Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Breaking the Bond of Public Trust

This editorial appeared last August in the Herald Tribune. It is reposted here in advance of the County Commission hearing on the "Bendersonville" initiative that promises to destroy years of collaborative effort on the part of the County staff and residents of the Fruitville area of Sarasota County, and landowners.

G.S. Heffner: County breaking trust on Fruitville Initiative


Published: Monday, August 17, 2015 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 14, 2015 at 3:24 p.m.
We want to share with the citizens and leaders of Sarasota County our growing concern about the integrity and survival of the Fruitville Initiative.
In 2009, a public engagement and planning process began, involving landowners, Sarasota County government, and the neighborhoods adjacent to the 420 acres now known as the Fruitville Initiative. These county-hosted workshops came to represent hundreds of hours of citizen involvement in the future of their community and yielded a coordinated development strategy in a public-private partnership.
According to county records dating from 2009 to 2014, expenditures for consultants related to the Fruitville Initiative totaled $864,691. Given that time spent by county staff on the Fruitville Initiative was not tracked, we can safely assume that this has been a million-dollar conversation.
For the past five years, the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance has been actively involved in what appeared to be a sincere attempt by Sarasota County government to plan and orchestrate the development of this key entryway into Sarasota.
The planning effort resulted in the adoption of a comprehensive plan amendment and form-based zoning code that essentially constitute a contract between the neighbors, property owners and the county. The Guiding Principles of Future Land Use Policy 2.2.6.2 envisioned an area that included walkable, coherent street networks, public and civic spaces, multi-modal transportation systems, environmental preservation and ecological features sensitive to and networked with the Great Florida Birding Trail to its south.
The initiative’s intent was to present a unique development form and not result in the "typical big box" development commonly seen adjacent to interstate interchanges anywhere in America.
It should be noted that the Fruitville Initiative included 42 acres of county “surplus land,” situated north of the Celery Fields and west of the Fruitville Library. Sarasota County held a place at the table, and we had trusted that their leadership would ensure the successful implementation of the initiative’s Guiding Principles.
Sadly, the clear vision and informed leadership we hoped for has been displaced by an apparent willingness to compromise the plan. For the citizens of Sarasota County, the most costly compromise (in terms of dollars and cents) comes with the hasty sale of the public’s 42 acres to Benderson Development Company. We all remember the Great Recession, and the four-year free-fall of our state and national economy. However, this is now the third straight year property values have increased in Sarasota County and by 2014 those values approximated pre-crash numbers.
Good stewardship recognizes that a limited resource should never be sold low, but held for a higher yield. In 2003 a state-certified appraisal of the 42 surplus acres indicated a market value between $4.3 million and $5.1 million. Despite that realistic appraisal, Benderson Development (one of two bidders) recently closed on the property for a disappointing $3 million.
The company now proposes building a commercial distribution center featuring multiple loading docks built to serve a constant flow of tractor trailers. To facilitate the plan, Benderson will need to request variances to the form-based zoning plan that the Fruitville Initiative rests upon. Benderson Development’s unique hold over Sarasota County seems to have severely skewed our commissioners’ ability to weigh public monetary interests and to remember their comprehensive plan commitments.
An additional compromise threatens the Fruitville Initiative that cuts deeper than simply losing money on a poorly negotiated land deal. From Dearborn Street, to the North Trail, to Myakka City, neighborhoods across Sarasota County are regularly invited to county-sponsored workshops. The premise of these gatherings is to hear from the citizens and discover what their hopes and needs are in their corner of the world. Our concern is ethical in nature, as these conversations form the bond of public trust. If the leaders in our county can be enticed from the commitments of a multi-year, million-dollar conversation in Fruitville, what will they do with your neighborhood dialogue? Citizen involvement is critical to the vitality of its local government. That involvement must never be carelessly dismissed, but rather, carefully nurtured.
We all want progress in our communities, but progress means getting nearer to your goals. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. The man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” Fruitville 210 Community Alliance urges the leadership of Sarasota County to return to the Guiding Principles of the Fruitville Initiative and stand by them. That commitment to public trust will serve the citizens and the future of our county well.
G.S. Heffner is chairman of the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance board of directors.

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