112-acre county site in Newtown to be focus of staff report on potential for affordable housing development

Chair Nancy Detert emphasizes prospect of a tiny house village on part of the property

An aerial map shows the land near the North County Library and next to Newtown Estates Park. Image from Google Maps

In December 2017, Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines first broached with his colleagues the potential for creating an affordable housing development on county-owned property in Newtown originally envisioned for a sports complex.

During their regular meeting on March 13 in Venice, the commissioners directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to have staff prepare a report on how much of the 112 acres could be used for housing, park amenities and/or other purposes.

Chair Nancy Detert emphasized her interest in the potential for a tiny house village on part of the, noting that she “can name three or four people who want to build [such homes] if they can keep [the projects] affordable and maybe if we can make a contribution of maybe 20 acres.”

Such a development, she continued, “allows people to have home ownership rather than be a renter. It’s much easier to build wealth if you own something for five years,” she said, “rather than paying rent and trying to save up money. The equity could result in [$10,000] when you couldn’t save 10 grand [as a renter].”

Commissioner Alan Maio raised the topic this week, saying he had received a phone call from a former long-time commissioner who wanted to follow up on the discussion the commissioners conducted late last year. The land is just east of the North Sarasota County Library in Newtown.

In December 2017, when Hines talked of the potential for affordable housing units on the site, he characterized that as a proffer. It was one of a series of steps he suggested the commission could take in an effort to resolve the lingering dispute with the City of Sarasota over a final payment city leaders say the county owes into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.

“Is this a place for tiny houses?” Maio asked on March 13.

The Quixote Village, which features tiny houses, is in the state of Washington. Image from sf.curbed.com

The former commissioner — whom Maio never named — also had pointed out to him, he said, that because the Newtown property previously was owned by Dolomite Utilities Corp., the site needed to be assessed for possible environmental contamination. (In November 2013, prior to a commission discussion about the purchase of the land, materials provided to them noted that the property formerly was home to a wastewater treatment plant.)

When the county purchased the land, Maio continued, the intent was for the site to become a major athletic complex for North County. However, the Great Recession hit, he said, and “those plans were shelved.”

He had been asked to bring up the issue on March 13, he continued, to determine whether his colleagues were interested in having Lewis work with staff to complete a study of the potential uses of the land and report back to the commission.

“That sounds like a good proposal to me,” Detert responded.

Commissioner Hines thanked Maio for reviving the December 2017 discussion, adding that the board members need to take more regular opportunities to talk about their top priorities, including affordable housing.

Even though more multi-family housing developments have been constructed over the years since affordable housing became one of the board’s highest priorities, Hines said, he was unsure whether any of the units met the definition of affordable housing. To spur such projects, he continued, he believes the commission has three options: It can change its ordinances — which it has begun doing — to make construction of affordable housing communities more profitable for developers; it can provide funding assistance, “but we don’t have an identifiable source of money”; or it can sell or lease county land at a discounted rate to a developer willing to pursue an affordable housing project.

A segment of a graphic in the executive summary of the Sarasota County Parks Master Plan, adopted in 2016, shows potential park amenities on the Newtown property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I was on the board when we bought this property for a regional park,” Hines said of the Newtown land. “Everyone was excited about it, because North County needed more park space.”

However, he noted, citizen opinion surveys undertaken for the county in recent years have found less demand for new parks.

The site is large, he reiterated. “I still believe some park amenities can be done there with some proper designing. But to address our community as a whole,” Hines said, bigger needs in that part of the county today are jobs, a grocery store and affordable housing.

“So we’ve got a piece of land that’s sitting there,” Hines added. “It’s cleared. It’s got a couple little wetlands on it. I think our staff owes us a report,” including a determination about whether the wetlands are “truly ones that we need to protect.”

Detert agreed that board consensus existed for such a report to be pursued.

“I’m glad you did mention tiny houses,” she told Maio. “It’s something I’m going to continue to push for, a whole village.”

The idea of such projects, she added, has “been bubbling up for a decade. … They create a wonderful sense of community that you don’t find in, frankly, apartment rentals. So for that area [in Newtown], I think we can have parks. I think we can have 20 acres of tiny houses. I think we can have a lot of things on 112 acres. We can maybe work with the City of Sarasota [on such a concept]. That would be a win-win for, really, everyone.”

She then thanked Maio for starting the discussion that morning.