Published: Saturday, October 25, 2014 at 8:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 25, 2014 at 8:01 p.m.
One speaker called it a “betrayal.” Another said Sarasota County commissioners were engaged in a “staggering violation of ethical public service.” A third said it appeared “the fix” was in.
While some degree of conflict seems inevitable, debate over the county's 2050 growth management plan has been especially rancorous. And it could leave lasting scars.
Some predict the 2050 overhaul — it largely came to a close last week after commissioners approved a final batch of revisions — will have political ramifications, while others hope the community can find a better way to talk about such issues going forward.
With demographic experts predicting more than 46,000 people will move to the county over the next decade, more clashes over development are unavoidable in a community that has long struggled with how to manage growth.
Such tensions will animate local politics for years to come and could grow more pronounced as some of the development allowed under 2050 begins.
The changes made over the last two years to the county's rural growth plan will make it easier to develop large swaths of land in eastern Sarasota County.
Landowners have been closely monitoring the revision process, and some are likely to move ahead now that the regulations are becoming less restrictive.
But they are also sure to encounter continued resistance from environmentalists and growth control advocates, who are bitter over how the 2050 debate unfolded.
Indeed, few issues have more sharply divided the community in recent years.
Kerry Kirschner, a former Sarasota mayor and executive director of the pro-business Argus Foundation, said he was struck by the “nastiness and lack of collegiality” in the 2050 public hearings.
A number of speakers at last Wednesday's hearing on the third and final round of changes to the plan accused county commissioners of being in the pocket of developers who donate to their campaigns.
Others predicted widespread environmental destruction and rampant overdevelopment.
Kirschner said many of the comments were over the top.
“I think it's distrust and, quite honestly, fear. So many people have moved here from someplace else and many moved here because they didn't like the environment in which they were living,” he said. For instance, he said, one man who spoke Wednesday said he came from Houston and did not want Sarasota County to develop in a similar manner.
“God bless him, I don't want to live in Houston either,” Kirschner joked, before adding that he believes such fears are misplaced.
But while Sarasota County may be a long way from becoming Houston, critics of the 2050 overhaul say they remain justified in feeling angry and frustrated.
Sarasota architect and growth control advocate Bill Zoller said he was surprised that the final 2050 hearing was “as genteel as it was” considering that “everybody felt completely discounted, disregarded and abused.”
Zoller noted that the county began the process of revising 2050 — adopted more than a decade ago as a compromise that allowed more intense development on rural lands but mandated higher standards — by holding a series of meetings with developers to get their complaints about the plan. That process excluded the public and started “on the completely wrong foot with a tin ear.”
The meetings that followed contained few chances for the public to truly influence the debate, he said.
Those concerned about the 2050 revisions also took issue with a controversial report, commissioned by the county, that blasted the plan. And they protested the dismissal of former county administrator Randall Reid, who was viewed as taking a more deliberate approach to reviewing 2050.
“They left our side completely alienated, absolutely alienated, but they didn't care,” Zoller said.
Those hard feelings could carry over into future conflicts as some of the new 2050 projects break ground.
After a lull during the recession, interest in developing rural properties governed by the 2050 plan is starting to pick up. And the Fruitville Road corridor may see the most immediate impacts.
The Villages of Lakewood Ranch South — which covers 5,500 acres between Fruitville Road and University Parkway east of Interstate 75 — is approved for 5,144 homes and a number of smaller projects are in the works for the area.
Among those testifying at Wednesday's 2050 hearing were three people who own land along Fruitville, all of whom supported the plan revisions and seemed interested in developing their land.
Also attending was Sarasota attorney Jim Turner, whose family owns the expansive Hi Hat Ranch between Fruitville and State Road 72 east of the interstate.
Turner has been a strong advocate for overhauling 2050.
“As to when or if Hi Hat would proceed, that remains to be seen,” Turner said. “We certainly don't have anything on the drawing board.”
A series of large housing projects in what is mostly a rural area could further inflame anti-development sentiment.
“Eventually one hopes it will translate into political changes,” Zoller said.
Charles Hines — who voted for most of the nine revisions to 2050 approved Wednesday and has been a steadfast supporter of overhauling the plan — is the only commissioner among the current five who is not term-limited and could stand for re-election.
Hines said that he focused on crafting a workable plan that can accommodate Sarasota County's projected growth in a responsible manner, not politics.
“The political stuff, save that for a year, year-and-a-half from now,” Hines said. “We make decisions every day and you try to do what's right for the community and some people are going to be happy and some people are going to be upset.”
Clashes over growth are nothing new in Sarasota County: The building boom that reached its apex in 2006 sparked citizen initiatives led by Zoller to amend the county's charter and put the brakes on development.
Three growth-related amendments were approved from 2007 to 2008 by wide margins.
They gave the county final approval over developments in land annexed by local cities, required a super majority commission vote for changes to the county's comprehensive plan that increase development density or intensity and required a unanimous vote to move the county's urban service boundary.
But public opinion started to shift shortly after the amendments were passed. The Great Recession wiped away thousands of high-paying construction jobs in the region.
County leaders came under pressure to stimulate the economy, and one strategy was to loosen development regulations.
In recent years the county commission has slashed road impact fees and taken other steps to encourage growth, culminating in the overhaul of the 2050 plan. But public opinion may be shifting again.
Only 11 percent of county residents surveyed in a recent poll cited jobs and the economy as their top concern, down from 18 percent last year. Growth-related issues were the top priority for 37 percent of residents, up from 20 percent in 2013.
Sarasota Audubon Society conservation chairman Wade Matthews cited the figures during Wednesday's hearing in arguing that commissioners were not listening to the public. Concerns about growth could play a big role in future county elections, Matthews predicted.
“The trend is on our side again,” he said. “How it will play out remains to be seen.”