Sarasota County Commissioners Set to Complete Gutting of Sarasota 2050

“If you are failing to plan, you are planning to fail.”
                                                          -- Benjamin Franklin

The Sarasota County Commission will hold its final public hearing to finish their gutting of the Sarasota 2050 Plan, on Wednesday, October 22 at 1:30 p.m. in the downtown Sarasota Commission chambers.
The result -- if approved -- will be traffic gridlock, unpaid costs of growth, environmental destruction, harm to city vitality, and a devastation of property values as the market is glutted with over-development.
If they get away with this, the developers win and the rest of us lose.
With University Parkway and I-75 already facing  gridlock from the new mall, with River Road and other roads dangerously deficient, with the unincorporated County already holding a 227% surplus of development capacity to meet demand over the next 10 years, and with over 6,000 new homes already allowed and moving forward on the Thomas Ranch and surrounding area in South County -- with no plans for funding the roads, schools and other facilities need to handle that growth -- is this really the time to drop the reins on eastern urban sprawl?
Sarasota 2050 was designed, at a cost of over two million taxpayer dollars and years of work and public input, to obtain benefits for the public in trade for opening up the rural lands to intense urban development.
Urbanization east of I-75 was allowed under Sarasota 2050, but only in mixed use, walkable, New Urbanist communities (to minimize car traffic), with extensive environmental preservation, timing so the development is spread out over decades and strict “fiscal neutrality” requirements to ensure that the growth pays its own way.
No more.  Now, the deal is off, with the developers getting everything and giving nothing.   
Developers have spent the last several years recruiting, bankrolling, electing and pressuring County Commissioners to repeal the limits of the Sarasota 2050 Plan.  So far, the developers are succeeding big time.  What they are getting is approval for massive, uncontrolled standard urban sprawl, on the backs of the taxpaying public.
Already, County Commissioners have repealed and granted exceptions to many of the Sarasota 2050 requirements.  The new Greenways shown on maps are now largely gone (with the North Village allowed to count land which the County previously paid the developer $7 million to preserve, the South Village granted a complete exemption and the Central Village having no need to preserve off-site).  Requirements for internal Greenbelts, buffers and road setbacks have been so cut back as to now be meaningless.  Open space requirements have been reduced drastically.  Centrally located, mixed use Village Centers (with substantial civic uses and parks, as well as offices) to serve the Village residents are replaced with strip commercial at the edges on major highways to serve the general public.  The phasing of mixed uses has effectively been eliminated.   Numerous New Urbanist  features have been repealed and developers are now given a choice of opting out of all of them with Commission approval.  The definition of required “affordable housing” has been weakened to include a dwelling regardless of price which is sold or rented to someone of limited income (even if at a high proportion of that income).  Phony initial “fiscal neutrality” reports have been accepted, all requiring the developers to pay absolutely no new exaction (for example finding no mass transit expense because no buses presently run to the empty land).
Now comes the final round of gutting Sarasota 2050, and this is the most dangerous one of all.
Fiscal neutrality (that requires that the growth pay its own way) would be effectively eliminated, all development would be allowed at one time rather than phased out over decades, developers will no longer be required to transfer their density off Greenways (thereby destroying the Greenways), a loophole will be created from the affordable housing requirement, a Village Center would no longer be required after the first Village in a Village area, bucolic “Hamlet” developments would be replaced by sprawling subdivisions far out east through a 90% reduction in Greenbelts, and Conservation Subdivisions would no longer be required in large areas outside of Villages and Hamlets (thereby further reducing environmental protection).
Fiscal Neutrality
Even the County’s own biased, pro-developer consultant Donna Arduin has acknowledged that a fiscal neutrality report can show whatever the developer wants, by making false assumptions that let the developer off the hook.  Unfortunately, the County Commission has accepted several phony reports, including for the North Village and a Pat Neal Settlement, that find the developments 100% fiscally neutral.
However, in approving those reports, two Commissioners, Shannon Staub and Nora Patterson, said that it does not matter because the follow-up reports required under the fiscal neutrality requirements will catch the errors and make the developers pay.  
Now, the County Commission is proposing to completely repeal the requirement for those follow-up, true-up reports.  Until the most very recent draft, the amendments would have at least required one to review the fiscal impact of any change in the “actual development results” of a 2050 project, such as the developer replacing some commercial with residential.   However, at the urging of developers, even that has now been eliminated, despite the fact that such a change could completely destroy a project’s fiscal neutrality.  No follow-up report would be required at all, for any reason.  
To cite a very real example (as this has been done), if the initial fiscal neutrality report assumes that the developer will pay full impact fees and the County cuts them in half, no follow up report will be made to catch that change and the developer will no longer have to make up the difference.   As another good example, the initial fiscal neutrality report for Village of Lakewood Ranch South excused the developer from paying anything for mass transit because the report concluded that (of course) no buses currently serve that vacant land.  Now however, the County is extending bus service to that area.  Under the present Sarasota 2050 policies, that change would be caught by the revised fiscal neutrality report for Phase Two and the developer would be required to pay for the mass transit serving the development, on top of its road impact fees.  That no longer would be required if the proposed changes are made.
County staff seeks to excuse its gutting of fiscal neutrality by saying that the County requires developers to “pay for off-site impacts via full cost impact fees.”  That is blatantly false.  County staff acknowledged in an internal memorandum several years ago (finding fault with the fiscal neutrality report for the North Village) that impact fees are demonstrably too low to pay for the needed infrastructure improvements because otherwise the County would not be experiencing shortfalls in funding.   Further, it is indisputable that impact fees are now inadequate since the County Commission slashed road impact fees by 50% “indefinitely” and together with the School Board has suspended school impact fees entirely.
Further, the proposed amendments to Sarasota 2050 would repeal a provision that fiscal neutrality be based on a separate traffic analysis for the development.
Another amendment would allow a credit to developers in the fiscal neutrality analysis “as incentives to provide affordable housing.”  Specifically, a developer would be able to assume the higher taxes generated by a market rate dwelling rather than the actual taxes generated from a house that will be built to meet the affordable housing requirement.   At present, a certain proportion of affordable housing is simply required (although that has been weakened as well).  This change on its face guarantees that a development will not be fiscally neutral.
What this abandonment of fiscal neutrality means is that the County’s roads, schools and other public facilities will be overwhelmed and congested by the new development, or that taxes will eventually be increased to pay for needed improvements, or both.
Equal to the abandonment of fiscal neutrality as a cause for alarm is the proposal to allow all of the Sarasota 2050 development to occur at one time, rather than being phased out over decades.
Currently, a Sarasota 2050 Village cannot be approved if it provides housing that exceeds the projected demand in the unincorporated County (that is, outside the cities) over the following 20 years by more than 150%.
That means that under present numbers, because the North Village (Village of Lakewood Ranch South) has been approved and is so very large, the huge Central and South Village areas have to wait.
The County Commission proposes to repeal that limit and any other limit on the timing of Sarasota 2050 development.
The purpose of this provision when it was enacted is to prevent a flooding of the County with excessive development, providing an oversupply which harms property values as well as to control the demands for road improvements, schools and other facilities which the County is unprepared to meet.
Also to be repealed are the provisions that (1) there shall be only one Village development in the North Village area (allowing a second one north of Fruitville Road) and (2) additional development in the Central Village must wait 15 years after the first Village development there is approved.
Further, the County proposes to repeal a provision in the Sarasota 2050 Plan that states that if the County’s growth rate increases by more than 20% over the past ten years’ average, the County Commission “may take actions to deal with the annual growth rate, including, but not limited to, deferring the approval of new development.”
Consider that Sarasota 2050 would allow, at the maximum, housing for 102,125 people (47,500 dwellings at 2.15 persons per dwelling), divided into the three Village areas!  That is a 42% increase in the present population of unincorporated Sarasota County, twice the population of the City of Sarasota.  Even if the Villages are developed at less than the maximum allowed, as is likely (the first Village is at 3.4 dwellings per acre rather than the maximum of six), we are looking at an extremely large amount of additional development.
This elimination of any timing constraint on all this new development is a stark departure from Sarasota County’s historic practice, which for decades (beginning in 1981) and until recent years limited amendments to the Comprehensive Plan to development that would meet 125% or (by an amendment) 133% of the projected demand over the following ten years.
The complete elimination of any constraint on the timing of new development is by definition growth out of control.  
It is grossly irresponsible and the consequences severe.
Destroying the Greenway Incentive
Sarasota 2050 now requires that each Village development include a certain percentage of “affordable” housing.  That has already been weakened to be measured by sales to people of limited income, not limits on housing prices (allowing a dwelling to be counted as “affordable” simply because someone buys it with an excessive proportion of their income).
It is now proposed that density rights for affordable housing be provided in lieu of the developer acquiring and transferring density rights off of environmentally sensitive lands designated as Greenways.  As such, together with the outright exemption of the south Village from that requirement and the north Village being able to count land that was already preserved, this change will put the final nail in the coffin of the Greenways promised in the Sarasota 2050 Plan.
Creating an Affordable Housing Loophole
A developer would be able to avoid the current requirement to build certain percentages of affordable housing by “any other methodology” approved by the County Commission.  If the County Commission continues to be controlled by developers as it is today, this creates a huge loophole in the affordable housing requirement.
Village Center
If a Village Area (North, Central or South) has more than one Village, the requirement for a Village Center is eliminated after the first Village.  This further undercuts the idea of a Village being a walkable, mixed use community.
A Hamlet is a less dense (up to one unit per acre of developed area, which is still classified as an “urban” deensity) and less intense version of a Village, mapped for development east of the Villages in the Sarasota 2050 Plan.
At present, multiple Hamlets would be built in each of the very large Hamlet areas, at a maximum of 400 dwellings each, defined as neighborhoods by 500 feet of Greenbelt around each Hamlet, and with a walkable park or other focal point within the Hamlet, and not less than 4,000 feet between the focal points of two different Hamlets.  The idea is to make these developments less urban, because they are even further east than the Villages.  Also, very importantly, the wide Greenbelt around each Hamlet “preserves Native Habitats, supplements natural vegetation, and protects wildlife within the area” as a result of restrictions on uses in the Greenbelt.
The County Commission proposes to completely destroy this concept by reducing the Greenbelt around each Hamlet to an average of 50 feet (down from 500 feet absolute width – a 90% reduction!) and not less than 30 feet at any point, and by eliminating any separation between focal points.  Also, Open Space requirements would be reduced by allowing any Greenway to be counted as Open Space.
The County acknowledges that this will effectively allow a developer to “combine” Hamlets into a continuous, sprawling subdivision.   This is particularly egregious as the areas designated for Hamlets are generally very far east of I-75 and as such will create the worst type of urban sprawl.
Conservation Subdivisions
A Conservation Subdivision is a new form of development east of I-75 that clusters housing to avoid environmental impacts.   The density stays at one unit per five acres (the maximum underlying zoning which is allowed), except if it is in a Hamlet area the density can be one unit per 3.5 acres.
At present, to protect the environment, Sarasota 2050 requires a Conservation Subdivision instead of five acre ranchettes for any rezoning that increases density in the Sarasota 2050 area, unless in a Village or Hamlet form of development.  
An example would be in an area now designated for Greenways.  Although the Greenways were intended to be preserved by developers transferring development rights from them, that is no longer happening because the County Commission is no longer requiring that, so Greenways are expected to be developed.
In another amazing abandonment of environmental protection for the benefit of developers, the County Commission proposes to repeal the requirement for a Conservation Subdivision for any parcel 20 acres or less in size, in the large Rural Heritage Estate districts east of I-75.  
This effectively eliminates the restriction in that area, because any parcel larger than 20 acres can simply be divided into smaller parcels (by conveyances to related interests) before the rezoning is submitted.
The Greenways were mapped to include the most environmentally sensitive areas in the county in private ownership (as well as public lands).   Now Greenways are going to be developed because the County has eliminated the need for developers to transfer densities from them.  
As such, it is all that more startling that the County will allow the development of standard five acre ranchettes in Greenways rather than the much more environmentally protective Conservation Subdivisions.  
Once again, the developers win and the environment loses.  
Protest This Outrageous Act
Even though it is likely that our County Commissioners will continue to ignore the public and do the developers’ bidding, citizens should still show up and voice their protest of the gutting of the Sarasota 2050 Plan at the October 22 public hearing.  Such uncontrolled urban sprawl, and its adverse consequences for the taxpayers, mobility, the environment and vitality of our city centers, should not be approved without an expression of objection by a citizenry who will suffer greatly as a result.

Dan Lobeck                                                                                                                                                        
President, Control Growth Now                                                                                              
October 13, 2014

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