Monday, January 1, 2018

The sprawl tax

Sprawl stands in direct opposition to a fiscally conservative philosophy. - Cathy Antunes

The interest in snapping up Sarasota ranchland east of I-75 is reaching a feverish pitch. Which tells us that East County is up for grabs as long-term ranchers like the Turner family bid adieu to generations of rural life and cash in. Developers step up, pay premium prices, and build.

What's missing?

For one thing, while these developers are buying land and designing their "villages," no one is minding the public realm. Developers troop in, pay their filing fees, produce plans that violate core principles of Sarasota County's Comprehensive Plan, and what does the County do? Very little, apparently.

Citizens have just filed two lawsuits stating that key elements of the County's comprehensive plan, once upheld by staff, are being ignored.

Two quick observations:

Developers hate regs - they get in their way, cost money, and complicate their business models.

One way to ease their burden is to get rid of strong, competent planning staff. The county has seen several recent defections of key personnel -- most recently, Allen Parsons and Isaac Brownman who both moved to Longboat Key to work under former County Adminstrator Tom Harmer.

Paring staff saves money. Certain candidates proudly proclaim that they've not just not raised taxes, but that millage rates have been lowered from 2001 levels.

This magic comes at a cost of competence, of vigilance, of people paid to watch out for the public's right to orderly land management and custodianship.

If developers fail to plan well, they might save money up front, but the people will pay a "sprawl tax" down the road. Sprawl ultimately can cost taxpayers big time: development that is thoughtful, attractive and respectful of neighbors and surrounding lands will accrue value; sprawl, ugly and inefficient, leads to unsustainable blight, and a degradation of property value.

So those public officials who brag about their "fiscal conservatism" for not raising taxes** or imposing adequate impact fees are the real spendthrifts. As they cut taxes, lower impact fees and spurn rational plans, they are jeopardizing the beauty, feasibility, compatibility, and balanced provision for a large segment of our county. This repudiation of public custodial care has operated on a piecemeal basis for a while -- the notorious case of county planners and officials working quietly to locate a construction waste crushing facility near the tranquil, pristine Celery Fields bird sanctuary is well known to many.

Top: Celery Fields wetlands Bottom: Waste processing facility

East Sarasota county is poised for an explosion of mass housing development on a scale perhaps never before seen here. Ambitious plans already on file are vast, and more are coming.

If Sarasota fails to support staff tasked with enforcing its own planning law, the errors of West County will be repeated: East County development will not simply clone the traffic-burdened areas we have now within the Urban Service Boundary; it will ultimately burden taxpayers. Our wallets will have to deal with impacts stemming from bad plans. Impacts that developers will not be required to pay for.

Before voting this year, get to know where your candidates stand on planning, on impact fees, and on stewardship values -- the stakes for our future are enormous.

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