Monday, November 3, 2014

An Election Day Word from Sarasota Audubon

From the most recent edition of "The Brown Pelican" -- the Sarasota Audubon Society Newsletter.


By the time you receive this Brown Pelican, the national, state and local elections might have already been decided. Thanks go to those of you who are registered Sarasota County voters and who work and vote for strongly environmental candidates and, especially, those who will vote for amendment #1, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment to the Florida Constitution. Also thanks to those of you who vote elsewhere but who help support those people and that amendment. If you're a registered Florida voter please vote and bring along family and friends to vote as well.

If the amendment passes with the necessary 60% of the votes, let's celebrate! If it doesn't, after crying in our beer, let's start lobbying for the Legislature to put all or most of that 30% of the land transfer tax that the amendment would have allocated to environmental purposes to the same end through Legislative action, as was routinely done only a few years ago.


Back a decade ago, we were optimistic. The county voters, by impressive majorities, had just passed three amendments to the County Charter requiring a super-majority (4) of the County Commission to amend the Comprehensive Plan to increase the density or intensity of development beyond the urban services line, to require a unanimous County Commission vote to move or abolish that line, and to retain existing land regulations on land annexed by municipalities (a ploy by developers prior to that amendment had already doubled the size of Venice).

A compromise overlay for eastern County lands, called Sarasota 2050, was adopted to guide development for the next 45 years with a series of villages that were fiscally neutral to existing taxpayers, walkable around small urban cores, had ample open space, reasonably wide green borders, wildlife corridors, and many other elements of "new urbanism". While they were denser than many of us preferred, they were, after all, a compromise with landowners and would-be developers. The County Commission at that time seemed responsive to citizen input, and was dominated neither by developers nor environmentalists.

All that has changed. Despite a large majority of opponents at a public hearing on October 22, the County Commission substantially gutted Sarasota 2050, changing it from a means to ensure slow and managed development that preserved a green network for wildlife and people to a means of shoehorning in more people and more quickly, while preserving just enough remnants of the original plan to retain a facade of new urbanism. The result may be hard to differentiate from the standard, new bedroom developments of two to four houses per acre that we see sprawling across the landscape in adjacent counties.

Other results, of course, will be more roads, more cars, more traffic delays, more wildlife roadkill (and probably pedestrian and bicycle roadkill as well), more demand for schools, fire, police, water, waste disposal, gasoline stations, etc. In other words, sprawling suburbia. That's "where Sarasota County is going".

But it doesn't have to be that way, and Sarasota citizens seem to be realizing that as they recuperate from the "great recession", though most Commissioners still don't seem to get it. The County's annual citizen opinion survey done on contract by the University of South Florida shows that population growth and new development combined with traffic and transportation is now the principal concern of 37% of Sarasota County's citizens, up from 20% in 2013, this year dwarfing jobs and the economy which dropped to only 11%.

Even if Sarasota County aspires to be a second Tampa, it can't be. The regional airport, the Interstate nexus, the port, etc. are already there. Its niche for prosperity continues to be as a beautiful, uncrowded place with beaches, arts, outdoor opportunities, open space, birds and other wildlife that attract entrepreneurs and other relatively wealthy people who have made their money elsewhere. They usually come first as tourists and then as residents who spend and invest their money here. Rapid growth and too much growth will destroy that attraction. We already have almost 400,000 residents in the County. Where will it stop? At a million people? 2 million? 20 million?

Why not stop now? Why not focus on quality rather than quantity, stopping the incessant demands for more density that will destroy the natural environment that continues to be a major element in bringing those people who drive our economy and share our quality of life. I hope that soon becomes the direction in which "Sarasota County should go".

Wade Matthews, Conservation Chair 

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