Friday, October 17, 2014

Matrullo: Flawed, Missing Pieces, Disfigured Image

Oct. 17, 2014

Dear Mr. Eubanks and Ms. Brookens and Sarasota Commissioners,

Sarasota County to the East of I-75 is largely an open, green world populated by ranches, a few farms, some multi-acre homesites, and waterways.

Now there is substantial interest from developer/builders in transforming that rural landscape into another sort of world, replete with subdivision-style development and commercial shopping. They feel the time has come for a scattering of “villages” and “hamlets,” despite the fact that as many as 50,000 infill locations are open on the West side of I-75 which would place fewer demands on the taxpayers for services and support.

The developer/builders also are seeking to shift the risk of development from their enterprises to the taxpayers of the County through modifications to the Fiscal Neutrality provisions of Sarasota County’s 2050 Comprehensive Plan.

Regarding the proposed Amendments, I wish to make three brief comments:

  1. Flawed process: The original 2050 plan grew organically out of a long process of consensus and compromise between planners, citizens and developer/builders. The amendments, on the other hand, are the product of closed-door conferences between county staff and developer/builders. The proposed revision deviates from the original pact, and from ethical governance, in ways so serious that some are researching grounds for legal action.

  1. Missing Pieces: If one were to attempt to draw a map of what the Amendments organize within the areas of the 2050 Comprehensive Plan, one would have little to go on. The guidelines call for villages and hamlets that would presumably be built on various tracts of land now used for ranching or agriculture.

What neither the Amendments nor the original 2050 guidelines address is some positive purposeful plan for all the lands and waters between the housing subdivisions. In other words, what the developer/builders and the county are proposing is nothing but a loose set of rules for new housing. That might be all developer/builders need to think about, but it is hardly what the governmental custodians of the County’s future land use ought to be concerned with.

Specifically, to my knowledge there is little or nothing in this plan that uses the metrics and analytical methods of physical planning to meaningfully integrate:

  1. Wildlife
  2. Environment
  3. Water and water quality
  4. Public use, e.g. recreation
  5. Tourism
  6. Anchoring elements that add community value - a university, for example, or a research institute, think tank, park, public sports facility, etc.
  7. Incentives to create a coherent, walkable configuration, when studies show walkability adds real value to a community.
  8. A systematic plan for roads, commercial spaces, greenways, amenities so that each developer does not have to reinvent the wheel for his/her particular subdivision.

In short, we are looking at a large swath of Sarasota County that will contain isolated housing products that lack a unifying context, a theme, and coordinating incentives. Each builder can entirely ignore what each other is doing, or, more likely, compete with them to attract buyers. This is not a plan but a carte blanche to ignore planning. A plan that actually makes provisions for the public lands, waterways, wildlife corridors and elements of community value - indeed, a plan that actually serves as a PLAN pure and simple, is not what’s coming before the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 22, 2014.  

  1. Disfigured Image: From what I’ve heard so far from the developers and builders who have sought these changes, it seems they have given no thought to the landscape, history, natural qualities, or public value of the Eastern portion of Sarasota County. They simply view it as land, pure and simple, as if all land were the same, in some idealized Cartesian universe.

All land is not the same, nor are all counties the same. In our public hearings, over and over we have heard people say that they never intended to move to Florida -- what they saw did not have the sort of cultural values they sought in retirement. Then they happened upon Sarasota, and found a community of intelligent residents passionate about the arts, nature, science, thought, and community. And now they fear, as do I, that that social identity, that “Brand Sarasota,” is slipping away, to be replaced by a mechanical, cliche-driven machine that has been called “Browardization.” The resulting damage to the image of Sarasota could be irreparable.

One final irony: By pressuring the County administration and planners to jettison key aspects of the original 2050 plan, the developer/builders are more likely to open themselves to failure. If they simply build replicant gated communities as they have done forever West of I-75, they may end in producing costly disasters. The younger generations want real land, and are interested in Nature, in growing real food, breathing real air, drinking real water. The developers are behind the Zeitgeist, but suffer the illusion they are leading the way.

As a citizen who believes that Sarasota’s old values are worth preserving, I ask that you reject the changes to the County’s 2050 Comprehensive Plan on the grounds that they reflect aberrant judgment, poor if not unethical governance, and an abandonment of the civic and aesthetic values to which Sarasota citizens have long subscribed.

What we need to do is bring back to the table all the original stakeholders -- the people of Sarasota, the county planning staff, and the developer/builders, and hammer out a practical vision worthy of all -- a vision that will underscore how Sarasota is not a cluster of tired cliches, but a special community that will continue to attract people of taste and discernment.

Thank you,

Tom Matrullo

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