During a recent County Commission meeting, Growth Management Director Nicki van Vonno presented a report on the expected availability of residential housing over the next 15 years. On paper, things looked fine. But as the discussion unfolded, it became clear that reality looked starkly different.
For seven years, the county’s professional planners have been forced to use a flawed formula for determining how many people are projected to need housing in the future. This methodology was adopted by the no-growth commission majority in 2013, for the purpose of stifling growth in our community. The impacts of their political maneuvers are now being felt today.
Bound by the flawed methodology, the Growth Management staff has to “pretend” that not one person has moved into or been born in Martin County since 2010. If the population hasn’t increased, the formula assumes that vacant homes in 2010 are still vacant and therefore available to meet future population demand.
County planners also have to “pretend” that every vacant lot zoned for residential housing can build the maximum number of housing units allowed – even if the lots are underwater. Or have no access to a road, or had no water and sewer lines to connect to. Or the lots are too small to accommodate all the requirements for density transition zones, upland habitat, wetlands, and buffers. In other words, it makes no difference if the parcels are unbuildable. These “ghost” units are counted anyway.
To properly determine the county's land capacity and need for new homes, which is mandated by the County’s own Comprehensive Plan and state growth management laws, requires an accurate count of people, vacant housing units, and vacant buildable parcels.
Using the flawed formula, county planners were forced to conclude there is no urgency to plan for the future. That virtually all future residents who want to move here in the next 15 years will have to live in the recently approved Pineland Prairie – a project that at buildout is planned to have 4,200 housing units. Of note, is that Pineland Prairie has not been approved for any near-term development and will not be built-out for another 20 years or more. An absurd conclusion? You bet it is, but staff is bound by nonsensical methodology.
According to local builders and consultants, the actual number of usable vacant parcels (larger than 10 acres) that can be developed to accommodate market rate housing can be counted on one hand.
It means many of the people we depend on to work in your hospitals, teach in our schools, and keep us safe can’t find an affordable home to buy in Martin County. It means each morning and night they drive to neighboring counties, where a decent home can be purchased for far less than in Martin County. They collect their salaries here, but spend their money elsewhere and boost our neighbors' economies.
And while limiting housing supply drives up home prices, it also drives away the hopes and dreams of many people who want to remain in, or move back to, Martin County but can’t find a home they can afford – or any new housing inventory. Ultimately this worsens traffic congestion and results in fewer residents carrying the burden of county taxes that inevitability will increase, as our quality of life declines.
Fortunately, a planning workshop last fall organized and hosted by 1,000 Friends of Florida and the Guardians of Martin County, impressed on our county commissioners that good planning begins within the urban services district. Good planning dictates that counties MUST make it easier, not harder, for residents to own or rent homes or else they will suffer the consequences of urban sprawl, destruction of our natural resources and increased pollution.
The current county commission – with the exception of Commissioner Heard – instructed the county's Growth Management staff to research the latest technologies and best methods for determining the county's “actual” residential housing capacity, and bring their recommended methodology back to the commission for approval.
It is a major first step to getting accurate, factual information in planning for Martin County's next 30 years. Taking action based on facts, rather than rhetoric, has always been the goal of One Martin. We ask you to become more informed about this issue and stay engaged. Our future quality of life depends on it.