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Who’s stirring pot in Riomar over future of St. Ed’s land

(Week of January 27, 2011)

Someone got Riomar residents sufficiently aroused that about 75 of them packed the Vero Beach City Council chambers last week when the Council voted to allow residential development on the old St. Edward’s Lower School site, but the identity of the party stirring the pot is still something of a mystery.

Handbills distributed to homes throughout Riomar included a warning that the expected council approval of the land use change could bring the unwanted consequence of someone being able to build what amounts to tract housing -- up to six units per acre -- on the 5.74-acre property.

“You are strongly urged to attend this meeting at city hall,” the flier said.

The handbill, a letter really, was a half-page of type under the heading “Dear Neighbor” and it was not signed and included no contact information.

The Indian River Neighborhood Association denied any involvement with the handbills.

“While there is no reason to believe the City Planning Department, the Planning and Zoning Board or St. Ed’s intends or wants six units per acre, it can’t be guaranteed that the eventual owner would not seek density of up to six units per acre and that they wouldn’t prevail in litigation,” the letter states.

“To be sure that the neighborhood is not put in unnecessary jeopardy, the City Council is urged to adopt an amendment that states that any development beyond three units per acre would not be compatible with the neighborhood and not be permitted.”

Long-time Riomar resident George Hamner, Jr. criticized the flyer from the podium.

“I had a flyer in my mailbox, it had a lot of inflammatory information that has nothing to do with tonight,” Hamner said. “The time you want to be nervous is when someone shows up at P & Z with a zoning change.”

Hamner noted that the city would need to approve the site plan of whatever a developer or homeowner proposed to build on the property.

Councilwoman Tracy Carroll also pointed out that anything pawned off as a “guarantee” passed by the City Council could be reversed by a subsequent city council.

“We’re not afraid of this city council,” said George Christopher, a retired attorney. “But we’re afraid that you’ll be threatened with lawsuits.”

Though Christopher and other several long-standing leaders of the Indian River Neighborhood Association attended the meeting and two spoke on behalf of the “neighborhood,” IRNA Executive Director Brian Carman said his organization had been  told to stay out of the matter.

“I didn’t even know about the flyers,” Carman said.

In response to the fact that several of his high-ranking and vocal members seemed to be leading the effort to get the City Council to give Riomar a guarantee that no more than three homes per acre would be built on the property, Carman said people like George Christopher and Harry Blynn were there as private citizens.

“A couple of the people there may have been members of the IRNA, just like a couple of them may be Catholic or may be Republican,” Carman said.

The word neighborhood was used repeatedly in the flyer and IRNA buzz-phrases were used in Blynn’s emotional appeal.

“We want that compatibility forever and a day. Do whatever you can to protect the zoning in Riomar,” Blynn pleaded with the council. “Please help us. Vero Beach is a community of neighborhoods.”

Four members of the City Council approved the land use change, with Craig Fletcher dissenting. Fletcher, who is no friend of the IRNA, does have roots in the Vero establishment represented by the cadre of Riomar residents.

“Is there any avenue for appeal?” Fletcher asked.

“The next step would be court,” replied City Attorney Charlie Vitunac.

“Circuit court?” Fletcher asked, and received an affirmative response.

Bruce Barkett, the attorney for St. Edward’s School, argued that setting the parcel aside for government and/or utility use many decades ago was an anomaly and that the restriction just did not belong in the grand scheme of the Riomar residential zoning. Barkett said he was not contacted by the IRNA prior to the hearing of the issue last week and that he did not receive a copy of the flyer.

To mollify the neighbors, the City Council sent Community Development Director Tim McGarry away with the assignment of bringing back options the city could use to place limits on the density of the parcel going forward.

After the item as voted on, the Riomar residents slowly exited the chambers while the council attempted to move on.

Huddling in small groups in the aisles inside chambers, they talked so loudly Councilwoman Tracy Carroll had to ask them to be quiet.