Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Are developers holding back on big plans until growth-friendly candidates get voted in?

Dan Lobeck of Control Growth Now at Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) in Sarasota on March 12, 2018, speaking about Smart Growth, the upcoming elections, and Single District Voting.


 Part 2 with Q & A:


Sunday, March 11, 2018

An Open Letter: Why Fresh Start

When Sarasota County last year bent over backwards to allow a plan for a 16-acre, open-air demolition waste processing plant to be considered for public lands near its famed Celery Fields preserve and recreation area, the community saw something. It saw blindness. Indifference. Refusal to actually plan, or care. 

Why, with the new feature of a lovely natural preserve, new residential development, and other stranded amenities like Ackerman Park, did the County not seize the opportunity for a different kind of impact? Why didn't it direct planning staff to look at a new master plan for the entire Celery Fields Area? One compatible with the larger market forces making East Sarasota County the new hotspot for development, including the Fruitville Initiative?

A lot of people stood up in strong opposition to the Waste Plant. Ultimately last Aug. 23, the Board of County Commissioners voted down the proposed waste idea: 3-2. The close vote and evident absence of intent to optimize these public assets left some of us alarmed. There was no guarantee some other heavy industrial proposal wouldn't win Board approval, as no direction to staff accompanied the vote. 

A group of residents and HOA leaders then formed the Fresh Start Initiative with the plan of providing community input for uses that would respect the environment and enhance the area. As the name implies, Fresh Start begins anew. We are gathering proposals, gaining community input, then holding a public workshop to gauge preferences. All of this is conceived as part of a larger conversation, an opportunity for community and County to openly explore Sarasota County's values and vision for the future. We chose to focus discussion around specific land uses proposed for these parcels. That way, questions of planning, policy, and vision would be grounded in an actual case study.

If this experiment interests you, there's plenty of material to look at on the Fresh Start blog and the Citizens for Sarasota blog. For a quick overview, start here (last paragraph links to info about proposals). We have received a rich variety of ideas and proposals from the community, which an Advisory Board will be reviewing shortly. Then on April 10, the community will participate in a roundtable workshop to vote for those deemed compatible, viable, and meaningful. 

Of course we hope this experiment will issue in great ideas that enhance the Celery Fields area. But even more: We hope a good-faith dialog with the County will have lasting beneficial effects with respect to land use methods and decisions that will be critically significant for our future.

Thanks for your time.

Tom Matrullo
On behalf of Fresh Start, a coalition of 50+ HOA's, non-profits, and businesses.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Single District Voting Petition hopes to qualify for 2018 Sarasota elections

From Kindra Muntz of SAFE - The Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections 

Please read Kindra's message, download, sign and mail the petition today to the address shown. This is the most effective way we can achieve local campaign finance reform now!
Please send this to your email list to encourage people to help with our Countywide petition drive for Single Member Districts? DEADLINE MARCH 16 to submit enough validated petitions to put this on the ballot this spring in time to help County Commission candidates in 2018.
Please call if any questions.
Kindra 941-266-8278
This is a heads-up!
--for all who care about campaign finance reform and a way we can make a difference right here in Sarasota County by changing the way we elect County Commissioners to Single Member Districts.
We have submitted 11,749 petitions to the Supervisor of Elections, but we need to deliver another 5,500 by March 16 to make sure we have the last 4,174 validated petitions needed to put this referendum on the ballotJune 12 in order to benefit candidates in 2018. (See http://www.keepdemocracysafe.org/act-now ) If we pass this at any later time this year, it will not benefit candidates until 2020!
Even with some paid petition-gatherers working night and day, we need everyone’s help to meet our AMBITIOUS GOAL of 5,500 more petitions in 10 DAYS!!
Will you join our HI FIVE campaign to push us over the top??
  1. Download and print the petition here
  2. Make 5 copies and have friends and acquaintances who vote in Sarasota County –and who haven’t already signed the petition--fill them in while you are there
  3. Mail them to the address on the petition.
Remember, Single Member Districts will
  • Make our elected officials more accountable to YOU, the voter, rather than to big moneyed interests and their PACs
  • Cut the cost of campaigns by 80%
  • Make races more competitive, and allow more good candidates to run
  • Benefit people of ALL political parties, and help restore democracy in this county for years to come
Kindra, for the SAFE board
Kindra Muntz
Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections

Friday, March 9, 2018

Audubon President speaks of Everglades, Celery Fields, and the "big tent" of Audubon

WUSF has a fine interview with National Audubon Society President David Yarnold - he talks about Everglades Restoration, and about Sarasota's efforts to protect the Celery Fields, in which Sarasota Audubon played a significant part. The Interview is here. He'll be speaking Monday evening in Sarasota -- details below:

David Yarnold, CEO of National Audubon, will be speaking on sea level rise at the monthly meeting of the Sarasota Audubon Society
 Monday, March 12 at 7:00pm

Space will be limited, so get there early.

National Audubon consists of close to 500 chapters throughout the US. The National office deals with nationwide conservation issues through legislation at the state and federal levels.

 First Congregational Church Fellowship Hall, 1031 S. Euclid, Sarasota

Sunday, March 4, 2018

It takes mixed uses to make a Village

Update: Unprecedented risk: Urban Service Area could effectively be at an end

Update: The hearing has been postponed.  The petitioner has requested an indefinite continuance.

Urban Service Boundary at Risk

On March 14, the Sarasota County Commission will consider a really bad proposed amendment to the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan amendment.

It would allow pockets of urban development beyond the Urban Service Boundary (USB). 

On February 1, the Planning Commission, which is packed with development interests, recommended approval of the amendment by a vote of 8 to 0, with one recusal.

The amendment would set a precedent to allow individual urban developments outside the Urban Service Boundary (and outside of the Sarasota 2050 areas and Overlay Districts), by approving them in individual Comp Plan amendments, making exceptions to the USB. It has never been done before but if it happens now than developers will be clamoring for the same treatment in the rural lands.

This would get around the requirement of the Sarasota County Charter for a unanimous County Commission vote to move the Urban Service Boundary or to expand or create an Overlay District as well as the requirement of voter approval to eliminate the Urban Service Boundary.  The staff analysis specifically acknowledges this “objective,” noting that the Charter requirement for a unanimous County Commission vote has prevented any movement of the Urban Service Boundary since the Charter limits were enacted by voter referendum in 2008.

The present proposed Comp Plan amendment would specifically allow a Light Office development across from Sun N Fun on Fruitville Road, about 1.25 miles east of the Urban Service Boundary, for influential builder Lee Wetherington, and elsewhere that certain criteria are met.  The staff analysis states that could include other parcels in that corridor. 

Although the amendment’s criteria include a requirement that “adequate existing public infrastructure is available to serve the subject property” it would allow the subject office development even though there is no public infrastructure available to provide sewage treatment and a septic tank will be used instead. The staff report does express some concern about this, but the obvious violation of the amendment’s own criteria somehow did not prevent the staff from endorsing it.

If this loophole is allowed by the County Commission, the Urban Service Boundary is effectively gone, as it can be breached any time by a site-specific amendment. This threatens all subdivisions beyond the Urban Service Boundary east of I-75 and in south County, as well as all of us impacted by urban sprawl and its increase in traffic, infrastructure expenses, environmental degradation and other public concerns.

The Charter requires at least four of the five County Commissioners to approve any Comp Plan amendment which increases the density of intensity of development. County staff agrees that this applies to the proposed amendment.

This very bad Comprehensive Plan amendment should be defeated by the County Commission.

What good is an Urban Service Boundary if it can so easily be violated and ignored?

This piece by Dan Lobeck first appeared in the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Group newsletter.

Maley: New Growth + low impact fees = infrastructure meltdown?

Same Old Story,
Same Old Song and Dance

Dennis Maley
The Bradenton Times
Sunday, Mar 04, 2018

On Thursday, the Manatee County Commission held a public hearing on the idea of giving developers a multi-million dollar freebie by capping impact fees at a rate lower than what the board had previously passed, based on what had been prescribed in a taxpayer-funded study. As is always the case when this subject comes before the BOCC, I felt like my head was going to explode through much of the meeting.

The most painful part of these engagements is sitting through the litany of tired and misinformed rhetoric about the subject. Impact fees hurt young families, they put people in the industry out of work, they send developers and home buyers elsewhere. None of this is true, of course, but you have to remind yourself that the truth doesn’t matter in such proceedings. The practiced baloney is simply window dressing for a truth that most commissioners find acceptable to practice, if unacceptable to utter: lowering impact fees puts money into the pockets of the developers who get and keep us elected.

Three of the seven commissioners on the board—Baugh, Benac and Jonsson—were installed directly by developers who poured vast sums of money into their campaigns. For their efforts, they have enjoyed votes that reflect the allegiance they’ve expected. Commissioner Whitmore, the longest serving commissioner currently on the board, has gotten the mountains of campaign cash which have kept her in office from a much broader array of interests, but has nonetheless been reliably pro-growth, even if she’s occasionally given to some inconvenient hemming and hawing before casting a vote.

As such, they’re gonna get their four votes, and in most cases five or six, partly because the others know when it’s wise and unwise to go up against them. Nonetheless, such measures require a public hearing, so we had to go through the exercise on Tuesday for the sake of checking the block. In fact, the people showing up to demand that commissioners represent the interests of the taxpayers instead of their campaign sponsors knew more than most that it was just a dog and pony show. On March 20, the board will vote to cap the impact fees at 90 percent of what the consulting firm that conducted the study recommended. They’ll do so because the developers told them to. It's that simple.

Its futility notwithstanding, the hearing was not without entertainment. The commissioners reminded me of an aging rock band on tour without a new album, playing an easily-guessed set list of greatest hits over a painfully predictable 90 minutes. We’re afraid we’ll get sued. That’ll cost us more than the extra 10 percent will yield. We can’t spend it on the things we need. Maybe we should be looking at a "mobility fee” like Hillsborough County has. Maybe we should look at a fee on all real estate transactions not just new homes, blah, blah, blue.

That last one has been the favored complaint of the builders for years. Only one in eight home sales is new construction they tell us. Why shouldn’t the costs be spread out among all people who buy a house here? The people who move to the county and buy existing homes are getting a free ride. Impact fees don’t help the poorest communities where no new development is occurring, because they can’t be spent there.

If you read my column regularly, you’ve heard me debunk all of the arguments used by commissioners and builders ad nauseum. Briefly for those who are new: impact fees are the primary means by which we pay for the infrastructure needed to support new growth. Moving to our county and buying a home that already has the required infrastructure connected to and surrounding it does not create the costs that putting a few thousand homes on a formerly rural parcel without the required infrastructure does. On some levels, we are all forced to pay for the new growth. Impact fees just help make it at least somewhat more equitable.

New growth simply does not pay for itself. It costs about $1.25 in services for every $1 in money it brings in. Impact fees are one of the ways we help to offset that. With somewhere around 10,000 vacant homes in the county, we should be doing everything we can to encourage people who come here to purchase existing property supported by existing infrastructure. Conversely, we should want to discourage our rural hamlets from becoming new development, requiring new infrastructure that must not only be created but maintained. Subsidizing the cost of new construction by waiving and reducing fees is the opposite of that. It doesn’t make sense, but it does make dollars—for developers.

As for discouraging people from moving here or hurting the economy, there's simply no basis in fact whatsoever for such arguments. Indeed, a report issued by Moody Analytics just this week has our area's population as the 10th fasted growing in the entire nation in 2017, with a projection to move up to 9th next year. The same report had us first in job growth. Clearly, we should be much more worried about the long-term effects of our lack of EMS and policing resources (including capital expenses like patrol cars and ambulances), libraries, adequate roadways and other services that impact fees help pay for eventually dissuading current and potential residents than a fee on new construction that would be charged in the sale price anyway, were it not collected.

One of the more interesting aspects of Thursday’s meeting was the public comment, which was perhaps more intellectually organized than usual. Al Horrigan, who spent four decades as a developer out west before retiring to Florida, serves on the Manatee Planning Commission. In his role as the head of an east-county neighborhood association, Horrigan gave commissioners extended comment. 

Horrigan asked if a developer who has established the price point for a house at $350,000 isn’t going to build it because of $1,000 fee, or whether, in the history of development, one has lowered the price of a home from $350,000 to $349,000 because such a fee was reduced. No, they sell their homes for what the market will bear. Reducing such costs, simply increases profits.

Horrigan chastised commissioners for recently asking the public for more money via a half-cent infrastructure sales tax that amounts to more annually from everyone than they would be saving just the purchasers of newly constructed homes when amortized over their mortgages. "Did you suddenly realize you now have too much money for infrastructure and the only way you can get rid of it is to give it away to developers?” he asked, pointedly.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh went on at length about the perils of impact fees, painting a dark picture in which they could leave the entire county economy in a state of ruin. Baugh said that during the development recession that occured after the mortgage crisis in 2009 people "couldn't live here” and "couldn't work here.” She said, "We were basically running them out of town.”

Baugh said that, sure, now the economy was good and building was booming but that we all know there’s a recession on the horizon, and that "we need to prepare for that day and be ready” .... by, you guessed it, capping impact fees. Baugh echoed the fear of legal challenges and stressed that impact fees were paid for by homeowners, including poor and middle class ones, not developers. She’s never been in favor of them, she added, and said that because the county has now begun mentioning mobility fees, that was somehow more reason to cap fees. 

Matt Bower, who commissioners recently kicked off the planning commission—presumably for making their tribute votes to developers more embarrassing by politely pointing out the obvious—clearly relished his new role as regular citizen, telling the board when he came up to give public comment that getting rid of him was a double edged sword, as he no longer felt compelled to bite his tongue on public policy issues.

Bower brought the whole developers buy your commission seats issue right out into the public forum and then took down Baugh’s defense of her vote point by point. Bower reiterated that houses will continue to be driven by market demand, that we clearly aren’t hurting to attract both developers and buyers, and that lower fees mean little more than reduced ability to provide needed services—for the sake of increased developer profits. He also pointed out the absurdity of using a mythical coming recession to justify keeping fees lower than they should be while times were admittedly booming.

Bower said that since we’ve routinely lowered them when development was down, it was only common sense that you would collect them fully when development was up. As for the threat of a lawsuit, he echoed Horrigan’s advice: let them sue. Bower said that to his knowledge, the firm that did Manatee’s study has never lost a legal challenge when the fees were collected at 100 percent of what they prescribed. As for the mobility fees, Bower said it was irresponsible to use something that hasn’t even begun to be studied or considered as a reason to alter the current prescribed course, especially because commissioners have no idea whatsoever how or when they would be implemented or what impact on need they would provide.

Ernest "Sandy” Marshall, representing the Federation of Manatee Community Associations, has also been a solid provider of common sense every time this issue comes up. Marshall said the Federation strongly supported collecting 100 percent of the prescribed fees and that they very clearly have not slowed growth in Manatee and Sarasota counties where transplants continue to pour in year after year. He also pointed out that even if new homes are slightly more expensive, that lifts the price of existing properties, leading to growth in revenues from ad valorem taxes.

Glen Gibellina, a citizen activist who has long championed a focus on affordable housing while deriding proposed developments that don’t include it (especially when they seek density increases), said that if we want to look at impact fees, let’s only look at the ones on affordable units. Gibellina suggested we collect 100 percent on every new home with a sale price over $100,000, and then waive them completely for houses under that amount. "People buying a $350,000 house can afford those fees,” argued Gibellina. "When you’re collecting $20,000 in fees on an $80,000 house, that’s gonna be a fifth of that person’s mortgage.”

Commissioner Betsy Benac pointed out that by state law they cannot waive impact fees for any class of homes but said that there was a bill in the legislature that sought to give local governments that latitude. She said she agreed they needed to "look at” affordable housing and the 600 sq ft minimum unit size that Gibellina also lampooned. 

However, the point is, the board doesn’t look at those things, because they are of no interest to the developers who put and keep them in office. Developers like minimum square footage, they hate affordable housing requirements, and they hate impact fees. Consider that and then consider the way our meetings are run and which issues are given the most consideration and you’ll see quite clearly who really runs this county. 

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino was the only enthusiastic voice for collecting the fees at 100 percent, reasoning that since it’s only become more expensive to build needed infrastructure since the study was done in 2015, the idea that we needed less than the experts told us we needed then didn’t hold water. "I don’t even understand why we’re here talking about this,” DiSabatino said rhetorically, though some of the commissioners seemed to take it literally.

Not coincidentally, DiSabatino announced this week that she will not be seeking reelection in November. Having tried to fight the good fight for almost eight years, she too feels as though her head might spontaneously combust at any moment and has decided that floating on a sailboat in the Bahamas with a margarita in her hand is a better way to spend her golden years. Who can blame her? Things won’t change until more people wake up and take notice, stop casting uninformed, straight-ticket votes and make commissioners fear voter accountability more than developer disloyalty.

Being a commissioner in Manatee County is a good way to feel important, take home a six-figure compensation package for a part-time job with superb benefits, and pad your retirement for a decade or so. It’s not at the moment, however, a good way to fight corruption, improve the quality of life for regular citizens, and be a responsible steward for future generations. Far too many powerful interests find the latter much too inconvenient to abide. So long as the voters and commissioners allow that to be the case, nothing will change.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Smart Growth - now more than ever

CONA logo graphic 
Sarasota County Council of 
Neighborhood Associations - CONA

      - monthly meeting -
  March 122018
     at 7 p .m.  

smart growth needed
more than ever  
  On Monday, March 12, 2018 please join CONA for a presentation by 
the president of Control Growth Now, Dan Lobeck, regarding recent and proposed changes by local government to the vision of our community that had been carefully-crafted for the future by citizens participating in the extensive planning process that resulted in an award-winning comprehensive plan. 
  These changes are compromising the smart growth goals of our vision, including those protecting neighborhood compatibility and the environment, limiting traffic congestion, constraining urban sprawl, and making growth pay its own way rather than being borne by existing taxpayers.

  Mr. Lobeck will propose solutions and reforms within our government institutions and political choices that will benefit and represent the interests of neighborhoods, residents, and businesses.
  Among the potential solutions that will be discussed, is an initiative toward single-member districts for county commission seats that currently is working toward placing a referendum on the county voting ballot.  
  Q & A will follow. A social precedes the meeting at 6:30 

  See www.conasarasota.org/meetings.html for more about CONA.
social 6:30 p.m. -  meeting 7:00 p.m.
at the Sarasota Garden Club, 1131 Boulevard of the Arts

neighbors helping neighborhoods since 1961
save the date  -  our anniversary party  -  November 5, 2018

CONA meetings are free and open to the public as well as members of the more than seventy associations the organization represents and its individual members. Unless otherwise noted, the meetings are held at the Sarasota Garden Club, 1131 Boulevard of the Arts in Sarasota, which is at the intersection of Tamiami Trail, south of the Municipal Auditorium. Parking and the entrance are reached from Van Wezel Way. Socials precede the meetings at 6:30 p.m., the meetings begin at 7:00 p.m.  


On March 10, Control Growth Now holds its annual lunch, this year at Marina Jacks. Those attending will hear from Glenna Blomquist and Tom Matrullo two of many who helped build community opposition to the placement of a waste processing plant at the Celery Fields in 2017. Both are now working on the project known as Fresh Start, seeking sensible, community enhancing planning for the parcels where the developer sought to build an open-air waste processing facility.

Monday, February 26, 2018

FPL to select route by mid-year

In January, FPL shared three possible routes for new power lines to the east of I-75 in Sarasota County.

In response to a follow-up inquiry, a spokesman said the company held a follow up "community advisory meeting" on Feb. 6 and that the goal is "to select a preferred route by mid-year."

The spokesman also shared a fact sheet and suggested that further public comment be sent to Rae Dowling: Rae.Dowling@fpl.com, 941-704-9072.

FPL Fact Sheet

The three routes include: one along Clark Road to the Hi Hat Ranch; one along Bee Ridge Road, and a third along Palmer Blvd near the Celery Fields, then north on Apex to Fruitville Road. More details here.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reminder: Proposals for the Fresh Start Initiative are due March 1

This is a Reminder that proposals for the Fresh Start Initiative are due March 1. We have heard from a number of people who have shared great ideas, and we look forward to having a selection of thoughtful proposals.

Please make sure your proposal includes the following:

Contact Info: Name, Phone, Email

Description: This is key. Please include as much of the following as you can:

Public parcels 1, 2, and 3

Parcel: Which parcel are you considering: #1 or #2?
Facilities: Will your facility provide parking? Restrooms?
Dimensions: Details of size of structures, or of space devoted to uses.
Disposition of land: Sale, lease, or county control?

Use: What is the primary purpose you envision? More than one purpose?

Users: Who are the primary users you anticipate will make use of it? Have you been in touch with any prospective user groups? How are you sure of demand?

Revenue: Will the County receive any revenue - whether through sale, lease, fees, activity charges, tourist tax, property tax, employment, etc.

Traffic: What sort of traffic - cars? bicycles? big trucks? Primary times of day?

Goals: Will the use meet the needs of nearby residents? The general public? Tourists?

Compatibility: How would your proposal work within the existing uses of the Celery Fields Area? What kinds of uses would you like to see on the other public parcels at Apex and Palmer?

Economics: Will the proposed use pay for itself? If not, how will it be supported?

Legacy: In addition to needs and values, are there other aspects of the character and legacy of Sarasota that your proposal would enhance?

VISUALS: Diagrams, photos, hand-drawn images, video - best if in digital form, as we will use a projector for our workshops.

What is the Fresh Start Initiative?

Fresh Start is a grassroots citizens' experiment that seeks good ideas for our public lands -- ideas that have been endorsed by the community because they will add value to the Celery Fields area.

The initiative gained traction after the entire community witnessed a concerted effort to change land use and zoning rules to allow heavy industrial activity (a 16-acre open air demolition waste processing  and transfer facility) on public lands near a priceless bird sanctuary, recreation area and eco-tourism destination. Full Timeline here.

Fresh Start is about finding sensible, community-based proposals for these parcels near the Celery Fields. But the issues that make this necessary go beyond these specific public lands. The entire public planning process needs a makeover, including:

Notification: How often do we learn too late that a developer has received approval for a plan that neighbors didn't hear about?

Consultation: The county requires public workshops, but these partly depend on poor notification policies. Also, a developer can say anything at these meetings. The community can express its approval or disapproval, but the actual notes on the workshop are provided by the developer.

Integration: The County's 2050 Plan calls for coordinated comprehensive planning. If this were practiced even a little, a developer's plan for a waste processing facility could not have gotten to first base.

How can we do this better? For each of these steps of the planning process, it's time to ask: What changes to or innovations in practice and procedure would benefit both the people of Sarasota and the County? 

Vision: Sarasota land use has long been decided on a battleground where the interests of ambitious developers, county residents, and a slow-moving government bureaucracy have struggled against each other, rather than seeking a shared vision of our community worthy of a larger shared vision. A shared vision of answerable growth -- that is, growth that can responsibly articulate its logic, need, relationship to the larger organic whole in which it plays its part.

        External factors -- boom/bust market dynamics and the bi-polar winds of political change -- have not made the effort to reach a comprehensive vision any easier, and the Fresh Start Initiative does not pretend to have an easy solution. 

Is this a teachable moment for Sarasota?

        This effort to bring the county and the community into a fruitful dialog on some 24 acres of public land is a practical example of the problems the County faces on a grand scale. The hope is we can learn something from this single example that might constructively be applied to processes and procedures for future land use issues.