Rehab center made taller to protect wetlands on Hutchinson Island

Article Courtesy of  The Treasure Coast Newspaper

By Tyler Treadway

Published May 27, 2019

When it comes to preserving mangrove wetlands, call it "A Tale of Two Developments."

At Sunset Beach, a 42-home project to be built on Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County, owner Lloyd S. Moody of Houston was chided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for cutting mangroves and got the proper permit only after the damage was done.


On Monday, the DEP confirmed Moody had agreed to pay about $32,000 to mitigate the loss of mangroves TCPalm first reported in late January.

At the Atlantic Wellness Center & Resort, a drug and alcohol rehab facility to be built just north of Sunset Beach, the developer outlined to St. Lucie County officials how it would save as much mangrove swamp as possible and mitigate for what would be lost.

Island residents vehemently opposed the rehab center when it was approved May 7 by county commissioners, but "from an environmental perspective, we have no specific problems with the center's plans," said Charles Grande, chairman of the Presidents Council of Hutchinson Island, which represents homeowners and condominium associations on the island.

Minimizing impacts

"The developers seem to have taken care to minimize impacts," said Grande, who also is vice president of the Rivers Coalition, a consortium of environmental groups, homeowners associations, fishing clubs and businesses dedicated to preserving the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.

According to plans submitted to St. Lucie County, the project will preserve 90.5 percent of the 12.6 acres of wetlands and 79 percent of the entire 22.43-acre site.

Environmental plans for the Atlantic Wellness Center & Resort call for:

  • Dredging and filling 1.2 acres of wetlands

  • Mitigating that by removing exotic plants throughout the wetland and buying credits from the Bear Point Mitigation Bank along the Indian River Lagoon on Hutchinson Island north of the center

  • Impacting 1.23 acres of the adjacent upland buffer

  • Mitigating that by restoring 0.18 acres of upland habitat and paying $35,305 to a mitigation fund

Construction crewmen from York Bridge Concepts work on a 267-foot timber vehicular bridge on Tuesday, Jan 29, 2019, along A1A on South Hutchinson Island, south of Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County. The bridge crosses over a section of mangroves and non-native Australian pine trees, linking A1A to proposed Sunset Beach, a housing development to be built along the ocean shoreline at Joe's Pond, about four miles north of the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant. The developer has been trimming, or cutting down mangrove trees as part of a DEP permit for the project.


The wetlands will become an easement that the facility's owners will be required "to maintain in perpetuity," said St. Lucie County Senior Environmental Planner Jennifer McGee.

"We steered them toward concentrating on the uplands in order to minimize the impact to the mangrove wetlands," McGree said.

'Jammed onto strip of land'

Although well-intentioned, that concentration "has resulted in an overly crowded and poorly planned facility because of the limited amount of buildable land they had left to work with," Grande said.

The facility's four buildings, Grande said, "are jammed onto a strip of land just west of the dune and east of the wetlands because that's all the usable land on the site."

Because of the limited space, two of the facility's four buildings will be 42 feet tall rather than the 35-foot height limit on that stretch of the island.

County Senior Planner Kori Benton said building heights on the island are measured as the habitable area above the flood elevation, so they don't include ground-floor garages.

Most 35-foot buildings, like homes at the Watersong development south of the proposed rehab facility, are typically three stories above the garage; 42-foot buildings are four stories above the garage.

The county's Environmental Resources Department also has approved the project's sea turtle protection plan that includes tinted glass and/or film on windows facing the beach.

The beach along the facility from the high water line east has to remain open to the public.

Besides Sunset Beach to the south, a project with 92 multi-family dwellings called Hutchinson Sands Condominiums has been proposed north of the center.

"The land to the north and to the south of the center both have approved building plans," said Grande, who became a member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission after that panel recommended against the rehab facility. "This area is going to be developed. It's not a question of if, but when."