Re-posted from SRQ
Born in Jacksonville in 1958, I became familiar at an early age with the strong east coast ocean waves, the vast size and diversity of the big city, and the Southern sensibilities of that enormous old community. It wasn’t until many years later vacationing in Sarasota in the early 1970s that I discovered the quieter, idyllic, peaceful ambiance and culture of the community that became my home after graduating college in 1980.
The issue that has emerged front and center this election cycle has clearly been growth planning and the process of amending the 2050 Plan—the optional planning document that allows developers to build denser villages and hamlets in the eastern farmland beyond Interstate-75 and the Urban Services Boundary.
Early in my campaign, I pushed for compromise between the development industry and advocates for the environment and existing neighborhoods over the 2050 Plan amendments. I thought there was room for rational negotiation—a reasonable, centrist approach that would slow the rush to rapidly eliminate timing protections and sensible design standards at the heart of the 2050 Plan. Unfortunately, I underestimated the power and influence of those pushing for these changes. I have now concluded our eastern farmlands could be dramatically altered and eventually plowed over and lost in short order unless we are able to place at least one person on the current board who will represent the voices of environmentalists, neighborhood advocacy organizations and those insisting on smart, sensible growth.
Some have been fooled into believing 2050 Plan rules and regulations were the cause of the virtual lack of development in the eastern region. In fact, the Great Recession and its lingering aftermath, which had no connection to 2050, were clearly responsible for the residential building slowdown. While there are certainly proven difficulties and complexities inherent in the 2050 Plan process, it would not require the massive overhaul now in process to correct these stumbling blocks.
But we live in the recent aftermath of a difficult and tragic time for our nation, and our local economy. The fear of yet another wave of unemployment and the loss of future economic opportunities has driven this current push toward a new building boom out east. It appears justifiable to many on its face. After all, the first big wave of Sarasota growth was seen in the building boom of the early 1920s. But if we are students of history, we should also understand most if not all unsustainable local economic booms have been followed by costly and damaging busts.
In the 2003-2006 period, we saw housing prices and unsustainable real estate building demand skyrocket only to come crashing down under the national recession. We are only now achieving a sense of normalcy in the market.
The final amendments to the 2050 Plan could ironically create yet another false bubble—this time a rush to develop the eastern farmlands in rapid and dramatic fashion. While my opponent in this race has minimized these amendments, they will clearly create a domino effect, which will be difficult if not impossible to slow down.
Focusing on just one damaging change, dropping the requirement for a 15-year gap between village applications would allow developers to line up at county offices with any number of village proposals. One developer even publicly encouraged Sarasota farmers to sell him all their land so he can build thousands of houses stretching to the DeSoto County line. This scenario is a far cry from the goals and desires of the community that created the 2050 Plan compromise in the first place.
It has been six long years since I dipped my toe into local politics and ran a shoestring campaign in 2008 for a seat on the county’s Charter Review Board. That unsuccessful experience, coupled with six failed attempts to gain appointment to the Sarasota County Planning Commission, sent me into the background of local politics.
I was almost convinced that those in power were right when they said Democrats could not get elected to higher county offices.
Now that I have spent over four months on the campaign trail, talking with hundreds of citizens and dozens of community leaders, I believe those in power are mistaken. Democrats with the courage to stand up to the Republican machine and talk truth to power can and will win. It could be this year, but I’m certain it’s only a matter of time.
Ray Porter is the Democratic candidate for Sarasota County Commission District 4