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  • Barbara Clowdus

PART 4: THEY ALL TOLD THE TRUTH, AND THEY ALL LIED

Revealing the unsavory path to a ‘new’ Port Salerno

The irony is unmistakable. During the same week that Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard denounced fellow commissioners for amending the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan in a public hearing to permanently preserve 70 percent of a project’s 4,000 acres of open space in western Martin County, she’s plotting behind the scenes with developers to build a whole new city without public input.


Their plan contravenes Port Salerno’s CRA (Community Redevelopment Area) plan, thus violating the Comp Plan, with no public hearing, no resident input, and no vote taken.

Don’t believe it? Hold your judgment until you’ve read the 240 or so emails among Heard, Jupiter developer J. Corey Crowley, and Assistant County Administrator George Stokus starting in June 2022. All three convinced themselves and others that the developers’  desires follow Salerno’s CRA plan and respect this small fishing village’s history. They do not. The residents know it, but seem powerless to stop it.


Crowley’s emails even suggest to Heard to halt other CRA projects in order to increase the Salerno CRA “trust fund” pot for “bigger priorities” on the west side of the FEC tracks, where he now owns 14 properties, 12 of which he purchased since January 2022.


To that end, Crowley convinced Park Drive residents that the project to elevate the south end of their road, designed to protect their homes from storm surge and king tides, would instead cause their houses to flood. He also emailed Stokus and Heard multiple times that Crowley would sue the CRA if they “continued to bully the residents” into accepting the project.


“Once we end the Park Drive project,” Crowley tells Heard in his April 26 email, “the CRA office will have the time and money to be refocused on what is actually needed.”


Crowley got what he wanted. On June 8, Stokus told NAC members that “the administration and the commissioner” withdrew the parking project, according to minutes of the meeting, although it had been a Port Salerno priority since 2019 and strategies to add parking east of the FEC tracks had been discussed for decades.


The Salerno NAC had voted to have the parking project’s consulting engineers re-examine the plans, and the CRA Board requested they attend the May 22 CRA meeting personally to address residents’ concerns.


Both requests were ignored.


CROWLEY TELLS HEARD: SKIP NAC, CRA, GO TO BOCC

Crowley decided by December of 2022 that it was necessary “to start going around the CRA staff,” he wrote in an email Dec. 5 to Heard.


“I have been very aggressive in my communication of the opportunity (to redevelop Port Salerno) only to be met with obstacles and bureaucracy,” Crowley said in his email. “That will not change without intervention.”


The county staff had insisted on following the CRA process — ideas originate with the NAC, go to the CRA, then to the BOCC for approval. Crowley had been told repeatedly that his ideas were not Port Salerno projects, and to present them to the Neighborhood Advisory Committee for consideration.


Crowley went on to tell Heard to direct CRA Manager Susan Kores to lease the FEC railroad rights-of-way along Railway Avenue. The next day, Heard sought and received permission from the Board of County Commissioners to seek FEC leases in Port Salerno for parking. As a result, the CRA staff persuaded the NAC to add FEC leases to their list of parking concepts to investigate, although it had been considered years earlier and rejected due to cost.


In January, after Heard presented Crowley’s pet projects as her own priorities Jan. 24, the CRA administrative staff presented the same list of priorities as “potential Port Salerno projects” at the NAC’s Feb. 8 meeting.


Perhaps not recognizing the potential projects as part of Crowley’s “master plan,” which the NAC previously rejected Dec. 8, 2022, the NAC selected some (marked by asterisks) for a feasibility analysis by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council:— Railway Avenue Extension (Cove-Salerno)*— Parking Lot at Railway/Salerno— Driftwood Avenue Roadway Improvement*— On-street Parking, Ebbtide from Cove to Salerno (and other potential streets)* — Creekside Linear Park/Boardwalk— FEC leases*


The NAC also voted to complete their other projects first, including the Park Drive/Seaward Avenue parking project, while they considered future projects.


By October, the “potential” was dropped from the list prepared by the CRA staff for CRA board and NAC meetings, and this month, those became part of Port Salerno’s 2024 budget project list with no discussion or vote, according to the Salerno NAC’s Dec. 14 agenda.


AN ABRUPT CHANGE OF DIRECTION

After Heard’s Jan. 24 announcement of her priorities, the commissioner notified Crowley in an email Feb. 1, “We will immediately create a Capital Improvement Program sheet for the (linear park) project and advance design funding.”


Heard confirmed to Crowley that the plan would include the area surrounding the current stormwater treatment area — known as the Salerno retrofit — not just the creek. She told commissioners that building a linear park is part of Salerno’s original Community Redevelopment Plan. It is not and never was.


After Heard told Crowley Feb. 1 that she was submitting requests for design and funding for the linear park, Crowley purchased an additional property Feb. 16, adjacent to the county’s Salerno retrofit right-of-way.


The county’s public works engineer, who inspected Salerno Creek for Crowley in December, told him that a bridge to provide public access from Ebbtide Avenue would be needed. Crowley bought the property Feb. 16 and now owns the Ebbtide property identified by county staff as needed for access to the STA, as well as two other parcels along Salerno Creek itself.


Crowley told Heard in his February emails that the linear park plan was “great” but it was going to be insufficient incentive for developers to build mixed-use projects like Stuart’s Osceola-style streetscape, instead of just residential units. They needed to see a “significant investment” in the county’s parking infrastructure.


“This dream can ONLY be realized if the county builds parking BEFORE we build,” Crowley told Heard. “Otherwise no developer will take the risk and, will instead, build multi-family apartments for which there is endless demand.” (Crowley’s threats to build apartments increased more frequently and intently after the governor signed the Live, Local Act that promotes affordable housing in commercial or industrial areas.)


In a March 23 email, Crowley proposed to Heard a “downtown Salerno summit” to bring together all county stakeholders and investors to find common ground, opportunities, and “with the goal of creating a common vision we are all working together on.”


Although the CRA staff had suddenly become cooperative –“what a difference a year makes,” he said — Crowley also proposed the county hire someone outside of the CRA staff to manage it.


ANOTHER PIVOTAL MONTH IN MAY

After Crowley created “concept designs” of his intended downtown streetscape, emailing them to Heard on May 8, she responded:  “I’m forwarding this concept plan to others,” she wrote, “so that they can visualize potential future redevelopment in Pt. Salerno.”


She did not name the “others.”


When Crowley suggested a “Salerno summit” to Heard, which she arranged for May 30, he proclaimed in a May 19 email to Heard, Stokus, Community Development Manager Susan Kores and County Administrator Don Donaldson that the meeting of Port Salerno stakeholders and investors will “reinforce to anyone at the county who still does not know that we have a unified voice and a unified vision.”


At the CRA Board’s May 22 meeting, Crowley announced the meeting May 30 “to bring the Salerno community together” to plan its future. He also prepared an agenda for Stokus and Heard, according to Crowley’s May 29 email to Heard.


“Ideally, George will run things but I will step in if required,” he told her.


The Port Salerno projects and their status were to be presented, Crowley wrote, including the linear park, FEC parking, the Railway Avenue extension, and the master plan update. He also wanted Port Salerno’s CRA budget presented, “including how much cash we have in reserve.”


The most telling item in Crowley’s agenda list, however, was the second one: “Presentation of the larger plan that includes commerce to Indian street and its status.”


The only “larger plan” that includes Commerce Avenue to Indian Street is the Innovation Hub, which would not be presented until July 11 to the county commission and the public by Stokus and Kevin Crowder of BusinessFlare.


Crowley added, “The final 30 minutes would be a roundabout discussion so that the investors can talk about their plans and identify their needs.” Meeting materials should go to them in advance, he said.


Every member of the Port Salerno NAC was called and told NOT to attend the meeting, or they would be violating state Sunshine laws. The meeting also did not follow Crowley’s agenda.


Heard, Stokus and Donaldson sat at the front of the Port Salerno Community Center as four business owners explained their potential projects in the room of around 20 people, according to an attendee. No update on Salerno projects or the “larger plan” was given, according to the audience member who wishes to remain anonymous.


(The attendee also revealed that meetings were held among county staff, Heard, Crowley and various other landowners throughout the summer, beginning in June. They were provided the 127-page Innovation Hub Recommendations report prepared by BusinessFlare and attached to the county commission agenda July 11.)


Is there more to the story? Yes, unfortunately. Much more; however, it should seem clear by now that Port Salerno residents have had little input into what’s happening to their CRA plan. They knew something was not right, but when they spoke up, they were criticized for it. That criticism should now end, even if the story does not.

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