Marina referendum threatens Three Corners future

PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

Here’s what locally may be by far the most important question of 2022.

How will an out-of-county judge rule on the Vero Beach City Council’s lawsuit seeking to remove from the November ballot a referendum that could derail – or at least significantly stall – the popular Three Corners project?

Let’s assume, just for the sake of discussion, the Vero Beach Preservation Alliance’s so-called marina referendum survives the legal challenge, and that voters are asked to amend the city charter to restrict future expansion and improvement of protected city properties.

What then?

The answer could well impact the future of the Vero Beach community – city and county, island and mainland – for the next 100 years.

For that reason, city voters must make sure they understand exactly what this mischievous referendum would do, because, if approved, its consequences would be felt far beyond the Vero Beach Municipal Marina.

Voters must take a hard look at how a neighborhood effort to stop the planned marina expansion – especially the construction of a considerably larger dry-storage facility – morphed into a referendum that would impact more than two dozen city parks and other waterfront properties.

They also must question the motives of those who expanded the reach of the referendum, which could greatly impact the Three Corners parcels at the west end of the 17th Street Bridge, particularly the 33 lagoon-front acres now occupied by the defunct municipal power plant and still-operating wastewater-treatment facility.

It’s on that mainland waterfront property Vero Beach leaders want to create a much-needed dining, retail, social and recreational hub they hope will become a destination for residents and visitors alike.

The Nov. 8 ballot, in fact, also will include a separate city-crafted referendum asking voters to amend the charter to allow commercial use on the 17-acre, power-plant parcel north of the bridge, if officials can negotiate a long-term lease with a cooperative developer.

“The Three Corners project is very important to our community,” former Vero Beach mayor Tony Young said.

One of his mayoral predecessors, Harry Howle, went a step further, saying the Three Corners project would be the “best thing ever to happen to this city.”

Certainly, if done right, the development would fill a gaping void in our community, which, unlike Sebastian and Fort Pierce, lacks open-to-the-public waterfront dining and a riverwalk-type experience on the mainland.

As the county continues to grow, especially to the west, the Three Corners site also would ease the in-season traffic and congestion along Ocean Drive by providing a dining and socializing alternative on the lagoon’s west bank.

Apparently, though, the “Keep Vero Vero” crowd refuses to budge, even when there’s a can’t-miss opportunity to make Vero better – as the Three Corners project would do.

More than 1,150 city residents signed the petition cards the alliance needed to secure its referendum, and you can be sure many of them were thinking about more than the marina.

“The real purpose of this referendum,” Howle said, “is to stop any development at the Three Corners.”

As recently as May, the alliance’s leaders had not mentioned any other properties – not even during the standing-room-only, City Council workshop that dragged on for four hours as nearly 40 local residents peppered city officials with questions and comments.

The group’s sole avowed mission, at that point, was to stop the marina expansion. There was some buzz about a possible referendum earlier this summer, but it wasn’t until last month that we began hearing about the other charter-protected properties.

Then the referendum’s wording was made public, revealing to all of us that stopping marina expansion wasn’t the sole objective. The alliance now wanted to thwart the city’s efforts to noticeably expand, improve or develop any of the charter properties by requiring referendums.

The alliance’s two-pronged ballot initiative asks Vero Beach voters to:

  • Add the land containing the marina’s boat-storage facility to the charter’s list of protected properties.
  • Restrict “any future structures” added to the charter’s protected properties to no more than 500 square feet (slightly more than three parking spaces), and limit the expansion of existing structures to no more than 20 percent of their current footprint and volume, unless approved by city voters in a referendum.

Under the city code, the term “structures” can apply to improvements that include restrooms, pavilions, playground equipment, parking lots, sidewalks and walls.

Currently, the installation or expansion of such amenities may be approved by a majority vote of the City Council. The alliance’s referendum would shift that authority to the citizenry when the improvements involve charter-protected properties.

“This would be a disastrous piece of legislation,” Vero Beach Mayor Robbie Brackett said, explaining that the delays and uncertainty created by the alliance’s referendum likely would kill the Three Corners project.

“No developer is going to want to come in and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a site plan, knowing it still needs to go to a referendum, which could be months away,” Brackett added. “They’re not going to make that kind of investment unless they know they’ve got a deal.”

Both Young and Howle agreed.

So did local real estate attorney Barry Segal, who said developers also will be reluctant to embark on what likely would be a multi-phased project if they know their plans must survive multiple referendums for all but the smallest additions.

“This will be a living, breathing project, and you might not get it completely right the first time,” Segal said. “As you go along, you might look at your site plan and realize you need more parking, additional docks, another sidewalk or gazebo. You’re going to have to go to a referendum on all of them.

“You can’t make a decision by yourself, or even with the city manager or City Council,” he added. “You essentially have a new partner in the deal – the voters – and you can’t do anything without their approval.

“Why would any developer want to get involved in this?”

The alliance leaders, however, deny that their referendum targets the Three Corners project, noting that the city’s referendum on the proposed development hasn’t yet been approved, nor has any site plan.

They say the ballot initiative merely creates a pause to give citizens a voice in the future development of charter-protected properties by requiring the City Council to go to a referendum for additions or expansions that exceed the aforementioned size restrictions.

As you’d expect, they were outraged when the City Council voted unanimously at an Aug. 25 special call meeting to contest the legality of the alliance’s referendum. (Note: The alliance’s leadership did not attend the session; the reasons are in dispute.)

According to the 18-page Circuit Court complaint filed Aug. 30 by City Attorney John Turner, the city is challenging the referendum’s wording – Florida statutes require the language to be “clear and unambiguous” – and the validity of the petitions used to secure the referendum.

The city alleges in its court filing that the alliance engaged in a “deliberate attempt to deceive voters” by printing and circulating printed materials that claimed the purpose of the referendum was to stop the marina expansion.

“There is only a passing reference to including all charter property in the referendum,” the complaint states.

The city also questions the language in the alliance’s ballot summary, alleging that it is “misleading” and “omits the material fact that, if adopted, it would have a detrimental and substantial negative impact on development of the Three Corners project.” The complaint states: “The problem lies not with what the ballot summary says, but, rather, with what it does not say.”

The city also argues in its filing that the alliance’s referendum violates the statutory “home rule powers” granted to the city to “conduct municipal government, perform municipal functions and render municipal services.”

The city has requested an expedited hearing so a ruling could be made before the election.
However, Circuit Judge Janet Croom, who lives in the Vero Beach area, recused herself last week, which means the case will be assigned to another judge, probably one from St. Lucie County.

If a ruling isn’t issued before voters begin casting their ballots – and if the city wins the case – Turner said the judge has the authority to void the result.

Given the enthusiasm shown for the Three Corners Master Concept Plan during public presentations, it seems likely the Three Corners referendum will be approved.

What happens to that project if the alliance’s referendum stays on the ballot and also gets approved? Turner said that’s a question for the judge.

Howle, though, didn’t hesitate.

“If both referendums pass,” he said, “we’re going to have the willingness of the people to allow development of the Three Corners property, but we won’t have the ability.”

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