St. Lucie County tackles 9,600-unit development, largest planned community in a decade
By Olivia McKelvey, Treasure Coast Newspapers, Dec 9, 2022
ST. LUCIE COUNTY — The county this week took the first step toward approving Oak Ridge Ranches, the largest planned community it has reviewed in at least a decade. Yet the project has many more hurdles to clear, and already has attracted opposition from nearby residents prepared to protect their quaint country lifestyle and preserve the most rural region of the county.
Kolter Homes, builder of nearby the PGA Village Verano community, is developing the vision to transform more than 3,000 acres of former citrus groves and cattle pastures into 7,690 single-family homes, 2,000 multi-family units and 650,000 square feet of commercial space such as restaurants, grocery stores and banks near the McCarty Ranch, west of Range Line Road and north of Glades Cut-Off Road.
“I feel like I'm living in an episode of 'Yellowstone,' trying to fend off corporate America from destroying my heritage,” Mike McCarty, whose family has lived and farmed on the McCarty Ranch here for more than 150 years, told county commissioners Tuesday.
The entire project may not come to fruition for 25 years according to county records, but local leaders already are confronted with what’s been an ongoing struggle in the county: How to best manage this inevitable growth.
The project passed early hurdles Tuesday after the County Commission unanimously agreed to send it to the state for a required review.
Planning and Zoning Commission, however, on Nov. 17 recommended denying the project, in a 4-3 vote with one member recusing themselves.
Too much development, too soon after the county's urban-service boundaries were expanded, was the rationale behind the planning commission's recommendation to reject it.
Despite the County Commission’s choice to move the project forward, about a dozen residents — some of whom already have hired attorneys to battle the developer — have made it clear they strongly disagree with Kolter’s vision, calling it incompatible, unnecessary and disruptive.
Changes, such as lowering the project density and reducing the number of homes by about 1,000, would come later, project attorney Bob Raynes said.
“Everybody gets the idea that we're going to have 8,000 units out there in the next couple of years,” said Raynes, who also represents the developer of the controversial Costco project in Martin County. “This is a 25-year project, and a lot of us won't even be around for most of this stuff to happen … We're trying to plan for growth, but it's a long forecast.”
Many residents fear urban sprawl, traffic congestion and loss of agricultural land.
They have pleaded that county commissioners reexamine the project density, consider wildlife displacement, enlarge buffers and involve the community more.
They've also asked for more open space than the proposed 35% and more wetlands preserved than the minimum 128 acres, or 15%.
“We all understand that growth is going to happen, but this is just so far out of what we expected,” Jamie Josephs, a Carlton Road resident who owns a tropical fish farm, told commissioners. “… You can't put lipstick on a pig, and that's exactly what this is. ... Let’s keep the integrity of our neighborhood.”
A local business representative also spoke about the potential harm he believes such a large development could bring.
Ron Noble, representative of Allied Universal Corp. on Range Line Road, expressed worries about the project’s proximity to the company’s decade-old chemical plant,
“We understand there's going to be growth. Allied supports growth,” Noble told commissioners. “They want to be part of safe growth, but that growth does need to be compatible, especially if we're talking about residential uses in close proximity to a chemical plant that’s storing chlorine.”
For its part, the commission asked developers to consider residents’ concerns and work with them to find compromises.
“I'm going to be obvious to everybody tonight and let you know that when this does come back for site-plan (approval), that's when we put in restrictions,” said Commissioner Cathy Townsend, in whose district Oak Ridge Ranches would be built. "… I'm publicly going to let it be known that when this does come back, I personally am going to ask for restrictions.”
Accounting for growth
Oak Ridge Ranches is the poster child for recent residential and commercial growth here — evident by the County Commission's decision to expand its urban-service boundaries. Until August, those boundaries had remained untouched since their inception in 1990. They were changed to prepare for future growth and development.
This massive planned community is intended to accommodate the county's rapid population growth, which already has increased 18.5% in the past decade from nearly 278,000 to 329,000, according to U.S. Census data.
Average occupancy of each residential unit in St. Lucie County is 2.6 people, according to the Census Bureau. Using that average, Oak Ridge Ranch would bring an additional 25,189 people to the county.
Oak Ridge Ranch is the latest example of development spreading westward into the most rural portions of St. Lucie County, toward Okeechobee County.
PGA Village, Tradition and future industrial and residential projects symbolize the sprawl occurring west of Interstate 95.
The second-largest project like this reviewed by the county was the Indrio and Interstate 95 development.
In November 2020, the commission rezoned more than 800 acres for a community with about 2,700 homes, shopping, offices, a gas station, hotel, K-8 school and a fire station. But the project has not moved forward since then, according to county officials.
After other agencies review and comment on Oak Ridge Ranches, the County Commission would vote on the future-land-use map as well as rezoning and preliminary site plans, according to county Planning Manager Kori Benton.
The project is expected to be reviewed again by the commission in February or March, according to County Attorney Dan McIntyre.