Top news stories of 2012: Treasure Coast

In a year packed with prickly partisan politics, surprise presidential candidate visits, super PAC smear ads and raucous ballot recounts, county residents couldn't escape the 2012 election season that toppled a favored Tea Party incumbent and propelled others to newfound power.

Politics aside, many locals were left reeling from the effects of two pounding storms and the spectacular failure of a government-back movie animation studio that grabbed national headlines while laying off hundreds of employees.

Still, other positive indicators, such as improved unemployment rates, point to a local economy on the mend from the Great Recession.

Here's a look at other top stories from 2012:

ST. LUCIE COUNTY STORIES:


ELECTIONS PUT TREASURE COAST IN SPOTLIGHT

The presidential election, which propelled the Treasure Coast into a must-stop for candidates vying for cash and votes in this battleground state, dominated political discourse and turned a Fort Pierce pizza maker's bear hug into a nationwide sensation.


Within a month of each other, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama cruised Treasure Coast streets on their campaign buses, with crowds of people from all over the state standing by, waving and snapping photos.
Obama visited Fort Pierce and his Port St. Lucie headquarters during campaign trail stops in early September, and Romney gave a speech to more than 10,000 at a Port St. Lucie campaign rally in October.


The victory of political newcomer Democrat Patrick Murphy over Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West following one of the most contentious and costly congressional races in the country, sparked an avalanche of criticism against the St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections office related to counting ballots. Two weeks of legal action and a weekend of recounting votes preceded West's concession to Murphy, who won the District 18 seat by less than 2,000 votes.

Other election headlines included:
* Linda Hudson became Fort Pierce's first female mayor following a mandatory recount that showed her winning 50.16 percent of the vote over challenger Vince Gaskin, who initially had been declared the winner.

* Because of St. Lucie County's ballot counting irregularities, David Drury, head of the Division of Elections Bureau of Voting Systems Certifications, visited elections supervisor Gertrude Walker's office as her staff conducted recounts of ballots cast during the early voting period.

* On Nov. 18, St. Lucie election officials complete a recount, but missed a noon deadline to report results to the state, which forced state election officials to use the county's unofficial results from Nov. 11 to certify the election .

STORMS SANDY AND ISAAC CAUSE FLOODS, EROSION

Although the hurricane didn't hit the Treasure Coast directly, Sandy, which remained about 200 miles off the state's coast on Oct. 26, created waves, winds and rainstorms that eroded area beaches and flooded roadways causing more than $22 million in regional damage. Treasure Coast counties this month urged the state to appeal the denial of federal assistance to help pay for needed repairs.

Meanwhile, St. Lucie County, with about $4.2 million in damage, is proceeding with some repairs.
Tropical Storm Isaac on Aug. 27 spawned tornadoes in Indian River County, flooded streets in Port St. Lucie and resulted in water releases from Lake Okeechobee starting in October that dumped billions of gallons of dirty water in to the St. Lucie River.

Col. Alan M. Dodd, commanding officer of the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, noted in a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspaper guest column that scheduling water releases was driven by three primary factors: current lake level, inflow from the watershed and short and long-term rain forecast.

"We consider public safety, the environment and other authorized uses of the lake in our decisions," Dodd wrote Nov. 10. Meanwhile, during Port St. Lucie's brush with Isaac, yards flooded, cars stalled in high water, and a dozen impassible roads were temporarily closed.

ECONOMY'S SLOW RECOVERY

St. Lucie County's economic prospects seem bullish based on data in two key categories: unemployment and real estate.

The county's unemployment rate has steadily dropped, but perhaps more importantly, more people are finding work as opposed to unemployed people moving elsewhere in search of jobs.

The county's unemployment rate in November was 10.5 percent compared to 12.4 percent a year ago despite layoffs at Digital Domain Media Group.

Real estate also is recovering with inventory getting soaked up by buyers. Year-over-year sales for single family homes in November increased by 20 percent in St. Lucie County, according to the Florida Realtors monthly report.

The median sale price for single-family homes in November rose 12.5 percent to $110,000 compared to $97,750 a year ago. Experts expect those trends to continue moving in positive directions for St. Lucie County.
Donn Wonderling, president of the Realtor's Association of

St. Lucie County, said in 2012, the demand for housing was strong, and median home prices didn't fluctuate too much.

In St. Lucie County, Wonderling said, "the median price has jumped over the prior year anywhere from nine to 22 percent." "This the first time we've seen definite increases in value," he said.

Still, the 2012 market for building new houses across the region remained "particularly difficult," said Robert Cenk, president of the Treasure Coast Builders Association.

"Pretty much everybody believes that it's going to bounce along the bottom for a while and that's pretty much what it did," Cenk said. "We saw some activity (in 2012), interest rates for 30-year mortgages were very good, which helped the large builders and nationwide builders."

DIGITAL DOMAIN DECLARES BANKRUPTCY

Digital Domain Media Group became the state's biggest cash-for-jobs bust in September when the company's Port St. Lucie movie animation facility, Tradition Studios, laid off 346 employees days before declaring bankruptcy. Jupiter Island resident John Textor also was removed as Digital Domain CEO.

The city spent about $40 million to build and equip the 115,000-square-foot studio and leased it to Digital Domain. The city also gave the company $7.8 million in cash out of a promised $10 million economic development grant in exchange for a promise to create 500 jobs by 2014. Digital Domain also was awarded $20 million from the state.

This month, the City Council approved a settlement that returns the studio to the city by end of the year.

SCHOOL BUS CRASH KILLS ONE, INJURES OTHERS

A March 26 crash caused when a St. Lucie County school bus collided with a semitrailer at Okeechobee and Midway roads killed a 9-year-old boy, injured 15 students and a driver and sent shock waves through the Treasure Coast. Aaron Beauchamp of Port St. Lucie, a fourth-grader at Frances K. Sweet Elementary School in Fort Pierce, was killed in the collision.

The school bus driver, Albert Hazen, of Port St. Lucie, was cited for being at fault in the accident for turning in front of an oncoming, fully loaded sod truck. In September, Hazen was fined $1,000 and his license was suspended for six months for failing to yield while making a left turn.

A lawsuit Aaron's mother filed against the Jacksonville sod truck company Cypress Truck Lines Inc. is pending in court. Records show attorneys representing other injured children have either resolved their legal claims or are negotiating settlement terms.

TRADITION DEVELOPMENT MAKES STRIDES

In January, the Tradition Center for Innovation took huge strides toward becoming a world-class bioresearch hub when scientists with the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida began working from a new 100,000-square-foot building after sharing space for nearly two years with the nearby Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies.

The Mann Research Center also is gearing up to construct a $10 million, 44,000-square-foot building at the Tradition Center for Innovation. The two-story building, designed for clinical research and trials, will be connected to Martin Health System's new Tradition Medical Center, which is slated to open in January 2014.

The 22-acre Mann Research Center complex eventually is expected to be 410,000 square feet and will have medical offices, research and development facilities and retail space.

PORT ST. LUCIE MAYOR/POLICE SAGA

Several political storms hit Port St. Lucie City Hall this year beginning when police stopped an assistant city attorney for suspicion of drinking and driving, never cited her and instead gave her a ride home, and ending with citizens' attempt to recall Mayor JoAnn Faiella.

Police stopped Gabrielle Taylor in February and after a wave of public criticism she was fired. The fallout led to City Council recommending Police Chief Brian Reuther not return, disciplining City Attorney Roger Orr and firing City Manager Jerry Bentrott. City Council promoted Greg Oravec to city manager, who soon after reorganized the Police Department, laid off numerous top-ranking police officers and spearheaded the search for a new police chief.

Reuther, the last of the department's original nine officers, retired and Oravec hired Craig Novick as police chief capping an exhaustive five-month search. Novick reneged on the position twice, blaming Faiella for interfering in Oravec's hiring process.

After a series of emails surfaced indicating Faiella attempted to conspire with a resident to "set up" the city attorney and collect what she called "amo" against a police captain who later was laid off, residents cried out for Faiella to resign and some collaborated on a recall petition to oust her. Too few signatures caused the recall campaign to fail.

FAU CLOSES PORT ST. LUCIE CAMPUS

Florida Atlantic University in June closed the Port St. Lucie campus it shared with Indian River State College as part of FAU's plan to absorb a $24 million state funding cut. The cost-saving move shifted academic

programs and staff from the Port St. Lucie campus to John D. MacArthur Campus in Jupiter and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.

About 247 students, less than 1 percent of the total FAU enrollment, listed the Treasure Coast campus in Port St. Lucie as their home campus at the time of the closing, according to FAU media relations.

FAU officials expect to save about $1.8 million a year in operating costs by consolidating campuses.

FORT PIERCE MARINA ISLAND PROJECT

The long-awaited Marina Island project at the Fort Pierce City Marina began construction in September and is expected to be finished by March 2014. The project, city officials say, could draw more boaters and tourists to downtown Fort Pierce and lead to busier restaurants, higher ticket sales at the Sunrise Theatre and improved nature tours.

When hurricanes devastated the Treasure Coast in 2004, the storms left the marina in tatters.
The estimated $20 million project includes rebuilding the marina and creating several tiny man-made islands that will provide habitat for birds and other animals. The marina will include 1.28 acres of oyster habitat and 6.26 acres of reef habitat. The project is the first of its kind in the state and other cities are considering following the plans.

DZADOVSKY ARRESTED, RE-ELECTED

St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky in November ended a tumultuous year by pleading no contest to a misdemeanor theft charge that he stole a swimming pool heater from his deceased ex-fiancee's home in February. Dzadovsky, 51, was fined $500 but doesn't have a conviction on his record because the court withheld adjudication. He defeated Fort Pierce Republican Bob Benton to win a second County Commission term despite a four-month suspension by Gov. Rick Scott.

Dzadovsky, who won the commission's District 1 seat in 2008, was arrested in April on a third-degree felony charge. State prosecutors in July reduced the offense to misdemeanor petty theft.

 

MARTIN COUNTY STORIES:

 

AMERICAN ENERGY INNOVATION CANCELS EXPANSION

American Energy Innovations, an affiliate of American Custom Yachts in Tropical Farms, in February backed out of a $4 million deal with the state and Martin County because of problems with the wind turbine components it was manufacturing.

The commission committed $435,000 from the Economic Development Fund but the company paid back $75,000 it already had received from the county after acknowledging it couldn't create the 600 promised jobs.

The firm also repaid the state a $750,000 payment and laid off 25 of its 40 employees, saying it had to retool its product line for single-piece blades and other components for wind and submerged turbo engines because the market demanded a slightly modified blade.

MAN ARRESTED IN ANDREA PARSONS KILLING

After 19 years of investigating, Martin County authorities on Nov. 29 arrested a former Martin resident for the murder of Andrea Parsons, who vanished in 1993 at age 10. Chester Duane Price, 42, of Haleyville, Ala., was indicted by a grand jury on charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping in connection with Andrea's disappearance and presumed death.

She disappeared July 11, 1993, after buying chips and candy from Bucky's Port Salerno Grocery store, about two blocks from her home. Her body has never been found.

Early in the case, detectives arrested the girl's neighbor, Claude Davis, after he told them he saw men put the girl in a car and later said he dreamed he was collecting cans with Andrea when she fell and hit her head. Charges against Davis were dropped in May 1994 for lack of evidence.

SAILFISH SPLASH WATER PARK OPENS

Martin County's new water park on Willoughby Boulevard raked in more than $1.4 million in sales during its inaugural season that began in May and ended Sept. 30.

By season's end, 130,419 people had visited the Sailfish Splash, according to county officials. Its success topped expectations and defied critics who had argued against spending the millions it would cost to build the park.

The $9 million Martin County-owned complex features two four-story water slides, a 750-foot lazy river, an interactive water playground, a 50-meter competition pool and a 25-yard learn-to-swim pool with room for 600 spectators at the competitive pool. Sailfish Splash opens for its second season March 22.

HOBE SOUND DEVELOPMENT STALLS

Three major development projects in rural Hobe Sound triggered widespread public opposition that helped power two slow-growth candidates for Martin County Commission to victory and shift the balance of power on the five-member board.

The proposals focused the commission campaign on the issues of urban sprawl and the potential for blight in older communities.

The partners in the Harmony Ranch Development of Regional Impact pulled the plug on their plans for 4,000 houses and 2 million square feet of business space in March. The commissioners rejected two growth plan amendments for the Extreme Sports Water Ski Park and Hotel

in July, effectively killing the resort project.

The review of the Hobe Grove Development of Regional Impact, which envisions 4,300 houses and 4.5 million square feet of business space, remains frozen while the developers await the results of a study on whether Martin County needs more housing.

NANCY KLINE OUSTED

Garnering more than 62 percent of the vote, Laurie Gaylord, a former three-term school board member, defeated Schools Superintendent Nancy Kline in a contentious August primary.

Kline, 57, was elected superintendent in 2008 after serving four years as a member of the Martin County School Board. Kline's race was regarded as one of the most vitriolic of the election season.

During the campaign, Gaylord claimed Kline had created an atmosphere of mistrust in the district that had caused several longtime employees to leave. Kline also might have lost voter support because of allegations she cheated on an open-book certification exam administered by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents by phoning a friend for help.

Authorities concluded she didn't break any laws and the state Commission on Ethics dismissed a complaint against Kline for legal insufficiency.

PUBLIC SERVANTS RETIRE

Martin County residents this year saw a major changing of the guard with the retirement of several high-profile public servants, including Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder, Stuart Police Chief Edward Morley, Stuart Fire Chief Sunderman and Martin County Clerk of the Circuit Court Marsha Ewing.

Ewing, 54, served for 26 years as clerk and another nine years as deputy clerk. She steps down Jan. 8 when clerk-elect Carolyn Timman is sworn into office.

Crowder, 66, who unsuccessfully challenged Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West in the August District 18 primary, retires at the end of the year after serving five four-year terms as sheriff. Republican State Rep. William Snyder, 60, of Palm City, will take over for Crowder after winning the Nov. 6 general election.
In September, Morley, 62, announced he was stepping down from the post he'd held since 1999. Morley was replaced Oct. 1 by his assistant chief, David Dyess.

Sunderman, Stuart's first female fire chief, retired in November after 22 years with the department, the last seven years as chief. Assistant Fire Chief David Dyal was named as interim chief when Sunderman stepped down.

 

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY STORIES:

 

POWER PLANT SAGA

After 18 months of discussions about Florida Power & Light Co. purchasing Vero Beach's electric system, the sale itself could come down to a referendum for city residents to decide the matter.

The first hearing on the ordinance could take place Dec. 11 with a final vote slated for the Jan. 8 council meeting. A referendum could be held in March.

FPL in November revised its purchase offer to $179.6 million, which includes taking on the city utility's employee benefits and all pension liabilities and guaranteeing active city utility employees a minimum of two years of employment with FPL.

Opponents to a referendum have said the public already has expressed their support of the sale by electing pro-sale candidates to the city council and approving a referendum to lease the land the power plant sits on to FPL. Proponents of a referendum, however, have said the earlier referendum was only for the rental of the land and not for the sale itself.

Both those for and against the sale have accused either side of costing the city residents or electric customers money unnecessarily.

Those who support a sale contend a delay is causing residents and business customers millions of dollars that could be saved through having lower rates provided by FPL. Others point to the more than $600,000 spent on attorney fees to date on a deal that opponents say may not happen for three or four years because of the difficulty in the city getting out of its current power contracts.

DAVID GORE EXECUTED

After spending 28 years on Florida's death row, Gore was executed April 12 by lethal injection for the first-degree murder of Vero Beach teenager Lynn Elliott. He also confessed to killing two woman and four girls in Indian River County between 1981 and 1983.

On July 26, 1983, Gore, then 29, and his cousin Fred Waterfield, 30, picked up Elliott, 17, and Regan Martin, 14, as the two girls were hitchhiking to Wabasso Beach. Gore and Waterfield, dubbed the Killing Cousins, handcuffed Elliott and Martin and drove them to Gore's parents house on the outskirts of Vero Beach where they raped the girls.

Gore shot and killed Elliott as she tried to escape. Martin survived and lives in Georgia.
Waterfield is serving life in prison for his role in the crimes.

RICHARD BROWN IMPRISONED

Convicted of illegally taking about $360,000 from his Treasure Coast clients since 2009, disbarred attorney Richard Brown is serving a 15-year prison term imposed during his sentencing in April. Brown, 45, also was ordered to serve 10 years probation and he must pay back about $300,000

in restitution.

Brown once owned real estate in New Hampshire and was affiliated with a widely known law firm in West Palm Beach.

According to court testimony Brown, possibly because of financial problems, began lying to some clients about insurance settlements, pocketing proceeds for himself. Or he took money he was holding for them. At the time of his arrest he blamed his problems on a troubled divorce.

In March, Brown pleaded guilty to charges of grand theft, fraud, money laundering and illegal interception of communications.

INEOS LAUNCHES

INEOS New Planet Bio-Energy, at southwest of 74th Avenue and Oslo Road, finished construction in June and began producing electricity in November. It's the first large-scale project in the United States to get registrations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use yard and vegetative waste to produce advanced cellulosic bioethanol. It also will generate enough electricity to power the facility and as many as 1,400 Vero Beach homes.

INEOS is a joint venture of California's New Planet Energy and the global chemical giant INEOS, headquartered in the United Kingdom. The companies combined to build an ethanol plant on Oslo Road where Ocean Spray Cranberries once produced grapefruit juice.

Eventually, the project will produce 8 million gallons of bioethanol annually and six megawatts of power. Full production at the facility, which has 60 full-time employees, should start during the first quarter of 2013.

SHARK BITES GERMAN TOURIST

Vero Beach lifeguard Erik Toomsoo is being considered for a Carnegie Hero Award for helping save the life of German visitor Karin Stei in a May 9 shark attack. Toomsoo was on duty at Humiston Park that morning when he heard screams coming from the water.

He saw Stei, 47, about 30 yards off shore and blood in the water. He swam to her, wrapped an arm around her and swam her to shore, where he put pressure on her nearly severed left leg caused by the shark bite as others joined in assisting with the rescue.

Stei survived and is recovering in Germany.

In July, the National Geographic WILD channel announced it was planning to produce a documentary that reconstructs the shark attack that occurred about 30 yards from shore.

ELEPHANT CENTER BREAKS GROUND

Construction workers broke ground in April on the $12.5 million National Elephant Center, a 225-acre spread 3 miles north of downtown Fellsmere that could one day serve as a refuge for up to 36 elephants needing a home.

Crews spent three months clearing some citrus trees and digging new ponds for the 30-acre first phase on Fellsmere Grade, south of the C54 Canal. The first phase is to include a 13,000-square-foot barn, a keeper station and four elephant paddocks, with enough pasture for up to nine elephants.

The National Elephant Center is a collaboration of 73 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The center will provide a place for aging elephants, young males who need to move from the home herd, and even females giving birth.

STUART PAIN MANAGEMENT RAIDED

Dubbed Operation Pill Street Blues, a yearlong investigation ended June 27 when state and local authorities shut down the Stuart Pain Management Center, on U.S. 1 in Vero Beach, and arrested seven doctors and seven clinic owners, or associates on multiple charges ranging from racketeering to illegally prescribing controlled medications including oxycodone.

They are accused of being part of a multimillion-dollar network of clinics that in one year prescribed 2.1 million oxycodone tablets.

Dr. Bruce Kammerman, 55, of Palm City, an owner of the Stuart Pain Management Center, faces 33 felony charges, including trafficking and delivery of pain medications. The Florida Department of Health also suspended Kammerman's medical license.

According to the investigation that used undercover agents posing as patients, the clinic did cursory medical examinations, records show, and prescribed pain medications to undercover agents who said they didn't have serious pain and showed signs of addiction.

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