Saturday, July 29, 2017

Citizen Participation in Sarasota County Planning: An Open Letter

July 28, 2017

To: Sarasota County Planning, Matt Osterhoudt, Allen Parsons, Tate Taylor, Vivian Roe

This letter is a follow-up comment pursuant to the Comp Plan Amendment (CPA) meeting you conducted for the Planning Dept. on June 26th. It’s our understanding that the plan amendment then under consideration, 2015-G -- easing constraints on open space and buffers for developments proposed as villages or hamlets under the 2050 Plan -- may no longer go forward. But public comment during two meetings at which we were present (January 18 and June 26, 2017) made clear that the process for CPAs raises two related issues.

First, the  perception exists that with 2015-G the County, as a public entity, seems to be exploring a proposal with little relevance or benefit to any constituency other than the development industry. The changes under consideration seem related only to specific private business concerns -- yet the public meeting and process is termed “publicly initiated.”

Second, it was noted - by myself and others - that while the Board initiated this evaluative process, and Planning is doing its due diligence by holding public meetings, there is no generally understood method by which Sarasota residents might similarly initiate such public evaluations of Comp Plan changes.

When the County acting as a public entity explores certain Comp Plan options that benefit specific parties, it creates a "problem of optics," as they say. The voting public sees the County proceeding with what it calls a “publicly initiated” Comp Plan amendment, but sees no opportunity to be equally proactive. At the Gulf Gate meeting, there was a sense of being invited merely to react to a proposal introduced by an unspecified party.

Greater transparency of origin and purpose of comp plan amendment initiatives would help. To that end, this comment is offered to open a dialog that could lead to a more open and balanced public process.

Please correct or elaborate if any of the following statements regarding the steps leading to the BCC’s approving a proposed public initiative for a comp plan amendment is false or incomplete:

  • The Board votes to proceed with these initiatives. That vote can include discussion, or simply be part of the consent agenda.
  • When presented to the Board, the originator of the initiative is identified, and the perceived public benefit of the amendment is explained.
  • If the proposed amendment applies to a specific parcel or parcels, the location and number of these parcels and acreage are presented as an indicator of the nature of the perceived public benefit.
  • Any actual Comp Plan Amendment is voted on publicly by the Board, with Public comment forming part of the proceeding.

If the actualities differ from what is stated above, please clarify so that we are not proceeding upon mistaken assumptions.

When a proposed amendment comes before the Board for a vote, and the Board decides that it only serves developers, it might advise whoever is proposing the amendment to initiate a private Comp Plan amendment process.

Perceived Imbalances

Conversely, we would propose to open a dialogue with County to address the perceived imbalance between public and private sectors, with special reference to several moments in the planning and land use process. Proposed topics include:

  • Basic visioning of community / sector /  neighborhood character and design.

  • Practical introduction to public initiatives of Comp Plan Amendments.

  • An introduction to Critical Area Planning.

  • Strong expansion of public notification and input regarding any land use or rezoning changes to Public Lands, and to surplusing and sale of same -- see Ord. 2016-087.

  • Putting in place a system to revisit and revise antiquated FLU designations. Given the accelerated pace of development and change in Florida, especially in places like Sarasota that are “in demand,” actual conditions on the ground change constantly. It’s both reasonable and wise to dynamically review old designations when their contexts have changed. Doing so would pre-empt conflicts arising when developers play 35-year-old land use cards that are hopelessly out of sync with all surrounding conditions.

An example

Suppose residents of an area -- say Clark Rd. east of I-75 for the sake of the argument -- wished to ask the Board to explore the idea of requiring a 750-ft buffer for all commercial projects, for the sake of preserving the rural character of the road. (750 feet here is chosen as an illustration, since it’s greater than the existing 2050 rule).

In this case, while the incentive for such a proposal would appear to come from "private" persons, its actual inspiration and purpose stems from a shared public vision of East Clark Rd. as a rural Heritage Road. To be clear, the amendment’s intent in our example is not to prevent development, but to have development fit within a shared public vision. The citizens seek a role in deciding the character of this portion of the County.

So the proposed amendment comes with a public purpose and benefit. If developers were required to abide by the 750’ foot rule, they might discover that the rural appeal of the area -- the fact that it looks entirely unlike Clark Rd. to the west of the highway -- could draw buyers seeking a locale that is neither urban nor suburban. Creativity could be one result.

Why is this important? Because when developers ask for and receive 50-foot buffers (a 450-foot reduction) and other changes to the 2050 Village Plan, they are motivated almost exclusively by the specific density needs and business model of the particular project they happen to be working on.

If residents strongly believe that their area possesses distinctive general features -- without which it would lose its essential character -- they’ll work to ensure that its quality and appeal is not undermined by asystematic, ad hoc developer exceptions.

To summarize: When the County as "the Public" explores amendments that appear to primarily benefit private business, it may appear to cater to special interests. Clarifying both who is instigating an initiative and the details of the public benefit can reduce such mixed signals.

By the same token, residents who wish to have a say in shaping the future of Sarasota (East County for example) would benefit from a clarified participatory process, through which the County may receive collaborative insights to help shape the future vision.

The 2050 Plan was created to represent the vision of the people of Sarasota. To the frustration of many residents, it has been compromised repeatedly as developers line up for exceptions and amendments. Before East County becomes a mirror image of West County, we’d like to collaboratively foster public participation in shaping the undeveloped areas of Sarasota.

A version of this comment will be submitted to the UDC Portal with a request for a meeting with Planners and UDC consultants.

We invite Planning to explore this with us as well through the same public meeting process that you recently so ably conducted at Gulf Gate.


Tom Matrullo
Co-Founder, Citizens for Sarasota County

Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA)

Manatee-Sarasota Group of the Sierra Club

Carlos Correa
President of HOA, Pinetree Villages, The Enclave

David Johnson
Secretary, Meadow Walk Homeowners Association, Inc.

Glenna Blomquist
NextDoor Lead, Mockingbird Parish

Keith C. Russo
Chair, Lake Sarasota Community Group

Dan Lobeck
President, Control Growth Now

William Zoller

Lourdes Ramirez

Sura Kochman

Adrien Lucas

Dennis Robertson

Margaret Hoffman

Lynn Nilssen

Geraldine Swormsted

Gayle Reynolds

Damon White

Gretchen White

Cathy Antunes
Co-Founder, Citizens For Sarasota County

Skip Parrish

LeRoy William Hasselbring

Vickie Nighswander

Susan Schoettle

Tom Walker
Co-Leader, Nation Group of Sarasota/Manatee

Patricia Troy
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