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  • Barbara Clowdus

PART 2: THEY ALL TOLD THE TRUTH, AND THEY ALL LIED

Heard pulls strings in the open, behind Salerno’s back

When asked if Jupiter developer Corey Crowley had input into Martin County’s new Innovation Hub plan, Assistant County Administrator George Stokus answers with an emphatic, “No.”


Crowley didn’t need direct input, however, to ensure his priorities and recent Port Salerno property purchases were included in the county’s new economic stimulus plan. Crowley’s personal vision is being implemented without a workshop, or a public hearing, or even one vote to do so.


Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard took care of that.


And that’s the beef Port Salerno’s “Save Our Salerno” activists have with both Heard and Crowley, which spilled into Heard’s town hall meeting Oct 5 in the Port Salerno Community Center, rife with insults and calls for a new District 4 commissioner.


“How is it that one developer can go around the rules to get what he wants,” asks Port Salerno businessman Casey Cass, an S.O.S. activist, “and how does one commissioner have the power to make sure that that developer gets everything he asks for?”


The “rules” for projects proposed within any of the county’s six Community Redevelopment Areas originate among members of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee of that CRA, then go to the Community Redevelopment Agency board to consider, and if approved, are recommended to the Board of County Commissioners. If approved, the BOCC then directs staff to fund and implement the project.


As it stands now, all of Crowley’s proposed projects will be implemented without going through the required CRA process. Thanks to Florida’s Sunshine laws, Crowley’s and Heard’s actions that circumvented the CRA process in Port Salerno can largely be tracked through public records.


CROWLEY’S VISION SLIPS INTO NEW INNOVATION HUB PLAN

Stokus, who oversees the county’s CRAs, was charged by the county commission in 2021 with overseeing the work of consultant Kevin Crowder, owner of BusinessFlare, who was contracted in 2021 to develop a plan to spur innovation and economic growth in Martin County following the pandemic.


The result of nearly two years’ work is the county’s Innovation Hub. The plan focuses on the manufacturers in the Commerce Industrial Park, south of Wal-Mart, tapping also into aviation, marine, health, and higher education interests within its core.


The initial concept area followed Commerce Avenue south from Indian Street, through the industrial area, including Witham Field on Dixie Highway, to Commerce Avenue’s intersection with Railway Avenue in Port Salerno, to connect with the Manatee Pocket waterfront and downtown, east of the FEC railroad. The area includes multiple established marine industries, a seamanship school, marinas, small businesses, resorts and restaurants.

The final Innovation Hub plan instead positioned Commerce Avenue from Indian Street to Salerno Road as the “spine” of the new plan, thus creating a completely new Port Salerno “downtown” west of the FEC tracks.


According to property appraiser records, Crowley purchased two large parcels along Commerce Avenue from Salerno Road to Seaward Street in October 2022 for $2.1 million, after he was unsuccessful in convincing Heard that the county should buy them. The purchase would fulfill Crowley’s vision of a mixed-use corridor similar to Osceola Street in Stuart, he told Heard in emails available on the county’s website.


Directly across from Crowley’s Commerce Avenue property on the east and facing Salerno Road is nearly two acres purchased for $8.25 million in February 2022 by Yuri Lisbon of Miami Beach.


Unlike Crowley’s property, however, Lisbon’s parcels do not extend to the corner of Commerce and Seaward Street. According to the Martin County property appraiser’s records, that residential corner lot has belonged to Alice Carter since 2009.


Crowley began advocating for on-street parking during Port Salerno’s NAC meetings in February 2022, telling members their CRA plan was outdated. Despite Crowley’s 10-month effort, the Salerno NAC did not consider writing a new master plan until Jan. 19. The majority voted no, preferring their current plan, revised in 2009, that keeps their downtown on Dixie Highway with supplemental parking on Park Street and Railway Avenue to support downtown businesses.


Just five days after the NAC’s “no” vote, Heard presented Crowley’s entire plan to the BOCC as one of her “priorities for 2023.“ She confirmed her action in a Jan. 10 email to Crowley.


HEARD MISREPRESENTS FACTS TO COMMISSIONERS

Heard did not tell her fellow commissioners that her map represented an updated vision for the Port Salerno CRA. She did not call it a new master plan. She did not mention the Innovation Hub. Instead, Heard called it “infrastructure planning for Port Salerno.” The digitized, aerial map “I created with the help of some residents,” she said, was nearly identical to the hand-drawn maps Crowley had emailed to Heard two months earlier, which depicted county and FEC rights-of-way, all the Salerno properties he owned and those recently purchased, and the drainage channels leading from the stormwater treatment area into the Manatee Pocket.


Heard described those channels as “unimproved, disastrous, overgrown, probably an attractive nuisance,” yet, she concluded, “Their potential to be used as a county amenity is marvelous.” The Salerno Creekside linear park, which, of course, would require public parking, was officially born.


Heard’s map depicting the rights-of-way and the creeks were accurate. The depiction of recently purchased Salerno properties was grossly inaccurate and a blatant misrepresentation of fact.


Heard included ALL the businesses that Crowley claimed had joined his effort and would become members of his soon-to-be-created Salerno Downtown Authority, such as long-established Bayview Construction on Railway Avenue, among others, and the homes of Salerno residents, who had lived there since 1997, 2002, 2004, and 2009 — all lumped together on Heard’s map as “new investors.”


Her map also showed two large parcels recently purchased at the Salerno Creek terminus of Railway Avenue, (identified in the Innovation Hub plan as future parking for the proposed linear park), which would not be purchased for another two months — perhaps awaiting confirmation that Crowley’s parking plan had Commissioner Heard’s support, as Crowley had announced at NAC meetings.


As early as August 4, 2022, Crowley told Heard that “75 percent of the area” had changed ownership and “the new owners have development plans.” That’s when Crowley also first proposed on-street parking for Salerno Road (the majority of Crowley’s properties front on Salerno Road). He also suggested to Heard in one of his August 4, 2022, emails that the stormwater treatment area and Salerno Creek be turned into a public park.


The map Heard presented was nearly solid yellow to depict new owners from Ebbtide Avenue east to the railroad, and from Seaward Street south to just beyond the retrofit. (The video is available on the county’s website for the Jan. 24 BOCC meeting.)


Heard told commissioners during the Jan. 24 meeting that investors have “really ambitious plans for downtown Port Salerno,“ but in order to preserve Salerno’s historic mixed-use development pattern, she wanted “to help (investors) along and move them in the right direction,” away from building residential units that will “RUIN” downtown Port Salerno.


“The county needs to make sure there’s enough parking,” she concluded, “because this is going to be a game-changer.”


Save Our Salerno activists agree with Heard that adding parking is a game-changer. Cass says, “It will open the floodgates to SB 102 developments.”


The story does not end here. Part 3 looks at the path of Crowley’s projects into the Innovation Hub plan, which was not unveiled to the county commission until July 10, as well as the fear surrounding SB 102 projects.

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