Even at double the size, Vero will feel like Vero

A few months back, while he was serving out the last months of his final term as the island’s county commissioner, I asked Bob Solari how much our seaside community could grow and still retain its small-town charm.

He responded by saying he believed the county’s current population of approximately 160,000 could more than double – to a whopping 350,000 – and Vero would still feel like Vero.

I thought about that conversation last week, when the County Commission unanimously approved the rezoning of 78 acres on 41st Street, between Indian River Boulevard and U.S. 1, to allow a planned, 624-unit development that will include single-family homes and duplexes.

To no one’s surprise, the meeting prompted objections from residents of nearby Lily’s Cay, where homeowners are concerned a neighboring development of that size would create a surge in traffic and impact their quality of life.

Such opposition has become, in recent years, almost automatic whenever anyone wants to build a large residential community east of U.S. 1, especially along Indian River Boulevard and its connecting roadways.

“Really, it depends on where you are east of U.S. 1,” said Phil Matson, the county’s director of community development.

“If you go up into the streets numbered in the 60s – say, The Antilles area – it doesn’t draw much attention, but that’s because it’s not in the urban core. It’s not as visible.”

As an example, Matson noted the lack of opposition to the County Commission’s approval in January 2019 of a rezoning of 413 acres, north of 53rd Street, for a new eco-friendly subdivision of nearly 900 single-family and multi-family homes at Grand Harbor.

He compared that response to what he described as a “full-blown panic” when the commission approved plans for The Palms of Vero Beach apartment complex, which opened in 2004 at the intersection of 12th Street and Indian River Boulevard.

“The farther you are from the urban core, the less people seem to care,” Matson said, referring to the stretch of land that runs from 4th Street to 53rd Street, “and that’s because there’s less visibility.”

Clearly, the same theory applies to the western parts of the county’s urban services area – particularly along the 58th Avenue corridor, where a string of residential developments are under construction and new single-family homes are selling at a rate not seen in 15 years.

I’m familiar with these developments because I just moved into one of them. My mid-county community is so new, in fact, that delivery people and cable-television technicians can’t find it on their GPS devices.

And, based on what I’m hearing from the county’s Building Division, more of these developments are coming.

“Everybody who moves in has concerns about the pace of growth, because most of them moved here for the lower population density and small-town feel,” Matson said. “It’s nice to think all that land that’s vacant right now will remain that way, but that’s probably not going to happen.

“The property designated for development in the urban services area is probably going to be developed, eventually, but that’s why we have a Comprehensive Plan.”

The intent of that comprehensive land-use plan is to prevent the urban sprawl seen in so many other coastal Florida communities and protect our quality of life, even as the county continues to grow, Matson said. He added that the plan has undergone only minor changes to the urban services area in the years since it was adopted in 1985.

The urban services area – where the county provides water, sewer, and other services – lies mainly east of I-95. In addition, it is a bit of a patchwork east of the interstate.

South of State Road 60, the boundary runs mostly along 58th Avenue. North of State Road 60, it runs along 66th Avenue until 49th Street, where it jogs east to one-half mile west of 58th Avenue and continues to Sebastian.

There’s also a mile-wide corridor that runs along State Road 60 to just west of I-95 and includes Vero Outlets.

In addition to preventing sprawl, the Comprehensive Plan also designates one-third of the county’s land as “environmentally protected or in a conservation district,” Matson said, adding that the grid-system of our roadways enhances traffic flow and 35-foot building-height restriction reduces crowding in the beaches areas.

“All of these things have coalesced and regulated growth in a way that allows us to maintain our quality of life,” he said. “As much as we’ve seen this community grow, we haven’t seen the degradation you find in other communities in Florida. That’s because we have a balanced plan.”

Which brings me back to my conversation with Solari about the county’s ability to grow wisely, even gracefully. Where did that 350,000 number come from?

Turns out, that’s what the county’s population would be if all of the existing vacant land within the urban services area was developed to the limits allowed under the current Comprehensive Plan.

Matson, however, doesn’t believe we’ll get there – not in the next 25 years, anyway. Instead, he leans toward the projection published by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.

According to the bureau’s forecast, the county’s population will hit 180,000 in 2030 and surpass 200,000 by 2045.

“In 1993, BEBR projected the county’s population to be 157,000 by 2020,” Matson said. “We’re at about 160,000, so that’s pretty darn close.”

There’s no way to know how fast or how much this county will grow, of course, because external factors – such as economic recessions, hurricanes, politics and even pandemics – can impact the county’s rate of growth.

So, it was fitting that Matson, when giving a presentation to our county commissioners in November, chose to borrow some wisdom from the late, great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, telling them:

  • “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
  • “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
  • “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

You can’t argue with No. 1 and 2, and we’ll eventually find out about No. 3 – but probably not anytime soon.

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