Martin County's Path to Preventing Browardization - Part 1

Article Posted on May 10, 2022

Note: It is our goal at One Martin to provide reliable, fact-based information so citizens can be better informed about our government and our community.

Here we go again!

Drill down to the layer beneath residents' conflict over keeping Martin County's agricultural lands rural, and you'll find fear.

It's encapsulated in one word, “Browardization,” characterizing a county south of us with its eastern half completely built out, marked by skyscrapers, condominiums, and traffic congestion.

An unfounded fear?

Some say absolutely yes, pointing to the county's 100,000 acres of permanently protected conservation lands as proof.

Others say no, because Martin County still can be “Browardized” if we dare touch the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan rules pertaining to agricultural lands.

It's a decades-old debate inflamed yet again by a proposal this month to establish a new land-use category, Rural Lifestyle. The Martin County Commission backed away from approval, postponing it instead due to an orchestrated sea of complaints.

This broad-brush approach that over-simplifies complicated issues with simple slogans – Save Martin County, Don't Gut our Comp Plan, Keep Our Good Nature – covers up the real threats.
Let's Take A Brief Look Back

Conservation and environmentalism seem to live within Martin County's DNA. It was firmly embedded by Martin County leaders in the '60s and '70s, likely inspired by Stuart News editor Ernie Lyons' local fishing columns and environmentalist Nathaniel Reed's state and national work in environmental protection.

The county commissioners of that time, including Timer Powers, Frank Wacha Sr., Jim Bruner, and William “Doc” Myers, made it clear that environmental conservation and open space for residents would be the priority in Martin County over concrete and steel.

That's when the idea of limiting the heights of buildings to four stories was born. It was not an arbitrary choice.

Several factors contributed to the decision, including the length of fire truck ladders, that would ensure residents would always enjoy an unfettered skyline and ocean breezes. It set the bar for Martin County's distinctive differences from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.

“...but the big push came from Timer,” said Paul Siefker, an Indiantown resident and builder who was then a member of the Martin County Zoning Board appointed by Powers. “He really wanted to make sure there were no hi-rises on Hutchinson Island, ever.”

The '60s also saw a broader belief that local government could play an active role in wildlife conservation, environmental protection, water restoration, and providing a good quality of life for all residents by planning for it.

In addition to establishing four-story height limits on Hutchinson Island in 1968 -- 14 years prior to the county's first Comprehensive Growth Management Plan adopted in 1982– the county established the state's first waterfront setback line along its beaches to protect its sand dunes, and launched a public campaign to purchase 800 feet of the island's beaches for public ownership.

School children alone raised more than $36,000 to aid in the successful effort.
First Attempts to Create Sustainable Agriculture

Conservation efforts had focused primarily on the coast through the 1980s; however, the growing population in the coastal areas, the lack of affordable housing in Martin County, and the need to create a more robust agricultural economy in Martin County pressured commissioners to look south and west to our rural lands.

They recognized the need to plan for the future.

County leaders requested the assistance of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council in 1994 to develop a more comprehensive plan for future growth. They wanted to focus on the sustainability of rural Martin County, particularly southern Martin, where the urban services boundary dips eastward from I-95 at Kanner Highway to within two miles of the coast at the Palm Beach County line, then encompassing 191,000 acres of land.

The acreage was zoned for agricultural use only, the majority of which allowed only one home per 20-acre parcel. The land closer to the urban services line often was zoned at one home per five-acre parcel, designated as agricultural ranchettes.

Residents gathered in day-long charrettes to indicate their preferences with color stickers on a map of southern Martin County. Combined with scientific data and analysis, resident preferences were published in 1995 in a final TCRPC report.

Among residents' observations during the study was a preference for rural living – small villages surrounded by farms, gardens, and natural areas – as a legitimate alternative to living in urban or suburban neighborhoods, without expanding the urban services district.

That observation – printed in the draft but excluded from the final report – and the overall exercise made little impact on rural land management rules found in the county's Comprehensive Growth Management Plan and Land Development Regulations.
A Second Study Launches

Three years later, the county commission with Commissioner Donna Melzer as chair, directed staff and local consultants to conduct its own sustainability study of Martin County with focus on rural lands, including Indiantown. Among those appointed were future county commissioners Michael DeTerlizzi and Doug Smith.

A comprehensive report was released after a year of study and public workshops, one of which drew more than 200 residents to the county fairgrounds. Interest was high, but again the results made little impact.

In fact, when the final report was presented in 1999, the county commission majority refused to accept the economic element, which included plans for the development of small rural villages in western and southern Martin County and a broader range of manufacturing in Indiantown.

With the decline in agricultural profitability in the face of higher risks, farmers adjacent to the urban services boundary in the targeted areas yielded to the temptation to sell their land to developers.

The sale of rural lands – coupled with two studies urging changes to our land-use rules – prompted new no-growth groups to be formed under an environmental protection banner.

Other groups were re-energized, and the term “Browardization” began to surface in public commentary.


Rick Hartman
President, One Martin

CLICK HERE to continue to Part 2 in the One Martin series, “Here We Go Again!,” which revisits other studies in the early 2000s, now lost or abandoned, to address the same issues we face today. 

If you would like to review the Introduction in the One Martin series, “Here We Go Again!,” CLICK HERE.