Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Seidman: Citizens speak on Siesta Promenade ... but nobody’s listening

With approval of the controversial project, once again residents’ concerns take a back seat to development interests.

Carrie Seidman, Herald Tribune

Before last week’s County Commission hearing on the proposed Siesta Promenade project by Benderson Development, Sura Kochman was feeling hopeful.

For almost two years, using the tools she’d developed over a decade of chairing a New Jersey planning board, she’d spent “almost every waking moment” gathering research, talking with officials, building alliances and working to disseminate information about the mixed-use plan for the 24-acre site near U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, neighboring her Pine Shores home. Now it was time for Kochman — and dozens of other residents who also saw the mix of hotel, retail and residential development as incompatible with the surrounding area — to share their concerns before commissioners took a vote last Wednesday.

“I truly felt in my gut that, with the mountain of evidence we had gathered and the testimony of eight organizations representing thousands of people’s voices, that the commissioners would listen and understand the issues regarding this very unique area,” said Kochman, who formed the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance to advocate for reducing the project’s height and density.

Siesta Promenade site at US 41 and Stickney Point
Others, aware of the commission’s history of siding with developers, were more cynical. A chorus of voices chimed in on the group’s Facebook page: Don’t even bother going. You’re wasting your time. They’re going to approve it anyway.

Kochman responded with all the fervor and optimism of a high school cheerleader.

“I said, ’Don’t give up, you have to make your voices heard, give it your all!” she recalled earlier this week, sounding a little defeatist herself after commissioners approved the project. “But they were proven right. So maybe people shouldn’t bother anymore. Because they hear our voices, but they don’t hear us.”

Commissioners listened to almost 90 residents, just eight of whom spoke in favor of the project. Speakers said it was incompatible with a comprehensive plan that calls for “walkability” and reducing negative impacts on surrounding residential areas. They pointed to conflicts with elements of the newly-passed uniform development code. They noted flaws in the traffic studies that were conducted and expressed fears of a gridlock that would be not only a hassle but a danger and, in the event of an emergency, potentially life-threatening.

But after nearly five hours of testimony, the vote (4-1) was swift and unequivocal. Benderson’s request for a rezone and a hotel exception was granted, without modification.

“The fact that they totally ignored us and didn’t make one change, it’s very discouraging, very disheartening,” said Kochman, who was born and raised in Sarasota. “The whole process is just so disingenuous. Did they already know when they walked into the meeting that the whole thing was for naught? Was the fix in?”

When I asked her exactly what she meant by that, Kochman didn’t pull any punches.

Sarasota County Commission: In bed with the developers?

“Any rational person would have seen that this application should not have been approved in its proposed form,” she said dismissively. “So the only answer, I assume, would be to go to and see where the (commissioners’) campaign contributions have come from. You hate to think our commissioners can be bought off, but there’s no other way to look at this. That’s the only reason I can think of.”

Kochman has a lot of company. In my year-long tenure as a columnist, this is the refrain I hear more than any other: Local government is in bed with the developers and it’s ruining Sarasota.

I’ve heard it from the grassroots advocacy group STOP, fighting to change the “administrative approval” process that grants the city the right to green light downtown development projects without citizen input.

I’ve heard it from people living on S. Palm Avenue , who formed SHOUT over concerns about safety hazards from construction debris and practices on new developments and who have encountered resistance in trying to get the city to take proactive measures to protect residents, their pets and their vehicles.

I’ve heard it from homeowners in Venice, objecting to the placement of a new hospital in an area the comprehensive plan intended to be residential, and one that lacks the infrastructural capacity to handle increased traffic and emergency vehicles.

I’ve heard it from those fighting the city’s plan to lease the pavilion on Lido Key to private investors for development of a restaurant and additional amenities that would decidedly change the ambiance of Sarasota’s most laid-back, family friendly public beach.

And I’ve heard it from “Reopen Beach Road” advocates who objected to the county’s ceding a once-public thoroughfare to private property owners, allowing for increased density on their buildable land. (Even though an amendment calling on the county to regain ownership and reopen the road passed in the recent midterms, it is already facing pushback — leading to the conclusion that even if you win, you’re not done fighting.)

Almost daily I get mail from readers complaining about everything from traffic congestion to red tide, flooding to impassable sidewalks — all of which they blame on uncontrolled development and injudicious planning. They write to inform me of meetings and public forums and petitions and ask if I can help rally the troops. Many say they are reluctant crusaders.

“I moved here to retire, I didn’t plan on becoming an activist,” one told me recently. “But I can’t stand to see what they are doing to this paradise.”

But when the fattest wallet can buy the loudest voice, even a substantial citizen chorus is like background noise. And how long will residents continue to protest if they know it’s pointless?

“I guess that’s why so many people in Sarasota just live in their little bubbles,” Kochman said. “Go out to dinner, see a show, come back home and don’t get involved. It’s discouraging people from wanting to get involved because they think ... to what end? There is a total disregard here for the voices of the citizenry.”

For more on the projects Seidman alludes to, see This Could Be You.

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at

Thursday, December 13, 2018

North Port seeks action on Red Tide from Ron DeSantis

On Tuesday, Dec. 11, North Port became the first municipality in Florida to proactively seek to bring back a stormwater rule that, if enacted, could significantly reduce nutrients returning to our estuaries and bays -- and therefore potentially reducing the strength of Red Tide Events.

The City Commission adopted Resolution 2018-R-34 which asks Governor DeSantis to take action upon taking office to bring an unused stormwater rule back to go through a public hearing and vetting process and then adoption by the Legislature.

The Resolution was drawn up for the Board's consideration by Hands Along the Water, an advocacy group, and by Stephen Suau, a Sarasota County stormwater expert.

Steve Suau speaking in North Port
The Board adopted the Resolution Tuesday with just one word change -- to clarify that the request is timed to seek Gov. DeSantis's action when he assumes office. In addition to sending the Resolution to the new Governor, the City unanimously voted to forward to the Florida League of Cities, as well as to the Boards of Sarasota and Charlotte Counties, and to each city within those counties.

A powerpoint presented by Suau during the November 27 North Port meeting was included along with the Resolution in the agenda item. It can be seen here, and presents the basic argument as to why the state's Dept of Environmental Protection should bring the stormwater rule off the shelf in order to reduce nitrogen running into coastal waters. The rule was set to go into effect in 2010, but was shelved by Rick Scott as soon as he took office.

That meeting was also when members of Hands Along the Water presented their case for the need to take action against the causes of Red Tide, which has been stronger and more broadly lethal than seen here previously.

Essentially the new rule will use new technology to double the amount of nutrients removed from stormwater ponds. The state has been presuming that 80% - 85% of nitrogen from fertilizers is taken out of stormwater, when in fact under existing methods, it's only 40%-45%.

The proponents of this action say the causes of Red Tide are multiple, and many additional actions will be needed, but this is one that state scientists had researched and studied for 10 years. See the timeline below for more background

Perhaps the time for advanced stormwater treatment has finally arrived.


1977 to present: (past 50 years): Red tide abundance and duration increases
1997 to present: Nitrogen concentrations in Sarasota and Lemon Bays increase
1995 to 2010: Current regulations presume 80% effectiveness of pond reduction, but
studies revealed that stormwater ponds reduce nitrogen runoff by only 40-45% effective
2000 to 2010: Florida conducts 10-year research and monitoring,
drafts Stormwater Rule and Advanced Stormwater Treatment Design Manual.  
2011: Incoming administration cancels Stormwater Rule and Manual
2018: Proven Stormwater Harvesting and Recycling Technology exists now
  • Quantifiable
  • Can be used within existing pond footprint
  • Can produce revenue 

2019 and Beyond: Hit the Restart Button: Resolve to ask the new DeSantis administration to reinitiate the Advanced Stormwater Treatment Rule public hearing and adoption process.

Members of Hands Along the Water

An email regarding Critical Area Planning and the Celery Fields

To the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners:
A Critical Area Plan is a technical tool -- an innovation which I understand was first developed by Sarasota County planning years ago. According to one of the planners who implemented CAPs over many years, the purpose of establishing a boundary for a CAP project is to insure that all the important changes a proposed development will bring to a specific area are addressed.
As a tool for gauging compatibility, clearly the CAP boundary is not intended to encompass just the area of the project. That would not make sense.
When the Fruitville Initiative was being designed, the boundaries of the CAP benefited from public input, solicited by the County.
On Sept. 12, 2018, the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners wisely decided that it was time to revisit the Critical Area Plan (CAP) for the Quad parcels near the Celery Fields in light of the current context and realities.

This should provide a long overdue opportunity to envision what is possible at the Celery Fields area, rather than to adapt new elements of the area to outdated planning decisions.

Before starting the CAP process, the BCC will first need to approve the boundaries (i.e. aerial extent) and criteria (plan tasks) at a public hearing.
I can personally attest that when Restaurant Depot’s proposal came before this board two years ago, the critical area plan coincided with the boundaries of its parcel. That is to say: the impacts of the giant warehouse upon the Celery Fields and other surrounding parcels were explicitly ignored by the very planning tool that is supposed to take those impacts into account.

In advance of setting CAP boundaries and criteria for the Celery Fields, it is appropriate for staff to proactively conduct public meeting(s) to solicit public input on the boundaries and criteria, much as was done at this stage of the Fruitville Initiative.
As the CAP is a term of art, for the benefit of clear communication especially when there is large community interest, it would be helpful for the public record for the Board to clearly define what it intends with the use of the term “Critical Area Plan,” to explicitly explain what its boundaries are, how those boundaries have been determined, with what public input, along with the reasons why and the identity of whose decisions these are.
Thank you.

Thomas Matrullo

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Making things worse: Siesta Key and other communities



On the impact of Benderson's Siesta Promenade on its surrounding area,Gene Kusekoski, president of the Siesta Key Association, says this:
"The problem with the current Siesta Promenade proposal is EXACTLY about the “What" and the "Where." If this project was being proposed by the most universally beloved organization on earth, it would still be facing strong opposition because it is quite simply the wrong size and scale for that location.

"Adjacent neighbors who used to have landscaped single-story mobile homes across the street would now be looking up at 40- to 85-foot buildings. Their neighborhood streets that are barely wide enough for two cars to pass would be flooded with hundreds of cars going in and out of the development."

Sura Kochman has been coordinating community concerns about Siesta Promenade. In the Herald Tribune she writes:

Sarasota County staff has recommended approval of this application, citing numerous Comprehensive Plan policies that the project meets; however, one policy is blatantly missing:
Future Land Use 2.3.7: “In established residential areas, incompatible land uses shall be discouraged if traffic is generated on abutting local streets in amounts that would substantially and adversely affect traffic flow, traffic control and public safety.”
This land-use policy should have greater weight, as it affects existing homeowners. HT Guest Column 12.8.18.


The planner who developed the concept of the Critical Area Plan for Sarasota County says the county is failing to properly apply it to this project. Brian Lichterman, who formerly worked for County Planning and now owns Vision Planning and Design in Sarasota, stated last year to the Board:
The purpose of establishing a boundary for a CAP project, Lichterman explained, is to insure that all the important changes a proposed development will bring to a specific area are addressed.
The boundary, he added, is not intended to encompass just the area of the project. Yet, that is exactly what Benderson has sought in its application for a CAP for Siesta Promenade, Lichterman told the County Commission . . . Sarasota News Leader

Vincent Paul Staley writes to the Herald Tribune:
Siesta Promenade project is in the wrong place. 
Our elected commissioners should study what happened to Mexico Beach, Florida, during Hurricane Michael. A tropical depression became a monster in such a short period of time that many people didn’t think they needed to evacuate until it was too late.
Our barrier islands face the same threat. The thousands of visitors and residents on the islands on any given day represent an evacuation nightmare. One accident blocking a bridge egress would be catastrophic. 
The Benderson people have the opportunity to create a lasting legacy in our community by not proceeding with their current plans. This project could create a snafu of epic proportions in the case of an extreme weather event. 
In addition to the evacuation of the Siesta Key population, the Siesta Promenade development would have to evacuate its employees, residents and hotel guests, and they will be part and parcel of creating a bottleneck.

Illogical, crudely incompatible Sarasota Planning is not only happening at the Siesta Promenade. It's also clearly in evidence with other developer initiatives, including the Celery Fields:

Those involved with fighting industry at the Celery Fields saw the same patterns: When Restaurant Depot was being considered for approval, planners treated the boundaries of its parcel as the boundaries of the Critical Area Plan. This allowed the county to ignore impacts on surroundings, just as it is apparently willing to do with Siesta Promenade.

The county is now preparing to re-open the Critical Area Plan at the Celery Fields -- which could allow for a community-based overview of the entire area. What will it do with this opportunity?

Robert Waechter owns warehouses next to public lands at the Celery Fields. He made the argument that so many large trucks already use the roads near the birding preserve that there's no use in trying to buffer it. He advised the county to allow more industry and more trucks there -- it's already so dangerous that it might as well be worse -- despite thousands of residents and school children who use Palmer Boulevard as their prime road.

The County keeps saying that industry is appropriate at the Celery Fields because it is already there (although it's mostly set back and not on Palmer Blvd.). Why would the county cite existing industry as a reason for more of same at the Celery Fields, but then turn around and approve Siesta Promenade, which as Mr. Kusekoski says will be a radical shock to a settled area that is full of people who have lived there for decades?

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Include the public at the very start of this process

Brief update from Fresh Start:

We last wrote to the Board requesting that citizens be included when the Board reopens the Critical Area Plan for the Celery Fields:

Yesterday came this reply from Jane Grogg of Planning:
Good afternoon, 
The Board direction was for staff to bring back a scope of work for amendment to the Critical Area Plan by January. If they decide to move forward, staff would perform the analysis and hold associated public workshop(s) before returning to the Board with the draft amendments. The Board would then have the option to authorize the amendment process for hearings at the Planning Commission and Board. Since this is an existing CAP, the boundaries of the CAP is have already been adopted.
Thank you,

Given the active interest by our communities in the fate of this area, and given that the county has not begun to provide the necessary support for its continued safe and protected existence as a bird sanctuary, public recreation space, and natural habitat for wildlife, we believe that our communities and the public in general have earned the right to play a real part in decision making that will result from reopening the CAP.

One key element of reopening the CAP is in fact the opportunity to take a new look at its boundaries. 

As this goes forward, the CAP can be modified to allow more robust roads, and therefore allow for industry. Or, it can be modified in accord with the values and vision of the community. Which way will our Board and staff go?

Thank you for your commitment to the welfare of our neighborhoods.