Planning Commission recommends County Commission approval of Comprehensive Plan amendment sought by Lakewood Ranch developer for construction of 5,000 homes in eastern part of Sarasota County

All of the 37 speakers urge the Planning Commission to reject the plans

On a 4-3 vote, the Sarasota County Planning Commission has recommended that the County Commission approve a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that would create a new type of community under the guidelines of the county’s 2050 Plan for neighborhoods in the eastern part of the county.

The draft amendment would facilitate the development of Lakewood Ranch Southeast, which would include 5,000 homes on approximately 4,120 acres north of Fruitville Road and south of the Manatee County line.

The amendment also calls for moving the county’s Countryside Line farther east. That is the figurative boundary that separates the urban areas of Sarasota County from the rural areas.

The County Commission is scheduled to conduct its first public hearing on the amendment on Aug. 31, Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader.

Rex Jensen, CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, and former state Sen. Pat Neal of Neal Communities, had discussed the idea with the County Commission in February. At that time, the county commissioners agreed unanimously to allow staff to process the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, which would create what Jensen called a Village Transition Zone in the 2050 Plan. That zone would apply only to Lakewood Ranch Southeast, as noted during the Planning Commission hearing.

On Aug. 4, the Planning Commission conducted its public hearing on the proposal. That lasted nearly three-and-a-half hours, with 37 people pleading with the board members to oppose the plans.

No member of the public who addressed the commission that night supported the Comprehensive Plan amendment.

A number of the speakers — especially those who live in the Old Miakka Community and those who live in the Bern Creek development that would be on the eastern border of Lakewood Ranch Southeast — talked of the fact that it took decades of work and the involvement of many members of the public to craft the 2050 Plan.

Planning Commission Chair Justin Taylor joined those speakers in recognizing the effort that went into the creation of the plan. He added that he believes its tenets “are really good,” so he saw no need to amend it for just one property.

Further, Taylor said, “I don’t subscribe to the takeaway that we’re up here to make business decisions outside of the parameters that we set 20 years ago [in the 2050 Plan].”

Among the speakers, attorney Richard Grosso, who pointed out that he has been practicing comprehensive plan law in Florida for 30 years, told the planning commissioners, “Frankly, this is the kind of project that [the 2050 Plan] was written to stop.” No facts had been presented, Grosso added, to demonstrate that Lakewood Ranch Southeast needs to be constructed in that part of Sarasota County. In fact, he said, “This is the last place your Comprehensive Plan contemplates new growth should go.”

Grosso is a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

Another speaker, Kyle Schaub, a Bern Creek resident, told the commissioners, “I do like Lakewood Ranch a lot …” However, he continued, “I don’t get warm and fuzzy [about it], [and] I get claustrophobic at the prospect of living next to it.”

At night, Schaub added, he can look to the east from his home, “and the stars are vivid in the sky.” Looking to the west, he pointed out, the stars are difficult to see because of all of the development.

Yet, Jenson of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch told the board members — as he told the County Commission in February — that Lakewood Ranch is outgrowing its Manatee County property. Much of the land slated for the new section, Jensen stressed, has been in Schroeder-Manatee Ranch ownership for a century.”

He also pointed out that, since 2018, Lakewood Ranch has “been the No. 1 selling, multi-generational community in the United States. I didn’t say Sarasota,” he added. “I said the United freaking States.”

“We began to run out of property, strangely enough,” he continued. Therefore, he said, about 18 months ago, he started looking at the 2050 Plan in regard to options for expanding into Sarasota County. “The Village alternative,” Jenson noted, “was more intense than what we’d like to do. It also has so many proscriptions …”

Moreover, he told the planning commissioners, “Quite often, you end up waiving as many as 40-some different stipulations” in the 2050 Plan as a developer tries to make a project work under the Plan’s requirements.

Yet, the Hamlet community in the 2050 Plan does not have enough residential density to justify the expense of utilities for a new community, Jensen said. That was why he came up with the idea for the Village Transition Zone proposed for Lakewood Ranch Southeast.

Becky Ayech, representing the Miakka Community Club, urged the planning commissioners to think not just of the current residents who would be neighbors of the new area of Lakewood Ranch, but also of “future generations [who would like] to have the opportunity to live on, learn from and love the land. That’s what we’re talking about, not who’s moving in today.”

Old Miakka, in the eastern part of the county, was founded in 1850, she pointed out. It spans 57 square miles, she noted.

Referring to the Old Miakka Neighborhood Plan, which — she emphasized — county staff members wrote years ago after collaborating with the residents — Ayech added that the community “lies in the large Myakka River Watershed.” Then she read the following section: “The density of land use in the area must be meticulously mindful of such characteristics and avoid being at odds with the rural context of the community and realize the strain that land use puts on the area’s natural resources — most importantly water.”

Further, she told the commissioners, the document says, “Old Miakka is particularly rich in local history,” and “the area not only prides itself on its impressive history but also its ability to continue to preserve it.”

County Planner Brett Harrington told the commissioners that the 2006 plan never was adopted by a County Commission, and it is not part of the County Code.

Harrington told the board members that staff recommends approval of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment.

The board’s decision

In spite of the public comments, Planning Commissioner Colin Pember made the motion to recommend that the County Commission approve Jensen’s proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment. Referring to Lakewood Ranch, Pember said, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch “is one of the only developers that could do a project this wonderful.” He noted that a Stewardship District pays for all of the infrastructure, including the roads and water and sewer lines. “I see this as the right way to go.”

Residents are assessed for the infrastructure, Jensen explained.

Pember also referenced the “excellent application” that Jensen and the other members of the project team had submitted to county staff.

Further, Pember reminded the audience members that, if the County Commission approves the proposal following its initial hearing, the proposed amendment will have to be transmitted to the staff of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for formal review — a process necessary for all county comprehensive plan amendments. After that review, he continued, the County Commission would have to conduct a second public hearing before the amendment could be approved. Then other hearings would be necessary, Pember pointed out, as Schroeder-Manatee Ranch sought approval of additional steps to formally create Lakewood Ranch Southeast.

“This is not the end,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”

Planning Commissioner Neil Rainford seconded the motion, saying, “I think this will be a successful development.”

Rainford also stressed that Schroeder-Manatee Ranch would pay for the construction of four lanes of the portion of the new north/south road Bourneside Boulevard that will run through the area of Lakewood Ranch Southeast. The road will connect University Parkway to Fruitville Road, serving as a regional corridor, according to the application submitted to county staff.

Jensen had explained that he plans to move that part of the road about three-quarters of a mile to the east, so it would have less of an impact on Bern Creek than the current design would.

Planning Commissioners Andrew Stultz and Jordan Keller joined Pember and Rainford in supporting the motion, while Planning Commissioners Martha Pike and Kevin Cooper joined Taylor in voting against it.

More details of the proposal

During his Aug. 4 presentation, Jensen talked about the fact that Lakewood Ranch has 24,000 households — all with people who made the decision to move there because of the lifestyle the development provides.

Parks and trails are the community’s top amenities, he noted. The development also has event centers, such as the Polo Club, which draws thousands of people to competitions held on Sundays; and the new Waterside Center, with shops and restaurants.

Further, he emphasized the quality of the community’s design, the attention to detail and the fact that the homes and amenities have “the backdrop of nature.”
Jensen showed the board members photos he had taken along University Parkway the Saturday before the hearing. No one looking at those, he said, would believe that 55,000 people live in the various Lakewood Ranch villages behind the fencing along the road.

Katie LaBarr, a project planner with the Sarasota consulting firm Stantec who is a member of the project team, noted that the site of Lakewood Ranch Southeast “is predominantly improved pasture today.”

Plans call for 43% to 50% of the gross acreage to be open space, she said. The application noted that uses allowed in those areas include “natural habitat, improved pastures, stormwater facilities, water storage facilities, public or private park facilities, and trails.” It added, “These uses will work to balance the preservation of ecologically sensitive areas … and recreational/park needs of the community, residents, and surrounding neighbors.”

A 500-foot-wide greenbelt on the eastern side of the property will serve as a buffer for the Bern Creek community, Jensen said.

A mix of housing types will be constructed in Lakewood Ranch Southeast, LaBarr also noted.

‘Keep the Country’

Many of the 37 speakers during the hearing made it clear that they believe their quality of life would be destroyed by the residential density of Lakewood Ranch Southeast.

Cindy Martin was among those who talked of the fact that residents in the area were promised a maximum of 1,700 homes — not 5,000 on the Schroeder-Manatee property — when they participated in the creation of the 2050 Plan. Noting that she has been a nurse for 40 years, she likened the plans for the new community to a dose three times stronger than what was prescribed. “You’re lethally killing our way of life,” she added, if the commissioners recommended approval of the Comprehensive Plan amendment.

“I think this is a great opportunity for [county] staff to finally operate inside of the guidelines of the 2050 [Plan],” Brad Grandbouche added. Yet, the County Commission, he continued, seems to direct staff to work for the developers and investors in property.

Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez told the commissioners that she felt as though she were living in the George Orwell novel 1984, in which the government had different definitions for actions than the people did.

In the case of the proposed amendment, she continued, staff maintains that building to the Countryside Line no longer should be called urban sprawl. “A binding concept plan is no longer binding. Adding units is not an increase in density,” she cited as other examples. “And you wonder why people don’t trust our government or trust the developers …”

Ramirez is a Republican candidate for the County Commission District 2 seat. (See the related article in this issue.)

Yet another speaker, attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm, said she was representing a new nonprofit organization, Keep the Country Inc., which had been established to try to protect the rural areas of eastern Sarasota County.

Comprehensive planning is not achieved by whim, Schoettle-Gumm added, but by looking at the entire county. Approval of Jensen’s proposed 2050 Plan amendment, she said, would be in contradiction of that.