Does Sarasota County employ reason when it plans? It used to.
More than 20 years ago, the stewards of the county saw a problem with flooding in Phillippi Creek. They did the studies, got the grants and assessed homeowners. They put in place a by all counts highly successful regional stormwater system. It won awards.
Birds found the open space. People liked the mound that was made from the earth moved to create stormwater capacity. More and more people flocked to it for all sorts of purposes. At first there were no rules, no bathrooms, no benches, trails or trees. You could walk your dog there without a leash, and find bicyclists, horseback riders, Tai Chi practitioners, birders, power skateboardists, lovers of open vistas and inclined planes. There was a whiff of unplanned life. A free style not designed on creaky marketing storyboards.
Over time the Celery Fields have grown - matured - become more beautiful, and a bit tamer. Audubon has a terrific center that's drawing locals and international visitors.
In the wings is another fascinating project - the Fruitville Initiative. The nucleus of this goes back to 2005 or so, and involved some creative interaction between the county's planning dept. and the Duany urbanist firm.
The waterway? That's the northern cell of the Celery Fields. The concept, spanning an innovative mixed use community that would retain the rural character of East County while bringing major employers, perhaps an Audubon-themed hotel, a Riverwalk as well as shops and cafes - took detailed form over a year in 2010-11, achieving a compromise vision and a $500,000 plan that was officially approved in 2014 by the County Commission.
So far, this sounds like a serendipitous convergence of local innovation, gracefully evolving nature, and superb practical engineering. A basis for real economic development (no handouts, thank you) seemed underway. Now, with the help of developer-agent Bo Medred, a giant waste processing plant is proposed on public land at Apex Rd. and Palmer Blvd., just west of the Celery Fields.
A less propitious idea is difficult to imagine.
At the Jan. 30 neighborhood meeting where over 200 concerned residents came out, questions on a host of issues were asked. Not all were dignified by either Bo Medred or his client James Gabbert with a response:
FEMALE AUDIENCE: If there's so much land that's just vacant, just swampland all over Florida, why can't you go out where there's no homes? There's lots of acreage all over Florida that are just parked, nothing there. (Applause.)
JIM GABBERT: The next question? (Jan. 30 workshop transcript here)
Does this "plan" square with the Comprehensive Plan's vision of Economic Development? Of compatibility with surrounding neighborhoods and uses? Of the county's avowed mission of "protecting a community's health, safety and welfare?"
Ask our county planners. Ask Kirk Crane, who sees no problem here. A demo waste center on weak roads near an international tourist center -- of course. Giant concrete crushing activities audible at a distance - why not? Diesel engines running non-stop from 7 am to 5 pm, six days a week? The assiduous Mr. Medred got the county to change the law so that other such facilities can come to residential areas near you.
Does Sarasota still use reason in planning? Or is there planning, and "planning"? A timeline might help.
Neighborhood residents are meeting Thursday, May 25 to talk about the Medred proposal and the Celery Fields:
On June 1, the county's Planning Commission will hold a hearing and vote on whether to recommend this curated catastrophe to the Board of County Commissioners. It's at the Admin building at 1616 Ringling Blvd. - there's an informational gathering at 4 pm. The hearing begins at 5 pm.