Monday, May 22, 2017

Opportunity Lost: Waste plant will disfigure the face of East Sarasota

To: The Sarasota County Planning Commission
From: Tom Matrullo
RE: Rezone 17-01 and SE 1765
May 21, 2017


“When there is no vision, the people perish.”

Sometimes opportunities creep up on you. They’re not easy to see, then -- Eureka!

Back in 2005, Sarasota County worked up a unique vision of a welcoming gateway at the Fruitville exchange on I-75.

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In 2010, that early sketch got fleshed out in a series of meetings, charrettes, and compromises. For a year, the stakeholders -- County staff, landowners, representatives of 3,400 homes in 20 neighborhoods, and the Polyzoides planning firm -- worked at it.

The Fruitville Initiative -- an innovative  vision of a mixed-use community based on a grid of walkable streets, preserving the rural character of East Sarasota while bringing a gateway feel with hotels, shops, offices, cafes -- was the collaborative result.

In 2014 the Initiative was formalized in a rezoning as Ordinance 2014-054. In addition to offering a means to satisfy the County’s need for a major employment center (MEC), the Initiative envisions an organic relation with the Celery Fields.

Please have a look at this image from the Polyzoides site:

The waterway is the northern cell of the Celery Field Preserve. It’s a delightful place to kayak - it can also be the basis for the kind of “Riverwalk” envisioned here.

This was an example of transformative planning.

Suddenly we’d have something special - not humdrum offices, trucking centers and big boxes, but walkable shaded streets, perhaps an Audubon-themed hotel, a museum that would recognize the legacy of East County from the days of Mastodons through the ranches and agricultural and social history of workers harvesting fields of celery.

fruitville-04 riverwalk.jpg

In short, a Destination. People would perceive Sarasota as a place savvy enough, sensible enough, not to look like every other place along I-75. Instead of Mobile and Cracker Barrel they’d see a community with its own flair; an inspired synergy with a fabulous natural setting at its doorstep.

A place like this would say in a sophisticated way, “Welcome to Sarasota: where we remember our legacy.”

The coming development of the Fruitville Initiative will open onto what has become a spectacular Sarasota success story -- a regional stormwater facility that is metamorphosing into an international birding and eco-tourist highlight.

audubon nature center .jpg

Sarasota Audubon’s report of its Nature Center’s opening season offers a good look at an auspicious first year.

So here’s the prospect we face:

The Fruitville Initiative will add enormous value to the area, and position itself and the Celery Fields as the face of East County. Coburn Road, running through the new Initiative sector, will continue down past Ackerman (changing its name to Apex) to East Palmer. At Palmer folks will either turn left to go to the Audubon Center, or right to go to the burgeoning Packinghouse District.

If Mr. Medred has his way, at this crossroads they will gape at a giant wall behind which will rise 35-foot piles of demolition debris and yard waste. They’ll listen to sonic booms of concrete being pulverized, diesel engines running constantly, and wait at the corner while trucks loaded with demolition debris enter and leave this key intersection of two already overburdened two-lane roads.

Twenty-seven years ago, I covered construction and development for the Herald Tribune. Nearly every month for a decade I was at the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, where Wayne Daltry and a very astute team examined developments of regional impact and did their best to give our region some of the order that even now makes it a magnet for people seeking a better quality of life than they can find elsewhere.

For the past 11 years I’ve been a member of the Bee Ridge Neighborhoods Committee. I learned from that very thoughtful group of citizens how constructive and open interaction with the County on major projects like the low impact improvement of East Bee Ridge Rd. can lead to win/win outcomes for all.

And in 2010 I attended some of those challenging meetings of the Fruitville Initiative stakeholders -- their efforts were generous, creative, and at times heroic.

Regarding Rezone 17-01 and SE 1765 I must tell you: I have never seen a plan so blatantly contemptuous of surrounding uses. Beyond seeking to change Open Use Rural (OUR) to ILW, it seeks a special exception to allow more intense industry than Major Employment Center (MEC) permits. Unworkable on a practical level, the plan manipulates the letter of the Code to violate the spirit of a wide range of policies, goals and objectives -- relating to traffic environment, health, economic development and more -- of our Comprehensive Plan, MuniCode, and LDRs.

Medred - ZOA No. 119 dump.jpg
Bo Medred offered this image at the Oct. 20, 2016 Planning Commission
hearing to illustrate a waste facility operating near homes.

This cynical scheme will drive a stake into the heart of an area that, properly stewarded, could bring Sarasota a recognition and lustre most communities would kill for. An endorsement will put in question whether common sense and rational planning have abandoned Sarasota County.

The Quad parcels -- which are still our public lands -- are open to many potentially promising uses. Marketed with patience and perseverance, the Quad will find the right opportunity to make it come to life. Nothing very fancy -- a combination of a market, a public garden, some art galleries, a daycare center, some community rooms for meetings, music, study. That, along with some offices and affordable housing within walking distance of the Packinghouse District and of SCAT’s bus station, would form the nucleus of an attractive neighborhood center. All it takes is some outreach and imagination to discover the local trends, the needs of the community and the opportunities to attract visitors.

The county first surplused the quad parcels in 1997, then did nothing with them for 18 years. During those years, everything changed. A new context -- with new economic synergies and long-range opportunities -- has emerged.

These opportunities are clear, mutually enhancing and far reaching. And easy to see. Just climb the mound at the Celery Fields and look out on the open face of East County.

With all due respect: don’t feed this promise into the pulverizing engines of a giant waste processing plant. Advise staff and our officials to work with Mr. Gabbert to find a site consistent with the values and goals of Sarasota County.

Many say the Celery Fields is our Central Park. Go there. Breathe the fresh air, look at the ponds and the light. It’s also the Siesta Beach of East County.

Thank you.

Tom Matrullo

celery fields pan.jpg


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