Stuart Costco project still on ice as state commission delays ruling on land-use designation

Lina Ruiz
Treasure Coast Newspapers

TALLAHASSEE — A year after the Stuart City Commission unanimously approved the controversial Costco project — in tandem with a new land-use designation for its 49 acres — a drawn-out challenge to the land use reached the state Administration Commission Tuesday. But there's still no resolution.

The commission — comprising Gov. Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner  Nikki Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — heard arguments over the challenge from Stuart City Attorney Mike Mortell and Richard Grosso, attorney for Stuart resident Robin Cartwright, who filed the challenge.  

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Although the commission deferred making a decision, Moody's comments appeared to support the city's position. Mortell argued that the administrative law judge, who in November oversaw a two-day hearing on the challenge, went outside the scope of the proceedings when she issued her recommended order against the city. 

Judge Francine Ffolkes included evidence relevant to the site plan itself, rather than just the land-use designation, Moody said.  

“I think that was incorrect. I think that was a misapplication of what she was supposed to do as a (judge) under the law. So we’ve got to remedy that,” Moody said.  

DeSantis' attorneys still are analyzing the case, he said, and that it would come back to the commission later. The next Administration Commission meeting is in December, according to attorney Mark Buckles.  

The delay and continued uncertainty of the property on South Kanner Highway — south of Martin County High School and Lychee Tree Nursery — comes after Cartwright filed a challenge in September to the city’s approval of the neighborhood special district land-use designation. That accommodated the project itself: a 162,020-square-foot Costco Wholesale Corp. store, 18-pump gas station, 378 apartment units and retail and restaurant space.

Stuart resident Robin Cartwright speaks to the State Administration Commission on Aug. 23, 2022 during a discussion of her challenge against the city's approval of a land-use designation that accommodated a controversial Costco project.

The City Commission on Aug. 10, 2021, approved both elements of the project after an eight-hour meeting that drew more than 100 people in person and roughly another 100 on Zoom.

Moreover, during Tuesday’s state meeting, Stuart City Commissioner Troy McDonald, Martin County NAACP President Jimmy Smith and attorney Bob Raynes, who represents project developer Joe Marino, spoke in favor of the city. Martin County resident Linda Kay Richards, the main intervenor during the city’s approval process, defended Cartwright and urged the commission to approve the judge’s order.

Cartwright told the commission she’s spent tens of thousands of dollars in the fight against the project, partially funded by other concerned community members, she said. 

“We finally had a chance to be heard by a neutral administrative law judge so she could see the claims made by the city and developer for what they truly were. And she was able to separate fact from fiction,” Cartwright said. “It’s beyond frustrating that the city keeps fighting us members of the community. And here they are now, in front of you trying to get another bite at the apple.”

Lina Ruiz is TCPalm's watchdog reporter for Martin County. You can reach her at, on Twitter @Lina_Ruiz48 or at 321-501-3845