Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Board acts on surplus public lands at Celery Fields

This a bare-bones report of the Board's actions today, Nov. 28th, on three parcels near the Celery Fields known as "the Quads." The Commissioners and Interim Administrator Jonathan Lewis deliberated at length as to how they might realize funds from the sale of the parcels to address a $5.4 million shortfall in the County's budget.
Public parcels at Apex and Palmer Blvd.

Each of the three parcels brought a somewhat different decision:

  • SE Parcel - #1 (immediately adjacent to Celery Fields). 
    • Take off surplus temporarily - with stipulation that community bring possible uses to staff -- passed 5-0.
  • NW Parcel - #3 (with temporary fire station). 
    • Leave on surplus list - rezone it to a comp plan-compliant district using an independent consultant  --passed 5-0.
  • SW Parcel - #2 ("Gabbert" parcel - most difficult to decide). 
    • Remain on surplus list - community organizations to come back with realistic options for use before put it out for sale -- 6-month timeline - pass 4-1 (Detert voted no, unhappy with timeline stipulation.)

The Board also voted unanimously to sell a property at Washington Blvd. and Main Street without restrictions. It's currently a parking lot on the NE corner of Washington and Main St.

This particular sale is projected to realize approximately $4 million).

Jonathan Lewis's Recap of this portion of the meeting:

A joint statement from the supporters of the Fresh Start Initiative -- a proposal for a workshop that would establish a community-based consensus for these public lands -- was read into the record.

The Board's decision showed a willingness to receive suggestions from the Community. This is not quite the same thing as developing a coherent, informed long-term vision for the entire Celery Fields area, but it's a beginning.

Letter to the Editor Nov. 28, 2017

County should postpone sale of lands next to Celery Fields
The Sarasota County Commission will discuss at 1:30 pm today the sale of surplus lands as part of a “budget reduction” process — including three public parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields. 
Our entire community loves the Celery Fields bird sanctuary and recreation area. The shock that people felt earlier this year when they learned of a plan to put a heavy-industrial waste facility next to the Celery Fields ran deep.

Sarasota County has a rare opportunity to shape and nurture a critical area to which many changes are coming. If the county sells to the first comer, it’s choosing to act spasmodically and without forethought.
Fast sales to industrial developers will doom higher prospects that hold greater economic promise as the planned Fruitville Initiative breaks ground. If the county pursues a quick sale, it abdicates its obligation as steward of public lands to plan rationally, intentionally and comprehensively for the long term. 
More than 50 homeowners associations have endorsed an initiative called Fresh Start. It asks the county to hold off on the sale of these public lands temporarily while working in concert with the community to establish a consensus vision worthy of the economic and environmental interests of all. 
We urge the board to pause, reflect, and act wisely.
Tom Matrullo, on behalf of Fresh Start Initiative, Sarasota

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Celery Fields at the tipping point

The Sarasota County Commission is holding a "Think Tank" discussion Tuesday Nov. 28th at which it will consider the sale of surplus lands as part of a "budget reduction" process presented by the new interim county administrator, Jonathan Lewis.

These surplus lands include three parcels near the Celery Fields which occasioned two highly controversial public hearings earlier this year (Restaurant Depot and James Gabbert's waste facility).

More than 50 homeowners associations near the Celery Fields area have signed on to an initiative known as Fresh Start. The idea is simple: hold off on the sale of these public lands temporarily; consult the community; go forward with a consensus vision that will serve the economic and environmental interests of all.

Forethought: Sarasota County now has a rare opportunity to shape and nurture a critical area to which many changes are coming. If the County sells to the first comer, it's choosing to act spasmodically and without forethought.

Gift horse: The Celery fields came about as an accidental stroke of great fortune. It’s a fabulous gift -- an amenity that we deeply love for all sorts of reasons. 

The shock people felt when they learned of a plan to put a heavy industrial waste facility there was palpable. The County can choose to take the rare value of this gift of nature and its place in people’s hearts into account when looking at future development here, or it may ignore all that. In the latter case, it abdicates its obligation as steward of public lands to plan rationally, intentionally, and comprehensively.

Pound Foolish: Actual fiscal responsibility goes beyond putting out fires. The County doesn't even have a fire. Some within the administration are 
considering quick sales of significant public lands to replenish a rainy day fund. Fast sales to industrial developers will doom higher prospects that hold economic promise, such as the planned Fruitville Initiative, soon to break ground:

Tipping Point

The Celery Fields Area is at a tipping point. This complex, changing landscape is rich in commercial, residential, recreational, ecological and -- with the Fruitville Initiative -- potent economic assets. These opportunities will gain in visibility and significance as the I-75 corridor develops. The County would be penny-wise, pound-foolish to do in haste what all will regret in years to come.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

County to discuss selling surplus lands Nov. 28th

Tuesday Nov. 28th, the County Commission will meet in the "Think Tank" (3rd floor, county admin bldg.) at 1:30 pm. Among the items they will think about is Agenda Item #32 - which concerns surplus lands. These are public lands that the County is considering selling to help narrow its budget gap.

The way the discussion is framed by the new Administrator, Jonathan Lewis, it appears to assume selling these lands will bring quick budgetary relief. (The causes of budgetary distress are not addressed.)

These lands include the parcels at Apex and Palmer near the Celery Fields where a developer had proposed to put a demolition waste facility.

Fresh Start is an initiative endorsed by more than 50 HOA's who believe that instead of selling off these parcels piecemeal, the County might consult the surrounding community, consider the features of the land, the potential future uses, and together work up a consensus plan that will both protect the Celery Fields and provide a greater long-term ROI.

Rational, community-based planning will enhance the value of the land many times over what some warehouse or industrial developer will pay for it, and lead to a far higher quality of life for all.

The Board's pdf with details of the discussion is here.

The meeting should be broadcast live via county video

Page 10 of Surplus Lands Agenda Item

The Fresh Start Initiative - for a new vision of the Celery Fields area

To the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners:

Developers seeking to rezone land typically claim that their proposed changes will augment a property’s value, make it more useful, and have a positive impact on the surrounding area and the County.

The Fresh Start Initiative for the Celery Fields Area has a similar purpose.

Our undersigned HOA's and organizations are simply saying: We live, work, drive and play in the Celery Fields Area. Its unique assets have undergone rapid change, and more are on the way thanks to the Fruitville Initiative. Before the County considers yet another industrial proposal based on 35-year-old land use maps at Apex and Palmer, we ask you to pause, talk to the people, and study the potential.

The parcels at Apex/Palmer lie at a crossroads that links the area’s various assets -- the Celery Fields’ wetlands, birdwalks, and Observation Mound, the Quad parcels at Palmer Blvd. and Apex Rd., Big Cat Habitat, Ackerman Park, the Fruitville Initiative’s plan for a linear park along the north cell of the Celery Fields, even the unusual underpass linking the Quads with the Packinghouse district. So many potential synergies!

A holistic, collaborative, and proactive planning effort can link these stranded assets as well as put in place key community values, ideas, and goals that will increase the quality of life, protect the good that’s already there, and produce a genuine value opportunity. Planning the Celery Fields Area as a unified whole will enhance every part of the area in a manner consistent with Sarasota County's reputation for innovative planning.

Let’s work together on a plan that’s mindful of both the ecology and the economy of the Celery Fields Area. A plan that will

  • Beautifully introduce East County;
  • Enhance Sarasota’s brand, and
  • Attract more distinctive development.

Especially here, in this special place, let’s not sacrifice the vision and thoughtful restraint that has characterized Sarasota’s land stewardship -- the real reason that our county is considered one of the finest places to live in the US.

Engage the people.
Envision the potential.
Enrich our legacy.

(The above letter has been given to each Commissioner that Fresh Start meets with.)

Monday, November 20, 2017

New Collaboration of Celery Fields Advocates seeks to persuade County to take surplus lands off

New collaboration of Celery Fields advocates seeks to persuade County Commission to take nearby county parcels off list of surplus lands for sale

This link goes to the full article with graphics at the Sarasota News Leader.
Fresh Start has begun a petition drive on change.org to urge the board to work with community residents and business owners on shaping the future of the area around the park

They fought successfully to prevent a construction and yard waste recycling facility from being constructed near the Celery Fields in the eastern part of Sarasota County. Now, in a new collaboration, they are petitioning the County Commission to remove a group of properties county staff refers to as the “Quads” from the county’s surplus lands list.
In this latest undertaking, advocates for the Celery Fields have created the group Fresh Start. Late last week, they sent a letter to the County Commission, asking that the board “work with the community to achieve a shared, broad-based vision for public lands near the Celery Fields bird sanctuary [emphasis in the message on change.org].”
They also started a petition drive on change.org, with the heading Make a Fresh Start for the Celery Fields.
Fresh Start consists of 46 neighborhood and business organizations, all located near the Celery Fields, the petition says.
However, the initiative comes amid a renewed County Commission emphasis on generating revenue to shore up the county’s finances.
Because the board members did not raise the millage rate for the current fiscal year, and they also voted not to implement a 5% Public Service Tax on utilities, they are seeking at least $5.4 million in revenue to plug a gap in the current fiscal year budget without having to use more of their “rainy day” reserve funds. That $5.4 million represents the estimated revenue from the first six months the excise tax would have been in effect this fiscal year.
The commissioners have directed staff to work with all departments under their purview and to explore every other possible means of making up the $10.8 million the Public Service Tax would have been expected to generate annually.
Selling surplus lands was touted as one primary source of revenue as the board began a series of budget discussions on Oct. 10. (See the related stories in this issue.)

Fresh Start features this Celery Flelds scene in a group it has posted that showcases the internationally known destination for birders. Image courtesy Fresh Start

The formal letter from Fresh Start to the commission points out that on Aug. 23, the majority of the commissioners “listened to hundreds of residents and visitors who deeply care about the Celery Fields. Some call this area the Siesta Beach of East Sarasota County. Viewed in its larger context, the Celery Fields offers the prospect of becoming a unique gateway to Sarasota.”
The letter adds, “Thanks to the Commission for protecting this potential — we now want to work with you to actualize it.”
The property at the heart of the petition drive
The Quads are four distinct parcels located in the quadrants at the intersection of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard, a county fact sheet explained in advance of the Aug. 23 public hearing. They were among 300 acres the county purchased from a private landowner in 1994, the fact sheet noted. “The acquisition was made as part of the development of the Celery Fields, although the quads were never intended to be a part of the regional stormwater facility the county constructed there.”
In 1997, the fact sheet said, the County Commission declared the parcels to be surplus.
In 2015, the fact sheet continued, the commission “instructed county staff to perform a review of all properties in the surplus lands program and identify those with the highest potential value as a new revenue source. As a result, the sites were put out to bid.”
TST Ventures, owned by James Gambert, had an option on the 10.3-acre Southwest Quad; it planned to use the property for the construction and demolition waste/yard waste recycling facility. After a day-long public hearing on his the firm’s request for the necessary board action — including a rezoning of part of the site — to enable the project to go forward, the commissioners voted 3-2 to deny the petitions. Chair Paul Caragiulo joined Commissioners Charles Hines and Nancy Detert in the majority, with Commissioners Alan Maio and Michael Moran voting “No.”

A graphic explains the county’s ‘Quads’ parcels. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Sept. 11, TST Ventures formally notified staff that it no longer wanted to exercise its option on the property, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader.
The county fact sheet distributed in August noted that the Southeast Quad and the Northwest Quad were not on the market at that time. A potential buyer for the latter parcel, which is about 6.9 acres, withdrew its option in March, after deciding not to go forward with a rezoning request so it could build a restaurant supply warehouse there.
The Northeast Quad also is not on the market, the fact sheet said, because it is the site of a stormwater retention pond.
The Fresh Start letter points out that the Quads “are situated at a key intersection that connects five distinct but related communities”:
  • Palmer Boulevard neighborhoods and schools.
  • Industrial parks.
  • The Packinghouse District.
  • The Celery Fields Preserve, which includes an educational center the county constructed in coordination with Sarasota Audubon.
  • The Fruitville Initiative.
Fresh Start says county residents “deserve a voice in shaping the future [of the Quads]. To that end, we invite the County to develop with us a community-based consensus for the district. We propose an open workshop that would allow ideas and goals to be shared, analyzed, and refined,” the letter adds.

Together, the letter continues, the public and county leaders can “[e]nhance the great ecological and recreational value already latent in this area”; as well as serve the needs of residents, schoolchildren and local businesses. The undertaking also would allow the evolution of a “multi-faceted hub” that would be useful and attractive, thanks to intelligent design.

“We’ll soon be scheduling meetings with each of you to discuss this initiative,” the letter concludes.
Among the signatories on the Fresh Start petition are representatives of the Palmer East Group, whose neighborhoods include the Enclaves, Laurel Oak, Palmer Lake and the Sarasota Golf Club Colony; communities that are members of the nonprofit Fruitville 2010, including Cedar Hammock, Deer Hollow, Fox Creek, Greystone, The Meadows, Palm Oaks and San Palermo; Save Richardson Road East; the Lake Sarasota Community Group; Bent Tree; Sarasota Audubon; David G. Johnson of CeleryFields.org, one of the leaders of the fight against the TST Ventures proposal; and another group instrumental in winning the County Commission’s vote against the TST Ventures project, Citizens for Sarasota County.

A brief history of rational planning in Florida and its demise

The Community Planning Act of 2011 broke Florida's regulatory structure that had for more than 20 years attempted to review development plans and foster an orderly, sensible approach to the construction of homes, commercial centers, roads, and much more.

The Act, for example, makes it possible for a developer to ignore existing road deficiencies, says Nancy Stroud, writing for the John Marshall Law Review:

How has the disruption of regulatory measures impacted Florida? We have this benchmark for the period leading up to the Community Planning Act:
Former DCA Secretary Tom Pelham has pointed out that from 2007 to 2010, the state approved 1.5 billion square feet of commercial development in addition to nearly 600,000 new housing units and nearly 1 million acres of land use changes. FloridaEnvironments.com
What about since 2011? Has any study looked at what's happened in the past 6 years?

In her conclusion, Stroud speaks of Florida's "retreat from meaningful state or regional authority":

Ironically, says Stroud, the state's abdication of rational safeguards in the face of rampant growth might, quite illogically, rely on the advocacy of regular people who happen to care:

The complete text of Stroud's article is here.

Friday, November 10, 2017

CONA celebrates Swormstedt, Fresh Start, Civic Advocacy

For those just returning to Sarasota, a few recent highlights:

Nov. 6th: CONA Sarasota celebrated the long and fruitful advocacy of Gerry Swormstedt, a leader of the local Sierra Club and active participant in many organizations and civic efforts.

Wade Matthews tells a story about Gerry Swormstedt at the CONA celebration.

The Observer's round-up of the key Sarasota stories of 2017 took the form of a quiz for those arriving, and was topped by "the Celery Fields controversy."

CONA held several events including a Town Hall earlier this year to get out the word about a proposal to put a construction demolition facility on public lands next to the Celery Fields.

Fresh Start is a new effort to gain support from the Board of County Commissioners for a long-range plan to protect the Celery Fields. Fresh Start's supporters include representatives of about 50 HOA's, along with Sarasota Audubon, businesses and a broad spectrum of county residents, many of whom worked to defeat the waste facility, 

CONA acknowledged the commitment of Fresh Start at its 56th Anniversary Celebration:

Continuing its support for advocacy, CONA's Nov. 13th meeting will offer a presentation by Sura Kochman on the impending issues raised by Siesta Promenade, starting at 7 pm.

Have you signed the Celery Fields Petition?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Planning: Democratized and playful

A speaker at Sarasota's Florida House offered a glimpse into the ways that high tech can combine with simple "low touch" methods to empower and broaden the reach of community-based planning initiatives.

Using a Smart Table, Ken Snyder of Denver-based Radian|Placematters presented an assortment of practical and proactive tools that his firm has used with communities around the world. Tools such as mobile polling apps help gather ideas from residents and stakeholders, or enable area residents to explore alternative scenarios.

Reaching into an entire community allows the planning process to tap local knowledge in ways that can add value and insight to key decisions.

Some of the methods involve play -- pop-up playgrounds, for example, that can be set up in an impromptu fashion after a design session with children who then use it -- designing, making, and enjoying the finished product all in one.

Such methods "get people engaged," said Snyder. They "activate the space," allowing for alternative scenarios to be explored inexpensively.

The process of envisioning not only offers alternative scenarios, but develops a portrait of the value priorities specific to a locale. With that insight a plan can take shape that "connects values and strategies," said Snyder.

Smart Table
Some techniques employ sophisticated programs, like a cloud-based facility that does simultaneous translation in real time. Others use simple tools -- blocks or other visual components -- enabling the planning process to overcome traditional barriers of language, age and background, Snyder said. This all contributes to a trend he's seeing which he calls "the democratization of planning."