1,100-home Grand Lakes project east of I-75 wins County Commission approval on 4-1 vote

Commissioners Hines and Caragiulo ask a number of questions regarding lack of more than one public road to the planned community

A graphic shows the two neighborhoods that will comprise Grand Lakes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Two Sarasota County commissioners this week asked multiple questions about the fact that a proposed 1,097-home development on 533 acres east of Interstate 75 and south of Clark Road would have only one county road as an access for the residents.

However, after about 44 minutes of a public hearing continued from May 23, only one of them — Commissioner Charles Hines — voted against the proposed Grand Lakes project on which former state Sen. Pat Neal and his Neal Communities project team have been working for years.

On a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Commissioner Alan Maio, the board members voted 4-1 to approve Grand Lakes, which will be a Village development under the guidelines of the county’s 2050 Plan for residential communities east of I-75.

Homeowners in the Serenoa and Serenoa Lakes developments to the north of the Grand Lakes site voiced considerable concern about the access issue during the May 23 hearing.

Although an extension of Ibis Street in that area has been added to the county’s long-range transportation plan, a number of the speakers also pointed out that county staff has been unable to provide a timeline for its construction. Tom Kibler, past president of the Serenoa Community Association, noted on May 23 that the commission on April 25 approved the project as part of the county’s 2040 Thoroughfare Plan.

On July 11, Hines also questioned Neal’s plans for gates at the two entrances for residents of Grande Lakes from Ibis Street.

As he understood it, Hines pointed out, the goal with 2050 projects is connectivity and walkability for county residents. “If you put gates in the front of these two entrances,” Hines asked Neal, “how is that going to work. … Where is the connectivity with the overall village?” Hines added, referring to other developments planned in the same area under 2050 guidelines.

“The gates are open, of course, in the daytime and closed at night,” Neal said. “We think this is very important for the sale of our homes.”

Neal also pointed out that the 2050 Plan guidelines require “monitored gate access.”

“This is tough,” Hines told him. The 2050 Villages, Hines continued, are “almost like little towns or cities outside the [county’s] Urban Service Boundary.” Hines indicated that he felt public access through the communities should be a priority.

A graphic explains features of the proposed Grand Lakes community. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“To allow our gates to be accessible to the public at large would be a very serious distraction and would be very hard for me,” Neal responded, pointing out that Grande Lakes “will be a very beautiful and expensive [community].”

Neal further pointed out that earlier commissions had approved gates for 2050 Plan developments. “We believe you’ve made this policy decision before, and we ask that you make it again.”

Some of the adjoining property owners also object to County Commission action earlier this year that will allow the Neal team to eliminate a mixed-use commercial center from Grand Lakes, although such facilities are required under the 2050 Plan. The project team pointed out that a sufficient number of retail businesses are in close proximity to the site. More importantly, they stressed, Grand Lakes will not have enough residents to support a retail business such as a grocery store.

The commissioners on March 14 approved a county Comprehensive Plan amendment that would make it possible not only for a Village under the 2050 Plan to be constructed without a commercial center but also to allow such a development even if it will not be contiguous to a Village community with such facilities.

In a news release issued this week, the Serenoa Lakes Community Association continued to protest the change allowed for Grand Lakes. In that release, Dave Anderson of Serenoa Lakes says, “[T]he county is ignoring its own rules.” The release points out that Serenoa Lakes residents have “engaged an expert planner and Ralf Brookes, an attorney specializing in land-use matters, to help them.”

A page in a market study undertaken for Grand Lakes shows details about businesses that will be within close proximity to the property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The release added, “‘If approved, this proposal will have far-reaching effects. It will allow developers to reap the private benefit of additional density without providing an offsetting public benefit. It will allow traditional subdivisions to be built in the village areas, and it will promote sprawl and encourage disjointed patchwork development — exactly the things the 2050 plan is meant to discourage,’” says another critic, R. N. Collins.

As part of the July 11 motion that will allow the Grand Lakes project to proceed, the County Commission formally adopted the Comprehensive Plan amendment.

Neal indicated during his remarks to the board this week that he anticipated a lawsuit over Grand Lakes, if the project won board approval.

Responding to challenges

A graphic shows details about the Grand Lakes buffers. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The May 23 public hearing on Grand Lakes was continued at the Neal team’s request after one group of opponents submitted an approximately 400-page document citing a number of facets of the project that the group believes violate the 2050 Plan Zoning Code rules.

On May 23, Mary Anne Bowie of Sarasota, a long-time urban planner and consultant, represented the group.

“We were surprised and dismayed by the volume [of material given to the clerk to the board] in the last 3 or 4 minutes of the hearing,” Neal told the commissioners on July 11.

During the 17-minute rebuttal the commission had agreed to for the July 11 meeting, Kelly Klepper, a professional planner with the consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates of Sarasota, took most of the time to step through the objections. “I’d love to stand up here and say … in response to the 400-plus pages that literally everything was false, but I will say, to their credit, there were some very good comments,” he told the commissioners.

The document essentially covered 14 objections, Klepper explained. In almost every case, he pointed out, the Grand Lakes team had complied with the 2050 Plan guidelines. The primary change necessitated by the objections was a relocation of the boundary between the two neighborhoods that will comprise Grand Lakes.

A graphic shows more project details. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Planner Vivian Roe, who has been heading up the staff work on the project, said no neighborhood can have more than 150 acres of developed area. In Grand Lakes’ situation, she said, one section had 157 acres.

Klepper detailed what he characterized as incorrect allegations about lakes being regional stormwater facilities, for example, along with what he said county staff had confirmed were incorrect allegations involving the open spaces required on the property.

Another objection, he continued, focused on xeric hammock and pine flat woods, which the opponents said were in areas that necessitated preservation. “They are not [areas] preservation,” Klepper said. “You can impact [them].”

The access issue

Both Commissioners Paul Caragiulo and Hines questioned Klepper about the fact that Ibis Street will provide the only county road access to Grand Lakes for perhaps many years.

“We actually have two fully functioning access points,” Klepper said. They are at the center of the property and to the south, Klepper noted. Adding in an emergency access on the northern part of the site, Klepper said, “We have three out to Ibis.”

“You don’t think that it’s necessary to have another entrance,” Caragiulo asked, since both those access points lead to Ibis Street, “given the concerns of some of those folks a couple of months ago?”

Klepper explained that Grand Lakes will comply with both the county Zoning Code provisions and the National Fire Protection Association guidelines. “We are consistent with the county zoning regulations,” he stressed, indicating that it was out of the commission’s purview to require more stringent design elements for Grande Lakes than necessitated by the Zoning Code.

Graphics show the planned location of Grand Lakes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“You think that this project deserves some additional consideration, considering that it’s in the location that it is?”
Caragiulo asked Klepper.

“I would argue that the properties to the north should have similar considerations,” Klepper replied, referring to the Serenoa and Serenoa Lakes communities.

“Are we here discussing those?” Caragiulo responded.

“We’re not here to discuss alternatives to the code,” Klepper said.

“So you don’t believe that it’s necessary?” Caragiulo asked again.

“I’m not going to provide you my personal opinion,” Klepper told him, adding that he was basing his remarks on the stipulations in the Zoning Code.

Then Neal stepped up to the podium to explain that the project team hired a former county interim fire marshal to consult on Grande Lakes. Neal asked whether it would be all right for that consultant, Don Damron, to talk about the analysis he undertook.

“I’d love to hear that,” Caragiulo replied.

Damron told the board that he spent 20½ years with the Sarasota County Fire Department and has been a consultant for the past 4½ years.

The Zoning Code, he explained, primarily deals with the ability of the Fire Department to reach structures in a neighborhood on a “fire access road.” The code is specific about the dimensions required for such a road, he added. Such a road is different, he continued, from what the code calls the “public way,” which is a road for the public to use to reach a neighborhood.

“In an evaluation of the code,” Damron said, “the development has complied with the requirements for the Fire Department access roads.”

A map shows the location of Ibis Street and the planned extension, east of the site where Grand Lakes is proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“This is a request for a significant increase in density, an urban type density,” Hines said of Grand Lakes. “And the public safety thing is striking me very strongly in this.” He added that he also was concerned about residents being able to get out of Grand Lakes in the event of an emergency that closed their access to Ibis Street.

During the May 23 hearing, one speaker talked at length about a fire preventing ingress or egress to the developments north of Grand Lakes for a period of hours one day.

Hines named two communities in the county that had what he characterized as “bailout roads” in the event their primary accesses are blocked. One, The Oaks Club on the east side of U.S. 41, he said, has a separate entrance from Bay Street.

“Were those just done by the developer for the safety of the residents?” Hines asked.

“I don’t know,” Damron replied.

“So your expertise is the Fire Department getting in. It’s not expert testimony in regards to public safety?” Hines asked.
“That’s correct,” Damron told him.

At the conclusion of the commissioners’ questions, Chair Nancy Detert called for a motion. After Commissioner Moran made it, he said, “My opinion is this is coming to the end of a very long ordeal.” Referring to the submission of the 400-plus pages of materials in May, Moran added, “It was troubling, frankly.”

As for Grand Lakes, he continued, “I’m excited to see a beautiful open-space project.”

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