain criteria or conditions.

“All that means is that it’s still a use that you have by right, but only upon showing that you meet certain conditions,” he said. “The way land-use law in Florida works, if the applicant shows they’ve met those conditions, then they have the right as a property owner to use that property. That’s why it’s quasi-judicial because you’re applying the facts that are presented to you to these conditions to see if they meet these conditions.”

In response to further questioning by Ms. Caraballo on whether Council members could reject one allowable conditional use in favor of another, the city attorney completely rejected that idea. “With property ownership comes the right to use your property in any lawful way,” he emphasized.

Both the dissenting voters that evening expressed concerns early on in the discussion about potential negative traffic impacts on the nearby neighborhood. Councilman Carvelli and Mayor Oravec also balked at the inclusion of a U-turn lane requested by some residents and at least one Planning Board member who hoped it would keep some convenience store traffic out of the Verano roundabout. Mayor Oravec then questioned Planner John Finizio about that feature.

“I guess one of my concerns with this application is the number of trips that will be generated and will want to cross three lanes of Crosstown to get to a U-turn at the base of a bridge at the entrance to the city,” he said. “So help me understand how we address traffic concern as part of this application.”

Mr. Finizio, in turn, deferred the question to Public Works Traffic Engineer Colt Schwerdt. The latter insisted the legalization and facilitation of the U-turn would improve, rather than hinder, safety in the area.

“We have reviewed the traffic circulation, [and] it meets the requirements of code as far as spacing from intersections for ingress and egress as well as full median openings,” he explained. “The addition of the U-turn lane will help produce a safe turning movement from what some people had noticed that there’s some illegal turning movements happening right now. This will only help by providing a dedicated, safe lane for them to be able to stop and make that movement.”

For her part, Councilwoman Caraballo wanted to know who first suggested the U-turn lane requirement.

“Was the U-turn change because staff felt that would be what they would like to see happen, or was that examined after the residents came to them?” she asked.

Mr. Schwerdt affirmed “it was a little bit of both.”

“It was mainly resident driven,” he emphasized. “But to modify the intersection like that, we do rely some on staffing concerns, and we support that dedicated U-turn lane.”

Planning & Zoning Board Member John Corzine told both his fellow Board members and the residents who attended the Oct. 1 meeting that he’d gone to the spot where motorists have been making the illegal U-turn maneuvers and verified the 19-foot distance he believed was necessary for a stacking lane there.

“You’ve got the room to do the cut-in to have a safe U-turn… so that would keep traffic off of the circle,” he said referring to the primary resident complaint during that meeting

Vice-Mayor Shannon Martin emphasized the fact that some of the regularly permitted uses in General Commercial zoning would potentially bring even more traffic to the area than the proposed 7-11.

“From what I’m reading here, other permitted uses such as retail or others have a much higher trip count, daily trips, listed than what would be generated for the special exception,” she said.

“Knowing that area and how I drive it, I think the U-turn lane is much needed.”

A representative of the applicant, Gunster Law Firm Planner Josh Long, also pointed out during the latest hearing that the U-turn lane was resident driven.

“The U-turn is not something that’s required because of the trips generated from our project, but rather it was something that came up during this public review process from the residents and from staff and identifying an existing issue,” he explained. “We’re just trying to make that issue a little bit better for the area.”

Another representative of the applicant, Kimley-Horn Associates Transportation Engineer James Taylor, agreed with Mr. Long and concurred with the Vice-Mayor’s assessment of the potential traffic impacts.

“The addition of that dedicated left-hand U-turn lane at the intersection is going to reduce the delay more than the delay to be added by the project trips,” he said. “A portion of that traffic is expected to shift from Commerce Centre Drive and the roundabout to Crosstown Parkway.

We went out and did observations… and the conclusions of the report were that the proposed 7-11 is not adding any more trips than could be added by straight zoning today.”

Some of the 17 residents criticizing the special exemption request labeled the very solution proposed by Mr. Corzine and other residents as part of their feared traffic concerns. Verano resident Rick Diaz said he’d previously served on planning & zoning boards in his native New Jersey and believes the additional traffic is going to clog up the roundabout.

“Putting in that turning lane that doesn’t exist is going to be a real problem – you’re going to have people cutting across those two lanes of highway,” he said. “Have you ever stood out there and watched them come off 95? They’re not doing 50 [m.p.h.]. It’s absolutely insane what they’re proposing, as far as I’m concerned.”

Another resident, Monica Weis, espoused what she believed was the truth behind the planned U-turn lane.

“7-11 is specifically courting 95 traffic, and I imagine that in the future they’re going to be putting signs on 95 to show this 7-11 is there,” she lamented. “To do that, they said they’d do the turnaround for us, [but] it’s really for them.”

The first speaker that evening, Bonnie Pomerantz, believed 7-11 officials had not been forthright in a community meeting about potential crime at their convenience stores. The Port St. Lucie Police Department produced a report at the residents’ request identifying crime in a half-mile radius of the city’s existing nearby convenience stores, and the results attributed most crimes to other nearby retail establishments in the radius.

“In Oakland Park in South Florida at a 7-11 there, they shot and killed the clerk two days before that meeting, and when we asked them at that meeting, they didn’t say anything about crime,” she lamented. “We don’t want crime, pollution, traffic and road intrusion due to the U-turn, and we don’t want all these strangers from I-95 that have nothing to do with our community invited in on a downward bridge.”

Near the end of the hearing, both Councilman Carvelli and Mayor Oravec listed a handful of the 12 special exemption conditions they believed 7-11 officials failed to meet. The latter believed the convenience store would hinder the Crosstown Parkway’s primary purpose of carrying traffic quickly across the city and banged the gavel to stop resident applause for his decision to oppose it, telling them he had to “always play it straight.”

“I don’t think that serves Crosstown well,” he said referring to the additional commercial development. “I think that it diminishes it, and I don’t think it serves the city well.”

The Vice-Mayor then chimed in, emphasizing that there’d been no subsequent plan on keeping Crosstown a linear park in that section as the mayor suggested.

“For me I’m going to play it straight as well, and unfortunately, I have to disagree,” she said. “Based on what I have to go by in this section of our code, for the special exception, there is no factual based evidence for me to deny this special exception use.”

Councilwoman Stefanie Morgan called the matter “a tough decision.”

“When I hear staff has reviewed the application for concurrency and this project is found to be in compliance, it’s very difficult for me to go against what is complying with the section of requirements for approval,” she said.

Councilwoman Caraballo then made the motion for approval, which was seconded by the vice-mayor.

These are your laws, and this is your legislative process,” she said. “It would be completely irresponsible of me, in my opinion, to do anything different than what is in our laws. I don’t have the ability to make the emotional decision: I have to make the legal decision.”

After both Councilman Carvelli and Mayor Oravec offered further justification for their opposition, the Council voted 3-2 for approval.

The mayor said via email Nov. 3 that if Publix decided not to proceed with leasing the land to 7-11, the Council could potential use its preservation trust fund “to preserve this gateway parcel” or negotiate a land swap with the company for credit towards a Publix location in Southern Grove. 

“Once acquired, the City could use the property as open space, art, stormwater or even sell it to an acceptable user,” he said. “I think any of these scenarios would be superior to having a 7-11 as the gateway to Port St. Lucie at Crosstown Parkway and I-95.”

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