Sunday, October 19, 2014

Jono Miller: County Painting Itself into a Corner

Ms. Valerie Brookens
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity
107 East Madison Street
Caldwell Building
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-4120
                                                                                                                                                                        19 October 2014

Ms. Brookens et al.

I’m writing to share some concerns regarding proposed changes to Sarasota County’s comprehensive Plan. I stand with Becky Ayech, John Wesley White, Maynard Hiss, Bill Zoller, Cathy Antunes, Dan Lobeck, Ann Kaplan, Mollie Cardamone and others who are questioning the process and outcome of the proposed revisions to Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan. I’ve worked with all the above-mentioned citizens, some for decades, and while we don’t always agree, I can attest to the fact that all of the above care deeply about the future of our county. I’ve attached some brief material related to my qualifications at the end of this document.

To begin with, I don’t object to any interest group prodding the County Commission to initiate major changes to our comprehensive plan. But when the County commits to doing so, it should be following adopted procedures, fully involving the Planning Commission, taking a comprehensive approach, and proceeding in a logical sequence. In my opinion, the County has failed to do so.

My intent is to focus on some procedural or structural issues others may not have focused on, and there are three I find most relevant: Failure to involve the Local Land Development Regulation Commission, Failure to be comprehensive, and Improper phasing of adoption.

 Failure to Appropriately Involve the Local Land Development Regulation Commission

1) Since 2011 an adopted Scoping Process pursuant to Sec. 94-85 has required that staff conduct a two part scoping process wherein “the proposed amendment will be clearly defined and all pertinent issues identified.” The County followed this process when considering changes to the Transfer of Development process in 2013 and it required LPA (Planning Commission) involvement. Commissioner Barbetta mistakenly implied this wasn’t the case.

2) The Board initiated the scoping process in this case when they directed staff to prepare a scoping document and posted that intent on the 2050 webpage (screenshot from County 2050 webpage below). The staff initiated the scoping process as directed and held the required workshops.

3) The next step according to the law and the flow chart used in the TDR process should have involved going to the Planning Commission and providing for public comment. Then, once the Planning Commission weighed in, it should have gone back to the County Commission, which authorizes the scope and processing of the CPA (or not). This makes perfect sense because you would want the LPA involved in determining what should and shouldn’t be considered in an amendment.

4) Instead the County Commission aborted their adopted scoping process. Instead of following the adopted procedure they were partway into, on May 8th 2013 they took a short-cut, aborting the legally-required scoping route they started on, thus depriving the public and Planning Commission of the opportunity specifically laid out in Staff flow charts.

5) To be fair, 94-85 (a) does allow for the County Commissions to waive the scoping process, but, I would argue, once they started on the scoping process the public and Planning Commission had cause to act in reliance of the process. If the Board didn't want to go the scoping route, they should have made that decision at the front-end, not by deviating in the middle of the process.

It is nearly inconceivable that the Local Planning Agency, our Planning Commission, would be cut out of the loop on the crucial question of what a major comprehensive plan review would include, but they were, I believe contrary to both common sense and the county’s adopted rules.I raised this issue with the Commission in writing, with no apparent result. 

Failure to be Comprehensive

The changes being proposed are routinely referred to as changes in 2050, (example: SARASOTA 2050 RESOURCE MANAGEMENT AREA (RMA) POLICY REVISITED APPROVED SCOPE OF WORK) but this has not been a revisiting of 2050 Resource Management Area policies –it has focused on just two: the Village/Open Space RMA and the Greenway RMA, basically ignoring the other four RMAs: Urban/Suburban RMA, Economic Development RMA, Rural Heritage/Estate RMA and the Agricultural Reserve RMA.
There are two problems with this approach. The first is that the policies affecting RMAs affect each other. You can’t change the ground rules for developing in the Village/Open Space and Greenway RMAs without generating implications for the other four RMAs. For instance, changing the relationship of new development along Fruitville Road will undoubtedly change the Rural Heritage/Estate experience, but that was not factored in.
The second problem is that there were commitments made in 2050 that need to be revisited, commitments at least as important as revisiting Village/Open Space. Whatever happened to “Policy US 5.1 County / Municipal Coordinated Planning Program” that promised “a planning alliance in order to more fully and comprehensively preserve and strengthen existing communities; provide for a variety of land uses and lifestyles that are necessary to support residents of diverse ages, incomes, and family sizes; and balance jobs with housing.”? Surely that coordinated planning effort would affect the Village/Open Space RMA and vice versa, but there was no consideration of such matters.

Improper Phasing of Adoption

Proceeding without proper scoping, the County decided to phase consideration of proposed changes. They began with “issues generally involving modifications to the Sarasota 2050 Zoning Regulations that do not require any Comprehensive Plan policy changes”. That was followed by a second phase that involved “policy changes (Comprehensive Plan) that do not deviate significantly from the original fundamental values of Sarasota 2050 RMA Policy.” Finally the County looked at “policy changes that may deviate from the original Sarasota 2050 values.”

In other words, the County first (Nov 20, 2013) adopted the most minor, easiest-to-change implementation matters first, and then proceeded (May 21, 2014 – Phase 2) to the most far-reaching policy propositions (Scheduled for October 22, 2014).

Let’s metaphorically compare revising a comprehensive plan with fixing up a house. First there would be an inventory of what needs to be changed and those issues could range from minor homeowner projects such as fixing a sticky lock or leaky faucet all the way to building an addition or major roof repair. The sensible approach would be to assess the entire situation and then make decisions regarding the major changes: Are we adding an addition? Are we replacing all the bathroom fixtures? Those big picture decisions would then inform smaller issues – why obsess about a leaky faucet if the sink will be replaced? Why wallpaper if that wall is going to be removed?

But Sarasota County has proceeded in reverse order – first adopting the most minor, easiest-to-change implementation matters and proceeding through two more stages to the most significant, hardest-to-change policy propositions.

By doing so they have created potential problems. If you repair the faucet and then have a conversation about the replacing the sink (or bathroom), you have already biased the process. “Honey, why are we talking about replacing the sink if I just spent two hours and $89.60 at Home Depot to fix the faucet?” 
Whether the county deliberately painting itself into a corner or not is irrelevant: Comprehensive planning decisions should always start with the broad policy decisions and then devolve to matters of implementation. The County chose to take the opposite course. I raised this issue at public meetings with no apparent result. 

In light of these problems, and others, the County Commission should decline to adopt the proposed changes at this time. Instead, with a 40% new Commission to be seated in less than a month, they should go back and follow their own ordinance regarding scoping (which means fully involving the Planning Commission in scoping), commit to reviewing all components of 2050 (addressing all six Resource Management Areas), and adopt broad policy measures before tackling matters of plan implementation.


 Jono Miller

My qualifications: I began an environmental consulting partnership with Julie Morris in Sarasota in 1975 and started working for Sarasota County in the late 70s. My wife and I wrote the habitat descriptions in the award-winning 1980 Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan (APOXSEE), mapped all county habitats (twice) and we also worked on comprehensive plans in Charlotte and Hendry counties. Over the years I have been appointed by various Sarasota County Commissions to ten different advisory bodies (elected Chair of most) and have a lifetime conservation achievement award from the County. When I ran for a seat on the County Commission I received over 79,000 votes and was found to be the most qualified candidate by six newspapers. I served on the Executive Committee of the local Sierra Club group for a quarter century and in 2006 received the 1,000 Friends of Florida Bill Sadowski award for public service at the regional/state level.There’s more, but you get the drift.


  1. I'd be much obliged if you could remove the photograph, which is not part of my communication, and instead find a way to include the screenshot from the county's 2050 webpage, which now appears as a blue square with a question mark on my screen.

  2. Have removed both. The screenshot was a tiff. Works on my Chrome browser, but apparently not on others. If you can convert it to a jpg or png, I'll add it back in.