Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Celery Fields and Rational Planning

It can take time for the key import of an event to sink in. I can attest to that with regard to last Wednesday's Celery Fields hearing, when, after nearly 10 hours, the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners voted to DENY a plan to build a 16-acre waste processing facility at a central intersection near a bird sanctuary, Preserve, recreation area, school, homes, commerce and business parks.

The vote, 3-2, was close, and the deliberations of the five commissioners were not always easy to hear or follow. But a review of the 8.23.17 meeting (video here) clarified some of the twists and bends in the discussion, and revealed some larger implications.

Clearly the Board did the right thing. It's helpful to look at the reasoning shared by the Board during their deliberations.

Commissioner Charles Hines wrestled with concerns that a giant waste facility would negatively impact both the Celery Fields and the planned Fruitville Initiative, an approved Gateway mixed-use development to border on the northern waters of the Celery Fields. Plans for it show residential apartments with balconies, cafes and restaurants looking out over the bird sanctuary. Would a concrete and yard waste crunching plant go with that pristine, serene landscape?

Commissioner Nancy Detert looked at the potential impact upon property values. The area, with rapid development over the past 20 years, is radically different from what it was in 1992, when the land use map was last updated.

"What I think happened here is that Mr. Gabbert missed the market," Detert said.

Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo spoke of the "19th century" way the county informs people in the community about plans. The county's use of postal mailings to notify neighbors doesn't work when it only reaches 500-750 feet, for one thing. (For another, the Celery Fields are a regional amenity. For another, this involved public lands.)

But Caragiulo acknowledged a more complex, and more tangled, truth about this proposal. The County itself owned this land, and had put it out to bid, and had entered into contract with the waste developer, TST Ventures. The previous Board had voted to surplus the property and post it for sale, then contractually agreed to sell it contingent upon Mr. Gabbert receiving the changes (rezoning, special exception, and critical area plan amendment) he needed to operate his facility.

To deny him these changes meant confronting a troubling question: Why hadn't the County considered this broad spectrum of planning concerns -- proximity of Celery Fields and Fruitville Initiative, damage to property values, road issues in a tight area that seemed unable to be adequately dealt with, potential air pollution, noise, and health and safety concerns -- BEFORE offering the public parcels at Apex and Palmer for sale? All of this, Caragiulo noted, went to the question of public trust:

"We can all do a better job of having people trust what goes on in this building," Caragiulo said.

Both Detert and Caragiulo asked whether the County did Mr. Gabbert a disservice by not addressing all this in advance. The question was raised by both Commissioners Detert and Caragiulo.

As the Sarasota News Leader reported:
At one point, Detert asked Lin Kurant, manager of the county’s Real Estate Services Division, whether it ever occurred to Kurant that, given the growth in popularity of the Celery Fields, that the property should be taken off the surplus list. 
“No,” Kurant replied, because a previous County Commission directed her to put it out for bid.
Now with the benefit of hindsight one might ask: Did Sarasota County practice rational planning in its handling of the public parcels at Apex and Palmer? When County Administrator Thomas Harmer declared their surplus status and the Board agreed to their sale, was there public discussion, were all relevant factors and impacts taken into consideration by Staff, and was the decision to sell justified upon the best information, testimony, research, and understanding available at the time that decision was made?

Clearly, the answer is "No."

But just as clearly, to admit all this, and to vote to deny the proposal at this late moment in a process that began years before, took significant courage. For example, the Board could simply have berated the residents and users of the Celery Fields, and Benderson, the developer behind the Fruitville Initiative, for failing to know that a Land Use of MEC could be contorted totally out of its definition to accommodate a harsh industrial facility.

That was precisely the tactic employed by formerly simultaneous Argus CEO and Commissioner Christine Robinson to beat down the public's commonsense opposition to Mr. Gabbert's prior plan for a Waste Transfer station at Porter and Palmer. That plan, approved by the prior commission with Robinson, could still go forward if Mr. Gabbert so wishes.

This Board didn't go that way. They stepped up, choosing to face the not entirely harmonious music of years of insensitive, arbitrary and illogical planning decisions made in Sarasota County, especially since 2008 when the market collapsed and developers went into panic mode. But that's another story.

This could be a hopeful sign. A signal that the Board is ready to return to the processes and ethos of rational planning. More certainly need to be done -- starting with removing all the public lands at Apex and Palmer from the County's Surplus Lands list, as Commissioner Detert suggested.

For the record, at the 8.23.17 hearing the two votes FOR the waste facility at this location came from Commissioners Michael Moran and Alan Maio:

Commissioner Moran accused the public of not being "fact-based" in emails and phone calls prior to the hearing. He felt the developer's presentation was "fact-based," while upwards of 70 presentations from attorneys, land use experts, a Sarasota City Planner, a Pulmonologist, an Epidemeologist, real estate agents, environmental experts and others who had researched waste facilities and contradicted the developer's unsubstantiated claims apparently did not meet his undisclosed criterion for factuality.

Commissioner Maio seized upon one or perhaps two public accusations of "collusion" to suggest that the public had demonstrated poor manners.

Thanks to courage and uncommon common sense - which is one definition of wisdom - the art and science of rational planning has made the start of a comeback in Sarasota County.

A huge and sincere thanks to all who helped move us in that direction.

The Quad Parcels - courtesy of the Sarasota News Leader

~ Tom Matrullo


  1. Brilliant recap. As you said, for all the money allotted to "planning" in Sarasota County, where is the work product?

  2. Exactly! This has broad applications for future process and policy

  3. Congratulations! Land use and development must be planned with great thought and Carell visitation given to the environmental impact and future plans. Thank you for shining a light on these plans and becoming a voice of reason.

  4. Indeed, brilliant recap. Next steps, ensuring that the quads receive a befitting land use designation and happy ending. Ensure that District 4 elects a representative who won't be just another lump of Developer's malleable clay. Ensure that Moran is defeated, District 1 deserves better.