Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The 40-year degradation of Sarasota County stewardship

When Sarasota County agreed to confer a special exception on James Gabbert for a waste transfer station, it ignored two laws and succeeded in offending public notions of compatibility, aesthetics and taste.

Gabbert's parcel at I-75
Gabbert's land is right next to I-75, and lies within a corridor that is supposed to offer a "park-like setting" to highway drivers. Apparently neither the Highway Beautification Act, nor the county's own critical area ordinance, nor the adjacency of public lands at the Celery Fields made any difference. Public common sense mattered not a whit.

The county’s approval of Gabbert seemed less an error of judgment, or even a sign of petty graft, than a symptom of a larger shift in how our elected officials regard public lands, stewardship and government itself. For those who track Board decisions on growth and land use, the trend is unmistakable: private interests are usurping the responsible stewardship of the public domain. 

Three recent trends stand out: The Board's willingness to (a) sell significant public lands to private developers; (b) allow privately initiated changes to the 2050 Comp Plan, and to (c) restrict citizens' powers to effect change.

Quick backstory: More than 40 years ago, Sarasota distinguished itself as the first county to produce a comprehensive growth management plan which it called Apoxsee, (pronounced Ah-po-ee) from a Miccosukee word that means "beyond tomorrow." The county's visionary work won awards -- and Sarasota appeared at the forefront of Florida's long range planning efforts.

In the mid-90s, a Multi-Stakeholders Group of residents, including planners, architects, engineers, environmentalists and more who were concerned about the fate of rural Sarasota did a citizens study of Northeast Sarasota. They devoted a few years to the work, and moved through their differences to agree upon basic principles for a coherent vision of planning and growth. These efforts led to the 2050 Comprehensive Plan, approved a few years after.

Points of Agreement of the Sarasota Multi-Stakeholders Group

The recession of 2008 brought land development to a halt. Ever since, Rick Scott’s minions and the development industrial complex have worked with termite tenacity to erode public planning policy. As recent decisions make clear, our elected officials have not been averse to cooperating.

Mr. Gabbert for example has the Board’s blessing to construct a waste facility in the heart of a prized tourism, recreation and wildlife area. Pat Neal is approved to put 1,100 homes in a cul de sac whose one exit is a two-lane road (Grand Lakes). Whole Foods’ pavement replaces a living wetland on University Parkway. Benderson’s oversized complex will go up near an overburdened bridge to a major island visitor destination (Siesta Promenade). The list goes on. With the exception of Gabbert’s waste processing facility, public opposition has counted for little. And the fight for our public lands at the Celery Fields is by no means over.

Since 2012, three areas of local public planning have undergone a shift towards marginalizing the public’s voice:
  • Surplus lands policy revised to give Board final authority without public review - helped the county sell Benderson 42 acres of public land at a giveaway price.
  • Comp plan amendments (CPAs) The Comp Plan was significantly weakened in 2016, and developers - Pat Neal, Hi Hat Ranch, and others have successfully amended the plan to meet their needs.
  • Critical Area Plans - these  originally calling for significant public input, until a 2016 revision marginalized the public's role. (Ord. 2016-062)
Accompanying these changes are further top-down efforts seeking to constrain the people’s power. The Board has proven itself averse to open debate; it rarely if ever seeks to explain its actions in a clear narrative that reveals all the relevant causes for action, and it adheres to an anti-government ideology that exchanges a no-new-taxes posture for the opportunity to eviscerate public service and enrich a private oligarchy.

Take, for example, these trending Board actions:
  1. Citizen-initiated Charter amendments are now virtually impossible, thanks to this past November’s board-initiated amendment (doubling the signature total and reducing the time).
  2. The Charter Review Board is now considering appointing itself gatekeeper to “vet” future citizen amendments. (James Gabbert of waste transfer fame chairs that committee.)
  3. Efforts to neutralize or undo the 2018 Single Member District amendment are underway. 
  4. The Siesta Beach Road charter amendment is facing Board challenge
  5.  We only live here. Sarasota "brand" is decided without public input. The image of our community projected to the world is decided by marketing and tourism specialists.
These are just a few elements from a larger constellation of privatizing moves, each symptomatic of what amounts to a repudiation of the public realm by a so-called political party that in fact represents oligarchic interests.

The overall result marginalizes the people’s role. it amounts to a tectonic drift and a shift in public policy, methodology and ideology. Far from the common sense of Apoxsee, the sprawling dangers foreseen by the multi-stakeholders group is now at our door.

In East County, a planning crisis is brewing. Research by a local citizens group (Fresh Start) forecasts an explosion of single family housing, thanks to weakened 2050 constraints. Our public officials now plan using tools crafted by private developers' attorneys. Rapid growth that replaces thoughtful development with piecemeal, disarticulated sprawl has been called “Browardization” -- are we there yet? With developers at the wheel, public mindedness can look for a seat in the back of the bus.

Slide from a presentation to the Commission from Fresh Start

rom those early prudential efforts of Apoxsee and the Multi-Stakeholder Group, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Fifty years of single party dominance has constricted Sarasota's public vision, withering proactive and creative powers our county once proudly displayed. The degradation of the public's role coincides with the Board's apparent willingness to provide concierge services to private interests. Developers often no longer need PR whiz kids to promote their agendas -- our officials do it for them.

Sarasota County Commission
Mr. Gabbert's waste transfer facility has been blessed by the Board. It will operate at a critically unsafe intersection, in full view of the highway, despoiling the entrance to our pristine Celery Fields. While this is not what we wish, it's just the canary in the coalmine.

Will 2020 be a turning point?

Waste transfer truck

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