More than 29,000 new homes, thousands of new residents drawn to Treasure Coast over past 5 years
By Olivia McKelvey, Treasure Coast Newspapers, June 1, 2023
The Treasure Coast is changing, its population exploding over the last decade. And St. Lucie County has been leading the way, with its population climbing 18% — from nearly 278,000 to 329,000 — between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
In Indian River County — where population growth has been slower, rising from 138,000 to 160,0000 — the Sebastian City Council, for example, recently annexed more than 2,000 acres of former citrus groves, which could add 10,000 homes.
And in Martin County — where population growth has been the slowest, a steady increase from more than 146,000 to more than 158,000 residents — multifamily projects are booming following a 10-year hiatus from such developments between 2008 and 2018.
More people are moving here; more apartments and homes are being built; more commercial and industrial projects are sprouting along Interstate 95; and conversations promoted by "slow-growth" proponents have become polarized.
As the region experiences these growth spurts, it begs the questions: How, why and where?
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, myriad factors play into this transitional period, continuing to shift the Treasure Coast from an agriculture-focused area to a mixed-use community sought by developers and residents alike, stretching from Fellsmere to Hobe Sound.
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Florida has been attracting substantial numbers of newcomers, particularly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's one thing Treasure Coast officials agree on.
"At the national level, there's obviously a preference for warmer weather, low taxes and perhaps the political climate. We were open throughout COVID, and we had very few mask mandates," explained Phil Matson, recently retired Indian River County community-development director.
Moreover, snowbirds seeking active communities are drawn to areas such as Port St. Lucie, City Manager Jesus Merejo said; and, following the pandemic, there's been an increase in remote work, which has attracted other demographics to the city, too.
In addition, in recent years St. Lucie County in particular has become a commercial epicenter for new companies in need of undeveloped land and for existing companies wanting to expand, explained Pete Tesch, president of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County.
"I personally think that St. Lucie County has undergone an economic renaissance," Tesch said. " ... We still have agriculture, construction, real estate and tourism, but now you're seeing growth in many other industries."
In a building boom over the past five years, permits for more than 29,000 single-family homes were issued in Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties.
Port St. Lucie clear-and-away led all municipalities and unincorporated county areas with nearly 18,000 home permits issued between 2018 and 2022, according to records.
Fort Pierce and Sebastian issued 1,031 and 1,007 single-family permits, respectively, over those five years; Vero Beach issued 134; Stuart, 84.
Three factors entice developers to the Treasure Coast: location, lifestyle and value, explained John Manrique, Kolter Homes senior vice president of marketing.
“The value has always been an attractive component of Port St. Lucie," Manrique. said. "When you compare it to other places like Broward, Miami-Dade and West Palm Beach, the home that you can get for the money compared to some of those other areas is notable."
Kolter Homes has been building in St. Lucie County for the past two decades, developing projects such as PGA Village and Verano in Port St. Lucie.
Stuart, although much smaller, still has seen significant growth in the past four years, according to former City Manager David Dyess, who left the city recently.
"We have about 3,000 new units coming online that have been going through the process over the past three years," Dyess said. "A couple of those already are built and completed and some of them are still going through the process of either permitting or construction ... It's a big deal when you're a population of about 16,000 and have 3,000 new units."
St. Lucie and Indian River counties have their centralized hubs of growth.
Tradition, for example, is the center of new neighborhoods and amenities coming to fruition in Port St. Lucie, according to Merejo.
Homebuilders such as Kolter own undeveloped land that was annexed into the city in the early 2000s. It's been planned but left untouched for nearly two decades as developers waited for prime market conditions to return, Merejo said. Those ideal market conditions arrived in 2016 and ramped up over the next three years, he added.
"It’s been a perfect storm for the development community," Merejo said.
In Indian River County, the 58th Avenue corridor in Vero Beach and the southern end of the county, just south of Oslo Road, are considered growth hubs because they have most of the remaining undeveloped land, according to Matson.
“At one point I counted the potential for 5,000 new units between all those subdivisions on 58th Avenue between State Road 60 and 66th Avenue," Matson said.
Martin County, on the other hand, has seen scattered residential growth, according to Dyess. Though Stuart has seen the most development, new apartments and townhomes also are popping up in Jensen Beach, Hobe Sound and other unincorporated areas.
Planning for growth
Controversial projects such as Costco in Stuart, Oak Ridge Ranches in western St. Lucie County and Three Corners in Vero Beach have drawn residents to city halls and county commission chambers warning of urban sprawl and a loss of local identity.
Their concerns have been at the forefront of a crucial question for local leaders: How do you properly plan for inevitable growth?
One way is through community outreach and have residents, rather than developers, set the agenda, according to Thomas Hawkins, an urban planner and professor at the University of Florida's College of Design, Construction and Planning.
“A conception that we don't need growth and development and change does not match reality," said Hawkins, a former Gainesville city commissioner. "I think that's a recipe for folks to be really frustrated."
It's essential, in Hawkins' opinion, for local governments to consider design compatibility and infill development to maintain the character of communities that have been planned out.
Moreover, developers must understand the communities where they plan to build, remaining conscious of community desires and non-negotiables, he added, citing Palm City's Newfield in Martin County — a planned community envisioned with some 4,200 residential units — as an example of positive interaction between a developer and the community.
Dyess, Matson and Merejo agreed that having checks and balances, such as planning and zoning boards and internal staff reviews, are examples of how their communities balance growth.
And while cities and counties tackle this issue, those controls on growth should go beyond local governments, he said.
Over the past decade, the Legislature has been weakening the institutional systems that keep developers accountable as it relates to planning and growth management, Hawkins pointed out.
"If people are concerned about this, they don't just need to go to City Hall," Hawkins said. " ... They need to call their senators and representative in Tallahassee."
Staff writers Melissa Holsman, Lina Ruiz and Thomas Weber contributed to this report.