Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Panel on Florida Climate Change Feb. 11 at UU

On February 11, an expert panel will be convening at the Unitarian Church to discuss climate change and its impact on Florida.

Link to the event:

Gigantizing Benderson: Media story and comment

Via the Sarasota Herald Trib:

Benderson [Development Co.] has proposed adding another 600,000 square feet of retail and 100,000 square of office space to the University Town Center, bringing the project’s total footprint to 2.58 million square feet of commercial development. Nearly 1,800 homes also will be built on the site southwest of the University Parkway-Interstate 75 interchange.
[Sarasota County] Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to alter the county’s comprehensive plan, the first step needed to allow the UTC expansion to proceed. Those amendments will now go before the state for review.
Approval of many other aspects of the plan was delayed until May 6.
County officials and Benderson could not agree on how the development would impact preserved forest wetlands and mesic hammocks on the property.
As part of the expansion, Benderson has proposed building on more than 50 acres previously set aside for conservation.
Under the developer’s plan, loss of the majority of those wetlands would be offset by preservation in another area of Manatee County, pending approval from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
But the latest site plans filed by Benderson would bulldoze over 54 percent of the mesic hammocks now growing on the property. County codes protect the unique habitat by only allowing developers to impact up to 25 percent.


An astute observer of growth politics and planning in Sarasota county offered this comment (emphasis added):

Benderson wants to expand... the key word there is "wants". One can understand that...certainly no secret that that is the business Benderson is in. The issue, though, is this: is this expansion needed by the community? Is it in the best interests of the community? Those are the questions that our elected representatives need to deal with first...not the details of the proposal. The sense I get from the article is this: there are a few unseemly wrinkles (wetlands, for example) that would not make good PR for the BCC, so they have given Benderson an indication of what they need to do to make their "story" more palatable... and not cast an ugly shadow on the BCC as they do Benderson's bidding. Interesting that the headline says that the BCC will (not, "may", or "considers") change the growth plan. So here's my question: does the "community's" input matter? Do "we" have any real voice in this? Will the City of Sarasota raise its voice in alarm as Benderson plans to suck more businesses out of downtown? Given that the UTC has sucked Saks, Wiliams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Banana Republic, Dillards, etc. out of Southgate, that is certainly not a hypothetical issue.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sarasota as Organic Hub: Steve Suau at CONA Feb. 9

How Sarasota could be a 
hub of organic food production - 
an economic development initiative
  Sarasota - At the February 9, 2015 meeting of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations, Inc. (CONA), their guest speaker, Stephen Suau, will present a vision for an economic development initiative that describes how Sarasota County might become a hub for organic agriculture to help meet local food demands, as well as the increasing regional and national market demands, for organic foods. Although there are several legitimate and unique challenges to agriculture in the county, there are some key assets that could form a foundation for such an initiative.
   Ironically, Sarasota once was an important center for agriculture due to the innovative methods and practices that were developed or introduced by Bertha Palmer on her vast land holdings in Sarasota County. Suau will present a path that could lead Sarasota to an important role in modern food production, one that is responsive to the healthiest and most demanded food products at the markets of today.  
   Suau is a professional engineer specializing in watershed management, planning, and restoration. He also is a small business owner and partner in Progressive Water Resources, which is headquartered in the county. Their work includes assisting agricultural operations manage water resources throughout Florida, including one of the largest organic farms in the United States, Lady Moon Farms. Additionally, Suau is working with his brother, Anthony, a Pulitzer Prize and Emmy winning photojournalist, on his upcoming documentary film, Organic Rising, on the organic food movement in the United States.   
   Suau has co-chaired the Sarasota County original environmentally sensitive lands advisory committee and the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce green business committee. He has served as technical water advisor to the Florida Century Commission, the statewide storm water technical advisory committee, and the technical advisory committee for the Charlotte Harbor Estuary Program. He is the former storm water director for Sarasota County and served as executive director of the Sarasota County Planning and Development Services Business Center. 
   CONA meetings are open to the public as well as members of the seventy-two associations the organization represents and its individual members.  
   CONA meets regularly on second Mondays of the month (except July and August) at 7:00 p.m. at the Sarasota Garden Club, 1131 Boulevard of the Arts in Sarasota, which is at the intersection of Tamiami Trail, south of the Municipal Auditorium. Parking and the entrance are reached from Van Wezel Way. A social precedes the meeting.
   More information about CONA is available at

After the CONA meeting, Steve McAllister shared his impressions of Steve Suau's talk.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

In Plain Sight


"The flawed assumption operating here is developers must always be permitted to build."

In Plain Sight

The Detail


They say hindsight is 20/20, but when it comes to 2050, hindsight may be even more illuminating. Changes to the 2050 plan, which governs growth outside the Urban Service Boundary (east of Interstate-75), will impact our wallets, home values and traffic.  Last fall, design standards, open space and fiscal neutrality were being debated.  But the Sarasota 2050 plan was egregiously violated months before when the County Commission approved over 9,344 new homes east of I75 without required Transfer of Development Rights.

TDRs are a linchpin of Sarasota’s 2050 plan. In order to build outside the Urban Service Boundary at higher densities, rural landowners must purchase development rights (either from the County or another rural landowner) and then transfer those development rights to the rural parcel they want to develop. TDR policy is designed to keep the County’s overall density stable. Development density is to be clustered on a particular parcel through TDRs preserving the environment and open space.  The increased density in a focused area provides the ability to build walkable communities—communities which would have a local market, dentist, restaurant, boutiques and the like—and enough of a residential population to provide a customer base. Walkable communities reduce commute times and traffic jams, generate enough tax revenue to pay for their infrastructure. The TDR requirements of 2050 are so central to the plan that during the summer Planning Commission meeting on 2050 changes, Planning Commissioners argued 2050 changes were acceptable because they weren’t increasing overall density.

But, in fact, the Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners had increased overall density months before, by failing to enforce TDR policy. In early 2014, both Commissions approved new land-use changes outside the USB along Clark Rd.  Developers were given permission to create 9,344 homes on their land, roughly 5,500 to 6,300 more than the guidelines permit. The Clark Road property owners were permitted to bypass TDR requirements. They contended their land makes it difficult to build densely (that is, walkable communities) and they would have to obtain an unreasonably expensive number of development rights. The development they got approved is the kind of non-walkable, subdivision housing which has been shown to take 42 years to pay off its infrastructure costs (longer than the life of the infrastructure, so existing taxpayers will foot the bill).   It’s also noteworthy that developers get to define what is “unreasonable expense” for themselves. Their claims are not subject to scrutiny. What about “unreasonable expense” for taxpayers?

In a free market, sometimes a project is not economically viable. The flawed assumption operating here is developers must always be permitted to build. The route to economic viability provided these developers by local government includes bypassing TDR expenses, walkable design standards and shifting infrastructure costs to Sarasota taxpayers.   

What about traffic? One local resident commented on social media, “Without this project even starting, accessing Clark Road east of I-75 for those of us who live near Twin Lakes Park is already a nightmare.”  Looks like we’re teeing up another University and I-75 debacle.

In an e-mail to a constituent, former Commissioner Nora Patterson wrote “I honestly believe the one change that knocked the pins out of the [2050] plan was the approval of 9,000 plus units on the north part of the Clark Road property with no exchange of development rights.” She reiterated this point at January’s CONA meeting, saying that it sets a bad precedent. Since the County Commission violated TDR policy in approving the massive Clark Rd density increase, what basis do they have for turning down anyone else?

SRQ Daily columnist Cathy Antunes serves on the boards of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. She blogs on local politics at

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Urban Eagle's Nest

This nest is in Fort Myers, in a pine tree near a very busy road. These pine trees have value as habitat, even in isolation. Sarasota County's contention that these pines are not valuable unless they are part of a clustered system is inconsistent with bird nesting behavior. This eagle nest is no doubt close to a fishing source so mom and dad can feed their eaglets.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Pine Flatwoods Hearing Monday Jan. 12th

To members of the 2050 Action Network:

Tomorrow morning shortly after 9 am, the Sarasota County Commission will be holding a public hearing regarding an ordinance to reduce protections inside the Urban Service Boundary (USB) for Pine Flatwoods trees.
The variety and size of the bird population in Sarasota County is an important source of enjoyment to Sarasota’s tourists and residents, and these birds are important to the quality of our environment.  County residents consistently value the environmental assets of Sarasota as a primary concern and reason for living here.  

Please take a moment to review the conversation below regarding the proposed ordinance.  If you can, please attend tomorrow’s meeting and give public input in support of Pine Flatwoods protections.  If you cannot attend, please e-mail your thought to the Commission.  Their e-mail addresses are:  

Friday, January 9, 2015

Pine Flatwoods Hearing Monday, Jan. 12, 9 am

Pine Flatwood Protection About To Be Repealed

  • Public Hearing Monday, January 12, 9 am, 
  • Sarasota County Commission
  • Anderson Center, 4000 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice

On Monday morning, January 12, shortly after 9 am, in south County, the Sarasota County Commission will hold a public hearing and vote to adopt an ordinance that repeals an important protection for pine flatwoods.

The meeting was originally scheduled for November 5 but was postponed.  Now the proposed ordinance is even worse than before, as it will give the County Commission the authority to waive even the very scant pine flatwood protections being retained.  Someone in or for the development interests obviously got to County staff and got that added.

The developers' control of our County Commission is about to lead to repeal of another key environmental protection. 
Currently, in meeting any open space requirement, a developer must preserve all pine flatwoods until the required open space is met (often 30% of the site), after certain other valuable habitats are protected. 

The ordinance would narrow that very severely, to preserve only those pine flatwoods  that (1) are within a required buffer for a watercourse or wetland or (2) are within a wildlife corridor or (3) increase the ecological value and management abilities of preserved or publicly owned environmentally sensitive lands.

The first category is effectively protected anyway, by the buffer regulations.  And now, in this latest draft, the County Commission may adopt any "alternative open space plan" proposed by a developer instead of the very limited protection offered by the other two categories.  It just gets worse and worse.

Other pine flatwoods would be totally up to the developer whether or not to preserve, to mow down, or to keep in part if the developer wants to do so to “achieve site design goals” including but not limited to ”social, recreational and civic values and other market-based factors.”

County staff comments in a memo that they will "encourage" developers to preserve pine flatwoods and other naturally vegetated areas that they will no longer will be required to preserve.  Wow, big deal.

The weakened requirement would apply throughout the entire Urban Service Area and in a part of south County designated the Future Urban Service Area.  Large swaths of pine flatwoods will be left without current protections, particularly in the south County, such as the bottom half of the Fox Creek habitat north of Laurel Road, east along Jacaranda Boulevard between Venice Avenue and Center Road, and very largely, in the Englewood area including on the Thomas Ranch.  Destruction of pine flatwoods will also be newly allowed in portions of the north County, including the area west of US 41 north of Sarasota Square Mall, near Pelican Cove.  Some of the pine flatwoods that will no longer have protection provide important amenities to neighborhoods, such as Desoto Acres and The Groves.

This is the culmination of a long-time push by big developers to remove pine flatwoods from the protected habitat they must preserve when meeting the County's open space requirements.  Developers want this because pine flatwoods are by far the protected habitat that developers most frequently encounter in their developments, and as such is the one they most frequently want to destroy to make way for other development features, such as the lawns and other "pervious surfaces" that can count as open space.

This would do great harm, as pine flatwoods provide important habitat for many wildlife species.  Even in urban areas where they do that to a lesser extent, they provide all of the aesthetic and functional benefits that trees have for the human environment.

County staff says that removing present pine flatwood protections is now a good idea because of "the overall success of conserving the habitat in the county".  That's like saying a community that has had success in combating crime should legalize crime.

Rather than admitting that they are removing existing pine flatwood protections, County staff says that their proposed amendment "would strategically conserve pine flatwoods rather than use a one-size fits all approach."  In fact, what the amendment would do is remove the present comprehensive requirement that developers preserve pine flatwoods first (together with other protected habitat) in fulfilling the County's open space requirements, and allow its destruction except in those very limited instances in which the proposed ordinance says it must be preserved.

The Bible teaches us that while mankind has been given dominion over the earth, we must be good stewards of the natural environment which has been placed under our control.

It is just good stewardship to require that native habitat be preserved first by a developer when meeting the County's open space requirement -- not just habitat rarely encountered but also the habitat that can be expected to be actually found on a site, such as pine flatwoods.

The public should be made aware of this bad proposal and if nothing else make it uncomfortable for the politicians who would do the bidding of their developer patrons at the expense of the environment and other public interest concerns.

Dan Lobeck
President, Control Growth Now

Overdevelopment moves onward and upward

Residents' Over-development Pleas Fall on Deaf Ears at BOCC Meeting

Published Friday, January 9, 2015 12:09 am
BRADENTON — At Thursday's Land Use meeting, Manatee County Commissioners once again listened to the impassioned pleas of citizens with deaf ears, approving a 1,103 residential unit development despite widespread opposition and logical concerns.

It was #10, the last item on the agenda, and the 30 or more residents who came to the dais, did so to defend their way of life and the qualities that brought them to rural Manatee County. They were more prepared than most groups that are later forced to shield themselves from over-development.

The project: 803 single-family detached units, plus a 300 multi-family structure and 100,000 square feet of commercial/retail on 441 acres south of 69th Street East, east of I-75.

Residents from neighboring developments said they were totally opposed to multi-family buildings, the high density that was requested, the destruction of wetlands and wildlife, and the considerable commercial retail that was involved.

The Manatee County Planning Commissionrecommended denial on December 11, 2014 by a vote of 4-1, with some members stating the project was inconsistent with the county's Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code.

Resident Donna Meadows said, there are sand hill cranes, scrub jays, indigos, hawks owls and alligators in the proposed site, most of which are endangered.

John Ward questioned Margaret Tusing's (Manatee County's principal planner) obligations to the the county, and the appearance of rubber stamping without adequate knowledge of the facts. Ward also expressed strict concerns to the impacts to schools, the environment and the additional traffic from the more than 3,000 additional cars that will occupy the only road.

Charles Chappione, who came with well over 100 signatures from other residents opposing the project, said the road wasn't able to handle the traffic, that the schools were already at 130 percent of capacity and that the density wasn't compatible with the area.

There were many, many more who spoke about how the safety of the bridge, the wearing roads and the deadly turn needed to enter or exit Buffalo Road would be amplified by all of the additional traffic.

It became almost embarrassing to all who were there to hear commissioners twist and turn those concerns around, as if those who spoke didn't know what they were talking about.

The vote was 5-2 to approve, with Commissioners Robin DiSabatino and Charles Smith voting against the project. Stay tuned for more on this issue in our Sunday edition. 


Comment shared by Bill Zoller:

For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee..... the bell is being sounded in Manatee and Sarasota Counties as compliant commissions approve more and more development in our rural areas. By 2050, the world's population will have increased by 60%; that many more people to feed. How does our 2050 Plan recognize or address our area's responsibility to be part of providing food for its population? It doesn't. We will live on manna from heaven, I suppose. Our commissioners have an extreme focus on the short term, somehow thinking their most important task is to grow jobs, jobs, jobs. Their main means to that end is to build, build, build..... Sadly, they are choosing to encourage building, building, building on the land that will be needed to grow food one day. They call it "planning". To paraphrase King Richard III, "A cow, a kingdom for a cow!"

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Moving the Urban Service Boundary will cost every taxpayer

Fiscal neutrality at core of yet another 2050-plan dust-up

Published: Saturday, January 3, 2015 at 9:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2015 at 9:07 p.m.
SARASOTA - Skeptics of Sarasota County’s reshaped 2050 plan say the long-term growth blueprint dilutes protection from overdevelopment in the community’s rural east.
Soon, they may have even more reason to worry.
Consultants are finishing up a first draft of proposals that will determine the methods used by developers to demonstrate that their projects won’t burden taxpayers.
That concept was a key requirement of 2050.
But with a Sarasota County Commission that is now more developer-friendly than at any time in at least a decade, some growth activists worry that 2050’s last remaining policy will get the same treatment as other safeguards that have already been watered-down or repealed.
The measure of a private development’s so-called “fiscal neutrality” is aimed at ensuring that the county can handle the potential money strain on roads, utility lines and emergency services, which all tend to cost more in remote areas east of Interstate 75.
Already, developers are fighting to loosen the requirement. They have spent millions of dollars to prove that their communities are a boon to the economy, and they argue that the tougher regulations will only increase the cost of homes, squeezing out the middle class.
One consultant hired by Sarasota County has proposed gutting the fiscal neutrality condition altogether.
At the same time, there have been whispers among developers and community groups that the county will ultimately propose moving its Urban Service Boundary — a line that dictates where development should be concentrated — farther east, paving the way for more potentially controversial growth.
“Fiscal neutrality is the means to ensure development outside the Urban Service Boundary pays for its infrastructure costs,” said Cathy Antunes, president of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. “Make fiscal neutrality toothless and the Urban Service Boundary is worthless. This is the back-door way to eliminate the Urban Service Boundary.”
She added, “People are very worried about it.”
After developers argued that they were too restricted, county commissioners approved a third and final round of revisions to the 2050 plan in late October.
That policy governs development on some 60,000, mostly rural acres east of I-75. The concept was first crafted more than a decade ago as an alternative to the guidelines of the Urban Service Boundary, which discourages intense development east of the highway.
But developers and pro-business groups rallied for more flexibility and the commissioners ultimately agreed. The changes came despite concerns from some about the impact on the environment, an already chocked road system and spending budgets still recovering from the Great Recession.
The final step of the plan: Determine how the fiscal neutrality of a particular new development is to be calculated.
Sarasota County hired a consulting firm to research the economic benefits of new development — like higher property taxes and collection fees from building permits — and to weigh those against potentially adverse impacts, including the costs of new roads, increased school capacity and the expense of providing public safety for new residents.
As part of 2050, developers must obtain a third-party review for each new building project in the restricted areas to show that it is financially beneficial to the overall population.
A first draft of that methodology report is expected to be complete by AECOM in February, with revisions and public hearings planned before a final decision is made by county commissioners, likely sometime this summer.
“This is a way to just make it clear and have that same set of inputs for development,” said Allen Parsons, long-range planner for Sarasota County. “It really is a technical exercise, and that’s why we needed an economist.”
The county has created a fiscal neutrality page on its website for public feedback.
But already the process has created a backlash with some residents, who have blitzed county officials with emails questioning the transparency of the process.
“All of the public will have the same opportunity for input,” Parsons said.
The new methodology comes in the wake of an earlier report commissioned by Sarasota County to review the fiscal neutrality concept in its entirety.
That analysis by Laffer Associates suggested that “on average, growth does pay for itself.” The report’s overall recommendation was to eliminate the fiscal neutrality requirement from 2050.
“The question of fiscal neutrality is moot in Sarasota County,” the report states. “All that is truly required is to properly specify the impact fees on new development. This would remove many of the negative effects of the fiscal neutrality provision, while still maintaining fiscal neutrality of new development.”
But impact fees have been slashed on all levels to help spur development through the prolonged housing slump.
Sarasota County cut road impact fees in half in January 2011, a reduction from already reduced rates, and then voted in 2013 to extend those discounts to developers for another two years.
The School Board also voted this year to extend a moratorium on impact fees, which were first set aside two years ago, and the city of Sarasota recently adopted new impact fees that undercut the county with a markdown of 57 percent in most cases.
As a result, the impact fees collected by Sarasota County have shrunk from $19.7 million in 2006 to just $9.1 million in 2013. Despite an ongoing economic recovery, Sarasota County’s impact fees remain lower than the $12.1 million collected even at the nadir of the recession in 2008, records show.
Meanwhile, new large-scale development has spiked, especially in rural eastern areas where improvements to county services have not kept pace.
Some growth control advocates now fear that trend will only proliferate with new fiscal neutrality rules, creating problems with traffic, wildlife preservation efforts and public safety.
Some of those impacts already can been seen. Stretches of 32 Sarasota County roads were graded “D” or worse for their report card level of service in 2013. That is nearly half of the roads where traffic is counted, traffic records show.
At least 21 major roads in Sarasota County have slipped below the government’s minimum level of service, which in many cases was a low standard.
To handle new population upticks in the University Parkway corridor, the county has had to tap into reserves to build a new fire station, and major developers have proposed eliminating certain preserve areas to increase density in their projects. A standard fiscal neutrality policy is designed to ensure those needed improvements are covered by developers.
“This will protect everybody, the county and the developers,” Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson said of the new methodology. “It creates a standard that is easy for everyone, and it should take away some of the controversy.”
Local homebuilders say they believe their developments should be financially beneficial to the county.
They just don’t want to have to pay to prove it.
Neal Communities, which is developing one of the two projects approved under Sarasota 2050 so far, has spent about $1.5 million navigating the new public policy. That includes more than $161,000 on fiscal neutrality for one development alone. That is more than $1,000 per home, company founder and CEO Pat Neal said.
That means higher housing prices, carving away an already thin supply for affordable offerings in Southwest Florida, Neal says. It also means less money Neal has to spend on hiring people, and the developer said he suspects it is the same for other builders throughout the region.
With the new rules, Sarasota County becomes one of just six government jurisdictions in the nation that requires developers to track fiscal neutrality for each individual project — from the first home to the last, Neal said.
“Everybody believes growth should pay for itself — that’s public policy in our state,” he said. “And everybody in our business believes what we do is fiscally neutral. We think we are contributing members of the local economy, and we can demonstrate that, but the only place we’re required to do so is in Sarasota.”
“I would haunt my children if they even applied for a Sarasota County 2050 project because it’s just so expensive.”
The core of the fiscal neutrality argument — and many of those surrounding Sarasota 2050 as a whole — relates to restrictions first created with the Urban Service Boundary.
The concept dates back to the early 1980s, when Sarasota County planners generally intended to keep intense development west of the interstate from where the boundary was drawn. Areas east of I-75 were set aside for agriculture, open spaces and nature preserves.
The idea was to create an urban core, so that demand for basic government services could be delivered to the general population more efficiently. The theory is that the more the population is spread out, the more it costs per capita to provide those necessities.
The boundary also has helped prevent the type of “sprawl” found in many other Florida communities.
“The Urban service Boundary has helped concentrate density, preserve open space and create a unique and special place for Sarasota County,” said former county commissioner Jon Thaxton, a longtime proponent of 2050’s measures. “That’s the reality.”
But as population climbed through the years and demand for new housing swelled, builders have petitioned Sarasota County to move the boundary further east, where vacant land was plentiful.
The 2050 plan was ultimately adopted as an alternative.
With that plan now in place, some fear a lax fiscal neutrality policy will further dilute the protections of the Urban Service Boundary. Any decision to move the boundary would require a unanimous 5-0 vote by commissioners.
“That’s what this commission was elected to do,” said Bill Zoller, a representative of community groups who has protested changes to 2050. “They have five votes, if they choose to move it, at this point. This will certainly come up.
“The pressure from developers will build.”