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  • Barbara Clowdus

PORT SALERNO: THEY ALL TOLD THE TRUTH, AND THEY ALL LIED.

Port Salerno: They all told the truth, and they all lied. 

Port Salerno residents question how their county commissioner could be aligned with a developer, since Sarah Heard has a reputation for routinely voting “no” to nearly every one of them.


Still, over the past year, the five-term commissioner took an end run around the Port Salerno Neighborhood Advisory Committee and their Community Redevelopment Area plan by embracing one developer’s projects behind the scenes.


Heard denied her complicity when disgruntled Salerno residents packed the Port Salerno Community Center during her Oct 5 town hall. “There is no grand plan,” she told them.

Yet, the members of Salerno’s NAC had seen a new master plan themselves … and rejected it  At the same time, Heard seemed to be supporting its implementation, as well as its promoter, Janes Corey Crowley of Jupiter, even as she blasted the four other county commissioners for overdevelopment and “relaxing CRA rules.”


A mortgage broker who chafes at being called a developer, Crowley proposed a new master plan that would use Salerno’s rights-of-way for on-street parking on the west side of the FEC railroad tracks, thus moving Salerno’s “main street” from Dixie Highway to Commerce Avenue. His “vision” is to create a new downtown, similar to Stuart’s Osceola Street on Commerce Avenue.


He presented it to Salerno’s NAC twice, with Heard attending the first time in a rare appearance at an NAC meeting in October 2022. His plan was not on the agenda, so it was not considered until the following meeting. The NAC voted in December 2022 to keep their current CRA plan.


What the Salerno NAC and the rest of the community — including Crowley — did not know was that a separate plan was in the works, and it does not seem to require approval by the NAC, the CRA or the county commission to be implemented. It’s already begun.


THE OTHER ‘NEW’ PLAN FOR PORT SALERNO

The Martin County Innovation Hub was presented to the county commission July 11 by Kevin Crowder, owner of BusinessFlare, and Assistant County Administrator George Stokus, who also oversees the county’s six Community Redevelopment Areas.


The new “non-grand plan” that Heard approved had been under design since 2021, according to Assistant County Administrator George Stokus. The Innovation Hub is the county’s response to the pandemic, intended to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth, particularly within the Commerce Industrial Park, with Commerce Avenue as a “spine” running north and south.


“No rezoning is necessary,” the commissioners were told when Kevin Crowder, owner of BusinessFlare, presented the plan July 11 to the Martin County Commission. “All of Port Salerno’s projects (for the Innovation Hub) were already in their original CRA plan,” he said.


Crowder did not offer any particulars for Port Salerno, other than a pedestrian railroad bridge/park that could be designed as a gateway. (Heard had already asked Crowder months earlier to design Port Salerno’s pedestrian bridge, according to her emails.)


Three FEC railroad crossings lie within a few hundred feet of each other in the Port Salerno community, which residents say need to be upgraded to protect pedestrians, which is part of their CRA plan. They are unaware their commissioner already asked BusinessFlare to design Salerno’s pedestrian bridge and that the county commission recently approved an application for a federal grant to build it.


It is a public works project, apparently outside the purview of the Salerno CRA.


PORT SALERNO’S ROLE IN INNOVATION HUB

Port Salerno’s waterfront and amenities are critical to the Innovation Hub’s success, Crowder told commissioners, yet the Salerno NAC was unaware of them until October. Although they may not have made the connection to Crowley, they all three are Crowley’s pet projects, according to his emails and meetings with Heard since June 2022.


Crowley also had been first to suggest a pedestrian railroad bridge to Heard.


Crowley’s 200-plus emails with Heard over the same year the Innovation Hub plan was taking shape confirm his claim to the NAC that Crowley was meeting with Heard every two weeks “to make Salerno great.” They also indicate additional phone conferences and a WhatsApp number Crowley set up for group text messaging among the commissioner and his group of Salerno developers and business owners he calls the Salerno Downtown Authority.


The emails, which reveal Crowley’s intent and plans to ensure the county builds parking and infrastructure prior to their investment in buildings, slowed to a trickle in August after Casey Cass, a Salerno business owner, began posting them on social media, accompanied by Cass’ colorful commentary.


Cass became the unexpected leader of the “Save Our Salerno” movement, insisting he’s not the leader of the movement, just a supporter, but his physical presence, booming voice, and willingness to finance their activities puts him at the front.


“We’re not against development,” he says repeatedly. “If someone buys property and wants to build something, just follow the rules and let ‘em build it, but if the county builds the parking first, the floodgates (to developers) will open. That’s what Crowley wants, and that’s what we’re afraid of.”


Crowley tells Heard repeatedly that if the parking is not provided FIRST, then developers will build only apartments, overrunning neighbors’ lawns with illegally parked cars. After the Florida governor signed the Live, Local Act into law last May, which allows apartment buildings anywhere zoned commercial or industrial as long as 40 percent of the units qualify as affordable housing, Crowley increased his threats to Heard to build just apartment buildings under the Live, Local Act.


Although development applications under the Live, Local Act skip public hearings and do not need to be approved by the county commission, they still need to meet the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management and Land Development Regulations for parking, open space, buffers, setbacks, etc.


Crowley’s complaint is that the parking is too limited under CRA rules for mixed-use developments, thus apartment buildings are the only option.


INNOVATION HUB’S PROJECTS FOR SALERNO

In October, BusinessFlare presented three specific projects to the Salerno NAC, based on Crowder’s viability study (at a cost to the Salerno CRA budget of $34,000).


Project # 1 — The extension of Railway Avenue between Salerno and Cove roads. Railway Avenue would extend across Salerno Creek on the north and the wetlands at the south, with added parking, bike lanes, and sidewalks within the Railway Avenue right-of-way. When the NAC explored the idea of extending Railway Avenue years ago, according to current NAC members, the late environmental icon Maggy Hurchalla insisted that only a footbridge, not a roadway, should connect Railway Avenue to Salerno Road, as it is now.


An extended Railway Avenue also would provide access to parking for another Innovation Hub project; however, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Agency confirmed in their $19,000 study of Salerno parking options in September that the Railway extension is “not feasible.”


The NAC now has conflicting reports just one month apart from two of the county’s expert consultants.


Project #2 — A linear park and boardwalk along the Salerno Creek channel that flows into the Manatee Pocket. Crowder’s presentation to the NAC shows only a planned boardwalk along Salerno Creek; however, emails between Crowley and Heard describe a park that includes the retrofit, as well as the boardwalk. Heard’s email to Crowley Jan. 20 lists the Salerno Creek linear park, including the retrofit, (as well as the Railway extension, and on-street parking) as “one of her priorities for 2023.”


Crowley first proposed the linear park to Heard in an August 5, 2022, email, suggesting the area be developed into a park and named “the Sarah Heard county park,” which he subsequently called, Fishermen’s Park. On Feb. 1, Heard told Crowley five months prior to release of the Innovation Hub report, “We will immediately create a Capital Improvement Program sheet for the project and advance design funding.”


After Heard told Crowley Feb. 1 that she was “advancing design funding” for the park, Crowley purchased property Feb. 16 on Ebbtide Avenue for $500,000. It is adjacent to the county’s Salerno Creek retrofit’s right-of-way. Crowley now owns three of the four designated parcels needed to build the creekside park, including the park around the retrofit and the boardwalk.


Crowley also arranged to have a Martin County Public Works Department administrator, Kylie Yanchula, determine if building a boardwalk along the creek is feasible. She says yes, it’s feasible, Crowley tells Heard, and the linear park’s Salerno Creek boardwalk finds itself included as a project in the Innovation Hub.


Although Stokus once told Crowley the linear park was not a CRA project and suggested he submit his idea to the NAC, Crowley did not. Apparently, since the linear park is proceeding, it’s considered another public works or environmental restoration project that does not need Salerno NAC’s approval.


In her Oct. 5 online newsletter, Heard stated she would seek funding to purchase 1.5 acres along Salerno Creek for the linear park, which would include at least two of the parcels Crowley purchased in August 2022. The request is not included on the county commission’s Nov. 21 agenda, but it does not preclude Heard from making the motion to approve the purchase.


Heard’s and the Innovation Hub’s plans undermine the original CRA plan, which clearly states on Page 31 that the Salerno Creek retrofit is intended to be a neighborhood amenity with trails and footpaths, NOT a public park.


Project #3 — The most controversial project is on-street parking on several of Salerno’s neighborhood streets. Coincidentally(?) the Innovation Hub plan calls for “complete streets” along properties purchased by Crowley in 2022-23, as well as along the main collector road, Salerno Road. Seven of Crowley’s 14 parcels front Salerno Road.

Complete streets require the entire 60-ft width of the county’s rights-of-way in Salerno to build sidewalks, multi-modal walkways, bicycle lanes, landscaping, and on-street parking spaces for Commerce, Flounder, Seaward, Grouper, Ebbtide, and Salerno Road.


The Salerno NAC previously proposed on-street parking using the county’s rights-of-way in front of residential homes on the east side of the railroad tracks in 2019 as a parking solution. The plan was resoundingly decried by residents and abandoned as a project by the NAC.


On-street parking appears to be another public works project, not a CRA project, which is underscored by an excerpt of Heard’s email May 8 to County Utilities and Solid Waste Director Sam Amerson, Public Works Director James Gorton, County Administrator Don Donaldson, Stokus and copied to Crowley, whose status apparently was elevated to that of a county administrator.


Heard wrote: “Also, what are the next steps for on-street parking, lighting, and landscaping for Salerno Road? The improvements completed (repaving and bike lanes) there only heighten the need for these additional enhancements.”


Much has happened in Port Salerno, but even more will happen, according to the Innovation Hub plan, than was revealed to the Port Salerno NAC, to the CRA board — or even to the other county commissioners. This story will continue…after Thanksgiving.

— Barbara Clowdus

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