STUART — The election of two new slow-growth commissioners last August, a pair of vocal activists and the Costco/multifamily quagmire are now affecting how the City Commission here views and handles developer requests for future land use changes desired for residential projects in the city.

After Stuart resident Robin Cartwright formally challenged the Commission’s assignation of a new future land use in 2021 to the Kanner Highway property desired by a New Jersey developer to build a Costco and adjacent apartment complex, other slow-growth proponents saw an opening and used the August Primary election to shift the balance of power on the Board. Even prior to the swearing in of Stuart Commissioners Christopher Collins and Campbell Rich on Sept. 16, the previous Board majority showed signs of slowing down on the recent rash of multifamily residential approvals in the city. The Board majority voted against a Meritage Homes petition on March 28 to change the future land use on a 9.4-acre Commerce Avenue parcel from commercial to residential for a 77-unit townhome development.

Fast-forward to Sept. 26 when Commissioner Collins urged his fellow commissioners to pass a Zoning in Progress – or a de facto moratorium on multifamily residential development – until the city can tweak its land development regulations. The Board unanimously passed it on Oct. 10, effectively pausing the review of all such applications for at least 90 days.

Later on during that same meeting, however, Acting Development Director Erin Wohlitka presented a request by Johnston Development & Construction of Palm Beach Gardens to change the future land use from commercial to multifamily residential on a 4.88-acre parcel on Central Parkway that has sat vacant for the last decade and a half. The city’s Local Planning Agency had previously voted unanimously June 9 to approve the request, but the results of the August Primary – which saw voters oust Stuart Mayor Merritt Matheson for Commissioner Collins due to the former’s support of such projects – is now putting pressure on the three other commissioners to follow suit or likewise end up on the electoral chopping block.

“This specific site was originally planned as a part of the Town Park Condominiums that are located to the north,” Ms. Wohlitka said as she began her presentation. “The first Comprehensive Plan in 1989 designated this site as multifamily residential. Ordinance 1293-93 was a future land use amendment from multifamily residential to institutional adopted in 1993 for the Abundant Life Ministries Church. Ordinance 2106-07 was another future land use amendment that changed the site from institutional to Commercial Future Land Use. It was also concurrently rezoned from R-3 to a Commercial Planned Unit Development for a professional and medical office center, [which] was never constructed. So, this site has remained vacant for the last 15 years.”

Ms. Wohlitka went on to explain that changing the future land use back to multifamily residential would actually reduce the potential traffic impact by some 11,151 daily vehicular trips compared to the existing commercial land use.

“The proposed land use is compatible with and complementary to adjacent uses,” she continued. “Based on staff’s analysis and subject to the evidence presented by the applicant, staff confirm that the proposal is compliant with the city’s Comprehensive Plan [and] is requesting a motion to recommend approval.”

The developer himself, Ryan Johnston, then came to the podium to provide additional details, emphasizing that the land was originally intended to be part of the Town Park Condominiums.

“This project was actually slated to be Phases 7, 8 and 9,” he said. “The developer of Town Park exercised an option to not complete the project, and ultimately it moved into different phases of its life. Our request is to return the property back to its original Comp Plan designation of multifamily residential. This would allow us to move forward with a project that is more complementary to Town Park than a commercial project would be at this location.”

When Commissioner Collins subsequently posed questions about residential density along Central Parkway, City Attorney Michael Mortell turned the conversation back to land use.

“In this particular instance, we are actually addressing the land use and not the zoning at all, so setbacks, parking, height, density, is reserved for the next agenda item,” he said in reference to the Sailfish Cay RPUD scheduled next on the agenda. “I know it sounds strange, but the issue before us is not zoning [and] it’s not the granting in excess of it.”

Commissioner Collins lamented the city’s new policy to separate the discussions, which was actually put in place after Ms. Cartwright and her legal representative fused the zoning and future land use issues during the administrative hearing before Judge Francine Ffolkes late last year.

“This has been another one of those situations where there’s been serious push-back,” he said. “If we’re just going to talk about the future land use of taking commercial property and flipping that to residential property, that’s part of this thing that’s been happening. My concern is seeing the loss of our commercial properties. A lot of conversation has gone around affordable housing, but I think our goal should be to encourage small business in an area like that.”

Commissioner Eula Clarke, who ultimately made a failed motion for approval that evening, first asked Mr. Mortell if a new traffic study was needed for the land use change.

“Since the staff analysis didn’t necessarily have a section on traffic, I just want to be sure we’re doing everything in proper order,” she said.

“The reality is, in going from commercial to residential, the amount of traffic actually goes down,” the city attorney responded. “As a result, you don’t have to demonstrate that the lane miles exist to absorb the new [lower] intensity.”

Jane Cornett, an attorney representing Town Park North residents, urged the Board to approve the request, just as she’d successfully done before the LPA on June 9.

“It was the decision of the Board to support this application as being compatible and complementary to the existing residential units at Town Park,” she said.

Commissioner Becky Bruner, who herself owns commercial property on Monterey Road, insisted that commercial rentals now lagged due to the post effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Commercial isn’t very good right now because everything you want comes to your doorstep,” she said in reference to Amazon and other online vendors. “It’s very tough right now as a landlord to rent any commercial property.”

Mayor Troy McDonald subsequently expressed his support for the request, although he believes the city should not have done the same on Commerce Avenue for a townhome development.

“I, more than anybody, do not want to convert commercial just blindly to residential,” he said. “I think each situation is different [and] this one does need to be turned back to its original land use of multifamily.”

Ms. Cartwright was the first public speaker following the mayor’s comments, fearing that the Board was unfairly leaning towards satisfying the desires of the Town Park North residents.

“When somebody is next door and for it, it seems like the Commission and developers and staff are all for it, but when somebody is against it, we’re fighting an uphill battle,” she said. “I’m not advocating for or against the land use change at this moment; I want to point out the flaws in this process and why this Commission needs to take a step back.”

Another vocal opponent of the Costco project, Linda Kay Richards, echoed that sentiment.

“It seems to me now that we look at land uses as a flippant thing – it doesn’t really matter what the grand scheme of things are,” she said. “That’s why this development pause is so important. Let’s look at what are the right decisions to make us stay our quaint seaside town.”

Sean Reed potentially put the nail in the coffin of the Central Parkway request by reminding commissioners of what happened on August 23 and how that put the Costco proposal in limbo.

“We have two new elected officials, and most of us know why they won,” he said. “I do recall Becky [Bruner] mentioned she would never again vote for a commercial property and a multifamily. Hopefully we stick to it.”

Commissioner Clarke then made a motion for approval, with Commissioner Collins immediately attempting to restate his viewpoint but Mayor McDonald stopped him in the name of protocol.

“Do we have a second for the motion?” the latter asked.

“Is he seconding it for comment?” Commissioner Clarke responded in reference to protocol. Commissioner Collins balked at that idea, however, Commissioner Bruner remained silent and Mayor McDonald passed the death sentence without offering to pass the gavel and second the motion himself.

“The motion fails for lack of a second,” he said.

Although Mr. Mortell subsequently told commissioners they could still listen to the zoning request, Commissioner Collins made a motion to table that item until the applicant determined his future options. Commissioner Clarke seconded that motion, which passed unanimously.

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