INDIAN RIVER COUNTY - As the year comes to a close, Hometown News revisits some of the major stories of 2019.

County continues battle to stop high speed trains

While other jurisdictions along the Treasure Coast abandoned the fight to stop high-speed trains, choosing instead to lobby for local stations, Indian River County continues the battle.

The county has spent $3,499,324 on the train issue since 2013.

County Commissioner Bob Solari accuses Virgin Trains of prioritizing money over lives.

“We have been fighting a corporate entity which basically lied to us from the start,” Comm. Solari said. “A lot of people didn’t believe when we said deaths were going to occur. A lot of people bought into the corporate myth that they were going to do everything they could for safety.”

“There are a series of best management practices for high speed rail which are possible to implement, but which Virgin Trains hasn’t implemented,” Comm. Solari said. “Most of us believe that the simple reason is because they want to save money.”

Virgin Trains expects the Treasure Coast leg to be complete and in use by 2022. Related court proceedings and possible state legislative action are expected in 2020.

Hospital changes

Following lengthy debates and negotiations, Indian River Medical Center officially became part of the Cleveland Clinic on Jan. 1, 2019. Indian River Medical Center is now called Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital.

IRMC conducted an intensive 18-month effort to determine its future that resulted in the IRMC Board of Directors and the Indian River County Hospital District Trustees voting to join the Cleveland Clinic health system.

Cleveland Clinic committed to invest at least $250 million in IRMC over the next 10 years.

At the south end of the county, Lawnwood Regional Medical Center opened a new free-standing emergency room at the site of the old Quilted Giraffe restaurant on US 1 in Vero Beach.

Vero Beach debates future of old power plant, 3 Corners property

The city of Vero Beach launched the design process for the Three Corners, considered to be the most valuable city-owned waterfront property on Florida’s east coast.

The 38-acre parcel at the base of the 17th Street (Alma Lee Loy) bridge is the size of the historic area of St. Augustine. The city has created a Three Corners Steering Committee to guide the process.

Three properties make up the 38-acre parcel. The 17.4-acre electric power plant property is on the northeast corner, adjacent to the Indian River Lagoon. The 16.3-acre wastewater treatment plant property is on the southeast corner, also adjacent to the lagoon. The 4.6-acre postal annex property is at the southwest corner of the intersection of Indian River Blvd. and 17th St.

“Now that we have successfully affected the sale of Vero Beach Electric to FPL, our city’s number one priority is to engage the community before embarking on a plan,” said Vero Beach City Manager Monte Falls.

There are two ways to participate in the process: the design charrette, and the community engagement website. The charrette will take place at the Vero Beach Community Center at 2266 14th Ave., Vero Beach from Jan. 27- 31.

An online hub has been created at Here residents and visitors can follow the process, offer opinions, and comment on other proposals and opinions.

Leisure Square pool saved for at least one year

Following a sustained public outcry that packed several city meetings, the Vero Beach City Council reversed plans to close the Leisure Square pool.

Council planned to close the pool Jan. 1, to save $116,884. That money has now been returned to the Leisure Square pool, at least for one year.

In November, the City Council adopted new fees and rates. The changes, which took effect Nov. 15, are intended to close the gap between what the city pays to operate the facility and revenue from Leisure Square programs.

Treasure Coast massage parlor sex sting

The Vero Beach Police Department, the Sebastian Police Department, and the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office worked with other agencies on a February sex trafficking sting that encompassed the entire Treasure Coast.

Three county businesses were raided in a search for sex trafficking victims, which resulted in about 160 arrests. In Jupiter, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was caught up in the operation. Kraft and other defendants then won legal victories, including a decision prohibiting prosecutors from using the secretly recorded sex videos.

After officials failed to get cooperation from the women involved, State Attorney Dave Aronberg said he had no evidence of human trafficking, and charges for the men were reduced to misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution charges.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office has appealed the decision regarding the hidden camera filming, so this case may still have some twists and turns ahead.

Indian River Shores allows unleashed dogs on beaches

Dog lovers are rejoicing that there is finally a beach in Indian River County where dogs can be let off leash.

The Indian River Shores Town Council voted unanimously to allow unleashed dogs on beaches within the town’s limits.

Dog walkers, including both those who live in Indian River Shores and those who do not, must get a special license from the town Public Safety Department.

Dogs are allowed on the beach off leash from sunrise until 9 a.m., and then from 5 p.m. until sunset. Any unleashed dog on the beach must be licensed, supervised, and under the control of a person responsible for the dog’s behavior.

The town’s leash law continues to apply at all other times and locations within Indian River Shores.

An application for a license to allow an unleashed dog on the beach may be obtained from the Indian River Shores Public Safety Department.

Vero Beach Mayor sparks NRA debate

Who would have thought little Vero Beach would become a flashpoint in the national debate regarding the National Rifle Association?

The fight began when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution that called the NRA a “domestic terrorist organization.” San Francisco blamed the NRA for much of the country’s gun violence, and for blocking legislative solutions.

In response, then Vero Beach Mayor Val Zudans wrote a letter to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that made national news because of its aggressive attack on San Francisco and embrace of the NRA.

“San Francisco’s reputation has quickly collapsed from one of my favorite beacons of culture to a sanctuary for criminals, addicts, and homeless encampments,” Mayor Zudans wrote on city letterhead. “Your stifling big brother government is your downfall. Your most recent action stinks like the steaming excrement on your streets.”

The mayor said “Labeling the NRA a domestic terrorist organization is calling us, millions of law-abiding NRA members, ‘terrorists.’”

Following a passionate debate, a divided Vero Beach City Council decided to stand with the NRA. Without taking a vote, three of the five city council members signed Mayor Zudans’ proclamation, an enthusiastic endorsement of the NRA. The proclamation was signed by Mayor Zudans and Councilmembers Robert Brackett and Harry Howle. It was not signed by Vice Mayor Tony Young, who is now the mayor, and Councilmember Laura Moss, who is now the vice mayor.

Sebastian seeks to limit Roundup and other herbicides

At the urging of residents, the Sebastian City Council debated the use of herbicides like Roundup.

In April, the city council asked City Manager Paul Carlisle for a report on options to control weeds and aquatic vegetation. The move was in response to citizen concerns about possible health risks associated with the use of glyphosate, an ingredient in Roundup.

While awaiting that report, council voted for a temporary, limited moratorium. By a 4-1 vote, the council approved a one year moratorium on spraying herbicides and pesticides in the stormwater system, a 120 day moratorium on spraying in parks and ball fields, and requiring golf course spraying to be at least 10 feet away from waterways.

The moratorium only applies to situations where the city itself is spraying. It does not affect what individual landowners choose to spray on their own property.

Then, at the Dec. 11 council meeting, the city manager presented his report, which calls for public workshops to choose from five options. Mayor Ed Dodd said the goal is to have the first workshop with the public in January.

City Manager changes everywhere

There were City Manager changes throughout Indian River County in 2019.

Fellsmere chose a new city manager to replace Jason Nunemaker, the only city manager Fellsmere had ever had.

Interim City Manager Mark Mathes was appointed by the City Council to the position full time. Council voted 4-0 to suspend an ongoing candidate search and go straight to appointing Mr. Mathes.

Vero Beach stayed in house, promoting longtime city employee Monte Falls as the new city manager. Mr. Falls has worked for the city nearly three decades, and had been serving his second stint as interim city manager following the March 15 retirement of Jim O'Connor.

Indian River Shores hired former Sebastian City Manager Joe Griffin as its new town manager, luring him out of retirement in South Carolina, where he had moved.

Treasure Coast Community Health takes over at Gifford Health Center

In May, the Florida Department of Health in Indian River County, which previously operated the Gifford Health Center, announced it would no longer provide primary care or dental services for children or adults. The change was intended to save $2 million annually.

The Indian River County Hospital District solicited proposals for other entities to take over primary care services at Gifford Health Center. Proposals were received from Healthy Start Coalition, Treasure Coast Community Health, Visiting Nurse Association, and Whole Family Health.

Only TCCH proposed assuming the wide variety of care and services offered at Gifford Health Center. TCCH is providing primary care, family practice, pediatrics, behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, health navigation, and labs.

Education, prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases are also part of visits for all patients who may be sexually active.

All Indian River County residents may use this TCCH location for medical services. TCCH anticipates approximately 11,000 medical visits over the first year, and an additional 2,000 behavioral health visits.

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