Martin County's Path to Preventing Browardization - Part 2

Article Posted on May 11, 2022

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Studies of Rural Lands Divide, Rather Than Unite

The passage of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, although heralded by all, added to the existing local tension over any change to managing the county's agricultural lands.

The unanticipated challenge that emerged was an increased pressure by Everglades restoration activists to keep the purchase price of Martin County's agricultural land for CERP projects depressed, even if their actions were environmentally unsound.

The most effective word then to stop changes in land use rules? “Browardization,” of course.

Meanwhile, the state's first wild and scenic river, the Loxahatchee in southern Martin County, was drying up. The flow of water to its headwaters was impeded by drainage ditches and the construction of Bridge Road that had become a dam acting similarly as the Tamiami Trail had across the Everglades.

A change in managing agricultural land in sensitive areas was critically important to restoring that flow of water south to the Loxahatchee and to sustain other water systems vital to the health of the state's ecology – including the Everglades.

Yet opposition to any changes to agricultural land management rules in the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan remained firm, despite the obvious harm to our riverine systems.
A New Environmental Group Forms

In an effort to bridge divisions and to learn common-sense alternatives for preserving large amounts of the county's environmentally sensitive rural lands, in 2002 a group of Martin County residents formed The Friends of Martin County.

They invited scientists from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) division to present environmentally sound alternatives for land management.

Among the proposals was the transfer or sale of the development rights of rural lands to create permanent agricultural easements on working farms and ranches, programs already in place at the state and federal level, but not adopted in Martin County. 

Another idea unavailable in Martin County was the clustering of housing units in new developments to create large swaths of open space, fostering wildlife corridors and restoring historic water flows. 

Initial enthusiasm was high to heal the divide among environmentalists, and hundreds attended, says Mary Dawson, a former county commissioner and one of the group's founders.

It didn't last and an all-too-familiar scenario emerged.

“The (anti-growthers) refused to even consider trying to reach consensus,” she says now, “and the meetings devolved into us-vs-them events that lost most middle-of-the-road interest.”

The group disbanded, but asked the county to conduct a study of rural lands to recommend a plan for sustainable management.

The result was the “2020 Vision for a Sustainable Martin County,” a visioning exercise based on the Comp Plan's stated principles, but bowing to the no-growth influence by making the urban services boundary nearly immovable and agricultural land untouchable.

Only one suggested change from IFAS carried over into the report for agricultural land management. It was a now-familiar one:

  • The clustering of homes in a development should be permitted to maximize preservation of environmentally sensitive land and improve water flow.

The suggestion did not make it into the Comp Plan.

Many local environmentalists, including Dawson, said they felt the study had been a waste of money, although it included a land-acquisition map of CERP (Central Everglades Restoration Plan) projects in Martin County.

The hope for a unified effort to address the county's long-range environmental objectives, create wildlife corridors, strengthen the county's agricultural viability, and, in the process, end the strife over rural lands ended in disappointment.

Then Florida Sen. Ken Pruitt stepped in.
Looking at the Entire Treasure Coast

Martin County, Indian River, and St. Lucie counties had not escaped Florida's explosive population growth. Experts predicted in 2002 that the Treasure Coast would add another 250,000 residents by 2030.

At the same time, Florida's second-largest economic driver, its agricultural industry, had been hit hard by disease, storms, and global competition. The number of farms began to decline in Martin County as acreage was sold to large industrial operations or to major developers.

Sen. Ken Pruitt, then representing the Treasure Coast, asked Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004 to sign an executive order establishing a rural lands subcommittee.

The governor appointed 37 members, including names you'll likely recognize as its leadership team: Frank Brogan, then-president of Florida Atlantic University; Dr. Edwin Massey, president of Indian River Community College; engineer Melissa Meeker, former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District (chair); Thaddeus Cohen, then director of the Florida Department of Community Affairs; in addition to Pruitt.

Two members appointed from Martin County included environmentalist and former County Commissioner Mary Dawson and County Commissioner Doug Smith.

Five major areas were investigated: natural systems, rural lands, the built environment, social systems, and the economy. 

After nearly two years of intensive classwork and study, monthly workshops, public comment, and “vigorous debate among members,” the committee produced a 100-page report that encouraged members to update their county's comprehensive plans to incorporate what they had learned.

The results of the most comprehensive study ever undertaken to ensure the sustainability of Martin County's quality of life and the specific steps required going forward got buried under the loud protests of the same zealots who had undermined the efforts of The Friends of Martin County.

They successively controlled the narrative through fear-mongering public comment and a flurry of email blasts chocked full of misrepresentations, exaggerations, and the perennial threat of “Browardization.”

The final report of the Governor's Committee on a Sustainable Treasure Coast cannot easily be found in Martin County, except by those who themselves served on the committee.

The hope for a sustainable future began to slip away.


Rick Hartman
President, One Martin

CLICK HERE to continue to Part 3 in the One Martin series, "Here We Go Again!," which takes a look at the impact of narrow interpretations and the highly maligned Valliere Amendment, both with unexpected consequences.

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

If you would like to review Part 1 in the One Martin series, “Here We Go Again!,” CLICK HERE.