MY VERO: Special quality of life in Vero Beach seems to be secure – at least for now

“Keep Vero Vero”
I’ve been hearing that phrase a lot lately, especially over the past few months, as news of the planned construction of a new restaurant on Ocean Drive prompted complaints that spurred Vero Beach city officials to finally make dealing with parking congestion a priority.
And I understand why.
A parking shortage in the Central Beach business district, particularly during our busy winter season, is only one of the warning signs that our quaint, seaside paradise is changing.
Seasonal increases in traffic, too, have become a concern, as backups along major corridors and at the most-active intersections seem to worsen each year.
Also, new home construction has returned, especially on the mainland, where dozens homes are being built in single-family subdivisions.
In addition, if you occasionally drive along U.S. 1 or State Road 60, you’ve probably noticed the many new retail stores and restaurants that have popped up the past couple of years.
And, barring another serious downturn in the economy, more of the same is coming – more winter visitors and traffic, more new homes and businesses, more change.
“We’re on the map,” said Tim McGarry, the city’s planning director. “Vero Beach has been discovered. We’re no longer a secret. So, as more growth comes, we need to manage it and keep it in line with our small-town look and feel. It’s a balancing act.”
But that doesn’t mean we’re teetering on the edge of losing all that makes this community so special.
City and county officials say they’re aware of people’s concerns and that there’s no reason to worry. They point to the doubling of the county’s population over the past 30 years and contend that neither the residential nor commercial growth has diminished our quality of life.
In many ways, because the growth was controlled, some say Vero’s quality of life now is actually better than it was in the 1980s and ’90s.
“The county has been growing for decades, but the character of the community hasn’t really changed,” said Stan Boling, the county’s community development director. “We can absorb the growth and still preserve the quality of life we enjoy here. We just have to do it the right way.
“We fully expect people to keep coming, and we’re planning for that.”
Good thing, too, because our little patch of paradise has been making Internet headlines and getting plenty of publicity on social media sites. Just a year ago, a Huffington Post blog heralded “Five Reasons Vero Beach Is Your New Favorite Florida Destination.”
The author, Xaque Gruber, opened with:
“While too many of Florida’s waterfront cities have succumbed to claustrophobic overdevelopment, tacky tourist traps and high-rises, Vero Beach remains the breath of fresh air. Though classified as a city, Vero, with a strict policy that no building can exceed four stories, feels more like a seaside village. It’s the rare place we didn’t know still existed in the Sunshine State.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
You can bet stories such as this one are grabbing the attention of folks up north, where an increasing number of baby-boomers are preparing to retire.
Each of the past three winters has brought more people to our community, particularly on the barrier island. Some of them like it here so much that they buy homes. All of them boost the local economy by dining in our restaurants, shopping in our stores and otherwise spending money around town.
The trade-off is that our roads, restaurants and stores are more crowded, so much so that it sometimes feels as if we’re losing our small-town feel – and that scares the “Keep Vero Vero” people.
Being a nostalgic sort, I understand that, too. I first arrived in Vero Beach in 1980, when the “new bridge” reached across the “Indian River” from 17th Street and, during the summer months, you could stand in the middle of U.S. 1 at noon and not see a car.
I ate at Morrison’s Cafeteria at the Vero Mall, drank at the Bamboo Lounge and rented a furnished duplex one block from Conn Beach for $200 per month.
I watched the Vero Beach Dodgers during their inaugural season. I walked the sidelines as the Vero Beach High School football team won a state championship on its home field. I was at the grand opening of Marvin Gardens.
I was just out of college and I remember it all – but I don’t remember anyone saying, “Keep Vero Vero.”
I left in 1982 to advance my newspaper career, which took me to Jacksonville, New York, Los Angeles and Denver before bringing me back to Vero Beach in 2002.
And you know what happened during those 20 years? Vero didn’t merely get bigger. It got better.  There were more things to do and more people to do them with.
Yes, Vero had grown, but it had grown the right way – without sacrificing its small-town charm.
All those years later, despite all that growth and development, Vero was still Vero.  It’s still Vero today, and I believe it will stay that way, even with more people coming here every year.
I’ve spoken to several city, county and community leaders, and if there’s a consensus on anything, it’s that they are committed to planning wisely and making the sometimes-tough decisions necessary to preserve our small-town ambiance and quality of life.
“We’ve seen growth, but that’s because . . . Vero Beach is a victim of its own successes,” said Phil Matson, director of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Vero Beach remains the quintessential small beach town. But that didn’t just happen.”
Matson said city and county officials long have been committed to regulating growth through low-density development restrictions, strict building-height limits and the imposition of impact fees on new construction.
Nobody wants Vero to become Port St. Lucie.
Still, there are challenges ahead.
City officials might need to seriously consider paid parking along Ocean Drive.  County officials need to address some of the traffic concerns, such as in-season congestion along State Road A1A.
But Matson said there’s no chance State Road A1A might someday be diverted off the island as it was years ago when it was shifted off Jupiter Island.
City and county officials must prepare to absorb growth that is projected to increase the county’s population from 150,000 now to 208,000 by 2040. But both say the growth will be manageable.
Matson cited the large percentage of seniors and retirees who compose our population, as well as the fact that post-baby-boom generations are having fewer children.
McGarry cited the restrictions on density and building heights – both of which would require referendums to change.
“We don’t have to accept bad growth,” McGarry said. “We can be more picky.”  And we must.
The Vero of 1982 wasn’t the Vero of 2002, which wasn’t the Vero we know today. But it’s still Vero, still special.
Maybe, someday, it will get too big.  There’s certainly a lot of land to build on. There seems to be plenty of people who would like to move here.
Keeping Vero Vero is up to us.

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