Here’s why Martin County’s new growth plan could blow up its urban growth boundaries

Former commissioner argues wording changes remove restrictions, could allow racetracks or water parks on vast undeveloped lands.

Discovery Land

Martin County’s huge swaths of rural, undeveloped land are beginning to look a lot like a playground for the rich and famous. But that could change.

For years, developers, many from Palm Beach County, viewed golf resorts as the greatest return on their Martin County land investment. 

Jupiter-based basketball legend Michael Jordan opened his exclusive Grove XXIII golf course in 2019. CityPlace developer and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is proposing 36 holes on 1,200 acres a few miles to the west. A proposal from the builder of the revered Friar’s Head course on Long Island wants to replicate the exclusive, private golf-course experience on 3,900 acres in Martin County as well.

But causing the most stir is the proposal for a golf-course community from Discovery Land, a high-end vacation destination company catering to the likes of Tom Brady and George Clooney.

(This story also appears in today’s edition of Stet, a newsletter focusing on news of Palm Beach County. Sign up for a free subscription and check it out.)

Unfortunately for Discovery and landowner Becker LLC, its plans have been stymied by the opposition of a lone Martin County resident, lawyer and former County Commissioner Donna Melzer, who put together a challenge upheld in one critical part in March by an administrative law judge. 

At the heart of the challenge is the fear that the changes needed to make Discovery’s Atlantic Fields happen will open rural sections of Martin County to long-shunned commercial development.

At stake is whether all these golf destination resorts will one day be allowed to add restaurants, hotels or other commercial uses, now blocked by Martin County’s rigid urban growth boundaries.

It’s not that these golf-course communities don’t have commercial offerings. They are allowed to have “golf cottages,” which they must control for members only. They can have pro shops and driving ranges and guest-only restaurants. 

But to find a palatable way for the Martin County Commission to approve Discovery Land’s proposal for 1,531 acres east of Interstate 95 and north of Bridge Road, a divided Martin County Commission added a new category of development to its master growth plan in September.

Horses graze on rural land in Martin County in a photo used to promote the Discovery Land proposal. (Martin County Commission video)

Community store ruled commercial

The Rural Lifestyle category allows anyone with more than 1,000 acres to build homes on 30 percent of the land if the other 70 percent is preserved. It allows the homes to be built at a greater density than the one home on every 20 acres now allowed. Discovery would get 317 homes.

It also allows one six-bedroom golf cottage for every golf hole, up to 54, and the cottages don’t count toward the total number of homes allowed. In Discovery’s case, 18 golf holes means 18 cottages. They would be owned and operated exclusively for members and guests. 

Donna Melzer

Melzer challenged the county’s determination that those golf cottages don’t constitute commercial development and on that point, she lost. 

But the 6,000-square-foot community store is commercial, Administrative Law Judge Francine Ffolkes ruled March 17 after a two-day hearing in December. 

While undefined in the county’s growth plan, commercial is banned outside the urban core, she wrote. Ffolkes rejected the county’s argument that the community store wasn’t commercial because it would serve only “residents, guests, and employees” of the development, and be a purely accessory use. She also rejected as irrelevant the argument that a store within the development could reduce traffic outside of it. 

A community store’s ability to reduce traffic impacts does not change the fact that it is a commercial use,” she wrote.

Becker Tree Farm
The 800-acre Becker Tree Farm would be preserved in perpetuity for agriculture under Discovery Land’s proposal. (Martin County Commission Sept. 13 video)

Commercial here means commercial there

If that’s the case, Melzer wrote in her pleadings, adding Rural Lifestyle to uses allowed outside the urban boundary, which the county did, automatically frees future developers to build as much commercial development as they want.

That argument rides on a new definition inserted into growth plan Policy 4.7A.5.

Without Rural Lifestyle it says: “Martin County shall provide reasonable and equitable options for development outside the urban service districts, including agriculture and small scale-service establishments necessary to support rural and agricultural uses.”

That offers no opportunity for commercial development.

But the new definition adds Rural Lifestyle to the list of permitted uses. And Rural Lifestyle has the 6,000-square-foot community store, deemed commercial by the judge, and other uses, such as the golf cottages. Melzer contends the change in that one policy opens the door to any other commercial use a developer could propose.

“I would not be suing if this were all about Discovery,” Melzer said in an interview. “They’re taking down the whole urban boundaries.”

Discovery master plan
Discovery Land’s master plan for 1,531 acres north of Bridge Road.

Racetracks and water parks?

Melzer lost at another stab at wording she said paved the way for commercial development.

Among the many requirements the county would put on the developer under the new rules would be to “provide private or public recreation uses and events that support or complement sustainable rural or agricultural lifestyles and local charities or that provide direct environmental benefit, employment or economic opportunities.”

Racetracks and water parks offer “economic opportunities,” Melzer argued, relying on the testimony of her expert witness, Charlie Gauthier.  

A racetrack operator, for instance, that announced in May 2022 that it planned a 900-acre development in Martin County could move forward under that interpretation. 

That won’t happen, the judge determined, because “recreational uses” in Rural Lifestyle must “support or complement sustainable rural or agricultural lifestyles.”

“The text of Rural Lifestyle makes clear that the recreational uses must be tied to the rural community,” Ffolkes wrote.

Discovery’s land planner, she wrote, “persuasively testified” that examples of such recreational uses include trails that connect to a state park, land for equestrian activities and a golf course, all of which Discovery is offering.

Hobe Sound train station
The historic Hobe Sound train depot would be moved and preserved under Discovery Land’s proposal. (Sept. 13 Martin County Commission video)

After the ruling, Martin County said in a statement that it was pleased that the judge ruled in its favor on all but one issue. The county is evaluating its options and views Rural Lifestyle as a way “to protect what makes Martin County special.”  

Morris Crady

Efforts to reach Discovery land planner Morris Crady and Discovery’s lawyers went unanswered.

Discovery’s plans remain in limbo. Both sides filed pleadings on Monday to persuade the Florida Cabinet, sitting as the Florida Administration Commission. The commission has final say on challenges to city and county growth plans. 

If it is found to be in compliance, the golf course proposals lining up for approvals are likely to move forward.It remains to be seen if those developments would have the right to build public-serving restaurants, hotels or other commercial ventures, as Melzer fears. The county argues they would not.

© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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