Public protest halts Centennial Place referendum initiative

Vero Beach Electric [File]

A proposed referendum asking voters to remove the site of city’s sewer plant and defunct power plant from the charter and allow the City Council control over the property’s redevelopment was shot down after a steady stream of opponents lambasted council members over the idea.

The initiative – spearheaded by Mayor Val Zudans – was withdrawn by Zudans at a recent City Council meeting after the rest of the council sided with numerous public speakers who decried a referendum on the November ballot as premature since the 35-acre site located at the west end of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge lacks a specific redevelopment plan.

The City Charter restricts the use of certain properties, including the electric plant and wastewater treatment facility site that has been dubbed Centennial Place, for public use unless voters approve a different plan.

“Why rush this along if there’s no plan?” Vero Beach resident Nancy Richards asked the council at the board’s June 4 meeting.

Richards’ frustration was shared by more than a dozen public speakers who called the proposed referendum “rushed.”

“I wouldn’t trust you any farther than I can throw you,” resident James Carr said.

A majority of the council agreed a referendum without a redevelopment plan is premature.

Councilman Harry Howle called for public meetings to gather community input on how the land should be redeveloped.

“We need to have something where we can bring people together and actually attract some people from other towns to come and enjoy what we have to offer,” Howle said. “If we have the right plan put together and we take that to referendum and we make it happen, it can really become a nice place for everybody to enjoy.”

Before withdrawing his proposal, Zudans made his case for putting the issue on the ballot this fall, arguing if a referendum is passed in November, redevelopment could begin immediately after the power plant – affectionately called Big Blue – is demolished sometime in 2020.

“Your votes will shape the future of our community for good or bad. Your vote matters,” Zudans said, adding the public has overwhelmingly requested walkways along the river, riverfront dining, green spaces, shops, a hotel and marina and an aquarium be developed on the site.

“I trust that the people will make the correct decision. I trust the voters to decide how you want us to move forward,” Zudans said. “I trust your judgement and will respect your decision either way. Hopefully, City Council will vote to let you decide in November which path we go down.”

The land at the center of the debate includes the power plant site, the former postal annex and the site of the wastewater treatment facility the city is considering relocating inland. The city sold its electric utility to Florida Power & Light last year for $185 million, and no longer needs the powerplant. A referendum will eventually be required to give the council authority to sell or lease the land to developers.

The council previously solicited bids for a consultant to help the city with redevelopment plans but put the process on hold after receiving only two responses. The council on June 4 decided to reexamine the two bids at its June 18 meeting and discuss seeking additional bids with the hope of receiving more responses to choose from.

Recently, the Youth Sailing Foundation of Indian River County made a pitch to the council to allow the fast-growing organization to build a larger facility on a 3.5-acre piece of land on the southeast corner of the power plant site. Council members, however, expressed reservations about giving the organization a prime piece of real estate without a master plan for the site in place.

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