What happens when small-town county charm encounters big-city urbanization?
INDIANTOWN – In late Aug., I began working as an intern reporter for the Indiantown Independent, a South Central Florida Life digital edition. During my Indiantown coverage, I've written about council meetings, business anniversaries, grand openings, community events, taxes, a scholarship gala and more. In addition, I've encountered residents in person, by phone and by email. The one prominent detail was the unanimous consensus of cherishing small-town closeness and charm, along with an unbridled desire to keep it.
One of my first interviews was with the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, Denise Lechner. I was impressed by her desire to retain a rural flavor and uniquely Indiantown's "knowing your neighbor" philosophy. She said she expected that 55 years in the future, Indiantown would be "the same great smaller community" with "the smart growth" detailed in the village's comprehensive plan.
The comprehensive plan was adopted Dec. 12 2019. It specified the village mission of being "dedicated to creating a sustainable, community with friendly neighborhoods, civic engagement, and economic prosperity while proudly maintaining our small-town feel and sense of community." In addition, the plan illustrated that during the process, the "workshop participants communicated their desire to retain the 'hometown feel' of the community." As an outsider, I thought the terminology commendable.
"All politics is local," said Scott Dudley, Florida League of Cities field advocacy & federal affairs director. Those words rang in my ears when I heard Dudley's Florida Home Rule speech in July. He revealed that every governmental representative had someone in their ear with an agenda.
"If you're not in your elected official's ear, then your story is not being told, and they're going to go with the people that talk to them."
That may or may not be a good project for the community. However, without engaging the governing body, the community will get the plan of those who do. Dudley stressed meeting with elected officials face to face and knowing what they were doing.
"They can't make a decision unless they know what's on your mind," then "hold them accountable," was Dudley's advice.
Several public comment letters were read during council meetings from the internship's onset, mainly from one individual, J P Pasquale. His comments referenced a 55-acre oak hammock between Fernwood Forest Road and Southwest Famel Avenue. Pasquale requested that the River Oak development be reconsidered.
"Our town has a unique opportunity to create development opportunities and maintain the quality of life of our small country town that we all love so much," wrote Pasquale in April 2021.
He gave alternative development ideas for the acreage, no more than 50 homes rather than the proposed 130+, suggesting that 10% of the houses be low-income based on the current Indiantown demographics.
When I interviewed Pasquale, he explained how he and his neighbors reached out to the village council multiple times but with minimal response.
"I am only aware of people communicating with the village council, not necessarily anyone reaching out and trying to meet with us." Pasquale continued, "There was a protest during one council meeting," he said. "Susan Gibbs-Thomas was the only councilperson who came and spoke to us."
Another concerned citizen, Deborah Banks, emailed her concerns to me Friday, Dec. 3. She too indicated that the residents living near the proposed River Oaks development attempted to contact the village council unsuccessfully. Banks said the council "do not seem concerned on how the proposed development will affect the residents living here." She continued to remind the council, "Your job is to look to the best interest of your citizens. Please listen to your tax-paying citizens as well as your developers. Remember, you are elected officials."
Pasquale agreed with Banks' remarks. "The Indiantown Village Council and Zoning and Planning Board have a responsibility to protect and prosper the people of Indiantown rather (than) build an Indiantown for thousands of strangers to move to." He expressed concerns that newcomers had "no vested interest in Indiantown."
Pasquale related that country living was why he chose Indiantown to build his home. However, he worried not only about the River Oaks development on his doorstep but Terra Lago too.
"I don't think building an entire city right next to Indiantown is a good idea. It's not like all of us who live here are trapped here; we have chosen to live in the country," Pasquale explained.
Terra Lago's developers, the Garcia Companies, project around 2,500 dwellings, a mixture of single-family and multi-family units. The 2020 census estimates the population of Indiantown at 7,262. Quickly doing the math, the number of dwellings in Terra Lago could easily increase the current population by more than two-thirds – around 12,000.
Considering these numbers, I ask myself how the village government proposes to "retain the small-town/hometown feel" that is Indiantown's signature while wooing unprecedented big city expansion. The comprehensive plan discourages "urban sprawl."
The "future land use" portion of the comprehensive plan disclosed Indiantown's ample vacant acreage to accommodate the future growth expected by 2030. With just under 3,000 vacant acres, the plan proposes 6,496 single-family homes and 1,451 multi-family apartment buildings. The single-family homes alone multiply Indiantown's current population by three, at the lowest estimation – approaching 21,000. These numbers are staggering for any area, but especially for a community priding itself on its "small-town" and "hometown feel."
At the Dec. 2 Planning, Zoning & Appeals Board meeting, a public hearing was held regarding Terra Lago. Residents from Indianwood, a 55+ community bordering the Terra Lago property, voiced their support for the development. No one opposed the development. Consequently, the board unanimously passed the development agreement.
Thanks to the village government council meetings, planning and zoning meetings, special magistrate meetings, codes & ordinances, resolutions, agendas, budget documents, village manager reports, the comprehensive plan, and much more are available on the village transparency page. The decisions and communication are duly publicly posted.
"That to secure these rights (life, liberty and pursuit of happiness), governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The Declaration of Independence determined that governing officials acquire their power from citizens granting consent for a government to preside over them. However, President Abraham Lincoln said it well at Gettysburg a "government of the people, by the people and for the people." Government starts with "we the people." The people who take no action will succumb to the will of those who do. Liked Dudley said, "Local voices making local choices."
Pasquale admonished fellow residents, "Wake up, you don't know what you're losing." He continued, "We don't need another South Florida city. We have a wonderful small country town that is already unique," concluding with, "We should market Indiantown for what it is: beautiful trees, farms and beautiful culture."
I am reminded of the Big Yellow Taxi lyrics" "You don't know what you've got till it's gone. So pave paradise, put up a parking lot."