FORT PIERCE – A 16-acre site on Rouse Road languishing in the northeastern fringes of St. Lucie County since the 2004 hurricane season laid waste to the former Rio del Mar Mobile Home Park may see new life as an upscale housing development after a unanimous vote by the Planning & Zoning Commission to recommend approval.

The decision came after a marathon discussion Jan. 17 that included testimony by several staff and outside experts amid concerns expressed by adjoining property owners that the 62-unit mix of single-family homes and townhouses would contribute to the already poor drainage on their land adjacent to the Indian River Lagoon.

Senior Planner Kori Benton told P&Z commissioners that applicant Fort Pierce River Park LLC was requesting a zoning change from the RMH-5 mobile home zoning district to Planned Unit Development in order to begin transforming the land into a high-end boating community named Sanctuary Cove.

“Highlights of this proposed preliminary PUD plan include redevelopment of the site and the introduction of 62 residential units, consisting of 25 single-family home lots and 37 two-story townhome units,” he said. “The residential density of this proposed project is 3.88 dwelling units per acre, which is consistent and under the allowable density within the urban residential land use, which permits density up to five dwelling units per acre. Other highlights include converting the previous onsite septic to a sanitary sewer connection tying in to St. Lucie County utilities and an onsite potable water plant, with the capacity to connect to St. Lucie County Utilities infrastructure expansion along north U.S. Highway 1.”

The PUD also proposes several recreational amenities throughout the gated community, including a pool, cabana, boat ramp, boardwalks through the mangrove wetland areas and boat storage for residents. Although the preliminary plan proposed dedicating slightly more than half of the 15.99 acres to open space, some commissioners resisted the developer’s request to slash the 50-foot wetland buffer behind some of the planned homes to only 25 feet.

“The plan does propose a wetland buffer impact waiver that would be subject to review and consideration by the Board of County Commissioners during their consideration of the final PUD plan,” Mr. Benton admitted.

Commissioner Edward Lounds then pressured Mr. Benton for further clarification.

“What does the waiver of the wetlands entail?” he asked. “That concerns me a little bit.”

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has evaluated this site and claimed some jurisdictional wetlands… along this manmade canal, as well as some areas out towards Rouse Road west of this entrance,” he responded. “The applicant’s requesting some wetland waivers and buffer waivers along the canal: Whereas the county would require a 50-foot-wide wetland buffer, the applicant’s seeking a reduction to 25 feet to provide these nine single-family homes on the south side and the eight single family home lots to the north and the amenities of the pool and cabana.”

Mr. Benton also explained that the Rio del Mar Mobile Home Park had been developed without such buffers so the applicant’s proposal would actually be “providing a buffer of 25 feet, which is not currently existing with the previous development or impact areas.”

A representative of the applicant, Fort Pierce land planner Greg Boggs, defended Fort Pierce River Park’s waiver request as valid since the waterway behind the proposed homes the Army Corps designated as wetlands is actually a manmade canal that he said was exempt from the county’s 50-foot minimum buffer.

“I’m asking a waiver on the canal because the Corps also claimed mangroves along the canal, isolated mangroves that germinated after the canal was constructed,” he said. “I’m asking for a waiver on that 25 feet so we can have a viable, buildable area on the lots abutting the canal. When you look at the site and you see what happened during the mobile home park life, there are concrete slabs and rubble to the water’s edge. So, we’re providing a good, revegetated landscape with natives, a buffer on both sides of the canal where none existed before.”

Newly installed Commissioner Lawrence “Beau” Slay brought up the subject of the area’s historically poor stormwater drainage, telling his fellow Board members that he’d walked the property in question earlier that day and spoken with some of the neighboring residents fearful of how the new development would negatively affect their existing homes. He particularly highlighted the nine, 2,400-square-foot homes planned along Rouse Road, which the PUD described as ‘Type A’ housing.

“It looked to me that where Type A would be built is already a foot or two above the homes that already exist there,” he said of those across the street. “I spoke with a lady who lives on the corner, and she showed me where they have tried to combat the flooding issues that are already there. There’s already a pipe coming across the road where they dug the road up and it goes into that canal between the homes. She says they’re having quite a bit of difficulty with that canal filling in from water flow they already have without this property being built.”

Mr. Benton explained that the Planning Department was requesting additional right of way from the applicant as a developmental condition in order to improve drainage along the roadway in question.

“The county’s requesting anywhere from five to 10 feet of right of way along Rouse Road that would provide the ability for introduction of additional drainage in the form of a swale or a closed system along Rouse Road, and that could service these particular lots,” he said. “This particular section of lots does range anywhere from an elevation of three and a half to five, and the application is proposing an elevation of six. That would place some stormwater drainage toward the front of the property. However as far as the stormwater capacity and whether water would be displaced from these nine lots to other homes or other residences, I’m not certain that that’s been validated or detailed on a model.”

Rouse Road homeowner Amy Wright worried that her lower elevation home across the street would be facing a wall of water flowing from the proposed new Type A homes built at a much higher elevation.

“I’m also very concerned about the drainage as our some of my neighbors that Mr. Slay spoke to,” she said. “I’m always wondering what am I going to be looking at across from me and how high will it be and how will the water run off? We really don’t have answers to that right now except for ‘they’re not going to build up, and it won’t run off.’ I’m not sure I believe that.”

Another area resident, retired Coast Guard commander Randall Farmer, lives on Peninsula Drive in the adjacent St. Lucie Village development and talked about how other property owners had worsened the area’s drainage in the past.

“To this day now whenever it rains really hard, Peninsula Drive is about six to eight inches underwater – you don’t see the road anymore and my yard is nothing but a lake,” he said. “Any kind of building that alters that is going to be devastating. My house is going to be ruined.”

Mr. Farmer even went as far as suggesting the county restrict development on the former mobile home park site in order to preserve the natural environment has other states do.

“You’ve got alligators that live in there, you’ve got panthers, you’ve got bobcats… that is an ecosystem that is untouched, and now we’re getting ready to destroy it,” he said. “You’re not even considering the impact of 60 buildings when realistically you could build something that corresponds with the rest of the neighborhood. In Washington state and Hawaii, you’ve got so many acres per house to preserve the environment. Anything you do has ramifications, and sometimes the ramifications can never be reversed.”

In response to further questioning by Commissioner Lounds about the neighboring residents’ drainage fears, project engineer Stephen Cooper explained how the drainage along Rouse Road operates while emphasizing the fact that a portion of it is under the municipal control and responsibility of St. Lucie Village.

“There was an improvement project done on Rouse Road to provide drainage on the south side when they repaved it,” he said. “When it turns to the south there, that’s St. Lucie Village, it’s out of the county. The drainage project… collects the water on the south side and it attenuates it with a structure that discharges into this area right there.”

Mr. Cooper emphasized that the proposed Type A homes along Rouse Road would actually drain in both directions and so would only contribute part of their stormwater to the roadway’s swale.

“The back half of the lots may go back that way [to the manmade canal], and the front half of the lots will go to the front,” he said while pointing to the PUD map. “They’ll go to a swale on Rouse Road, and right now there’s an existing swale there that goes to a pipe that leads to a canal. We are proposing onsite retention and detention facilities that are not wet retention, they’re dry retention, and that system will provide state-standard water quality treatment, which it doesn’t have now. And it’ll attenuate the water to pre- versus post-conditions for all the water quantity storms that we review in permitting.”

Commissioner Lounds subsequently made a motion to recommend approval of the project subject to the numerous conditions stated by Mr. Benton but with the caveat that the developer keep the project’s stormwater onsite.

“I’ll make that motion considering the fact that I think the developer needs to keep his water on his own property, address the issues of water flowing south off of the neighborhood and make sure that that swale does not come across Rouse Road and impede the quality of life to these people,” he said.

Commissioner William Smith seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

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