Sally Swartz: Why Martin must stand up to development bullies in court

There are good reasons for Martin County to be involved in lawsuits, speakers at the county’s 15th annual Citizens Growth Management Forum said.

A few: Defending Martin County’s quality of life. Defending against challengers who say Martin’s protective growth rules don’t apply to them. Standing up to bullies.

The forum, held at Robert Morgade Library in Stuart Mar. 7, drew 75 people on a rainy day. Topics included bills to watch in Tallahassee, upcoming save-the-river rallies and why water should be sent south, legal and environmental issues.

Environmental lawyer Virginia Sherlock and former Martin Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla both had answers to emails and published complaints from the development community and others about lawsuits against the county.

Lake Point, a rockpit operation that wants to sell water to other South Florida counties – along with King Ranch, Becker Groves and Hobe Grove – challenged an amendment to the county’s protective growth plan, contending local government rules can’t be used to protect and preserve Martin’s quality of life.

The quality of life that make Martin different, Hurchalla said, includes such things as a 4-story building height limit, restricting density to 15 units per acre, and an urban boundary that confines growth to where services such as water, sewer, fire and police protection already are available. It means protecting residential neighborhoods.

Litigants argue that the local government and its rules can’t be used to “protect and preserve our quality of life,” Sherlock said.

For Martin residents, it also means protecting “our rivers and estuary, wetlands and wildlife.”

Other lawsuits, she said, involve “litigants who think the rules that everyone else has to follow don’t apply to them.”

Sherlock cites examples: 1) The owners of Flash Beach Grille,” who think someone else should provide wildlife habitat and preserve native vegetation,” and 2) Operators of the Lake Point rockpit, “who think someone else should protect our rivers and estuary and wetlands.”

If the county doesn’t defend its rules, she said, “we have no rules.”

Some developers have tried to blame the county’s unelected staff members for allowing them to ignore or violate county rules, in one case blaming a staff member who now is dead. Sherlock calls that an “absurd” conclusion “that must be defended by the county attorney.”

Bullies are another group that call for legal defense, she said. “That’s the property owner or developer who says, ‘Give me what I want or I’ll sue you.’”

She puts Lake Point, among others, in that category. They “want to force the county to let them do whatever they want without regard for our comprehensive plan and land development regulations” she said, “by suing and trying to bully government agencies (and Hurchalla, the target of a Lake Point Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).”

The bullies “have seemingly unlimited money to spend on litigation,” Sherlock said, and “to recruit vicious anonymous emailers and giveaway newspaper publishers to disseminate their bogus arguments.”

The county has to stand up to bullies, she said.

But can Martin afford to do that?

“The real question,” Sherlock said, “is not whether we can afford to preserve the Martin County difference, to defend our urban boundaries, our rivers and our estuary, our wetlands, wildlife and quality of life.

“The real question is: Can we afford not to?”

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Sally Swartz


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