With speakers unanimous in opposition to proposal, County Commission unanimous in support of plans for Lakewood Ranch Southeast near Old Miakka community off Fruitville Road

Proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment to allow for construction of up to 5,000 homes headed to state staff for review before adoption hearing on Oct. 25

Once again this week, dozens of residents of the eastern part of Sarasota County — especially those who live in the historic community of Old Miakka — pleaded with the Sarasota County Commission not to modify a county policy that would lead to increased residential density around them.

And, once again, the County Commission voted in favor of the development plans that the residents opposed.

In this case, the commissioners were considering a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that will facilitate the construction of up to 5,000 homes on about 4,120 acres between University Parkway and Fruitville Road. Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR), explained to the commissioners in early February that SMR’s Lakewood Ranch was outgrowing its space in Manatee County. Therefore, the goal was to start laying the groundwork for Lakewood Ranch Southeast in Sarasota County.

(Becky Ayech, long-time leader of the Miakka Community Club, told the commissioners, “Running out of land is really not a reason to change the Comprehensive Plan.”)

In response to a question from Commissioner Nancy Detert during the Aug. 31 hearing, Jensen said he expected the build-out of the new community would take “10 years or more.”

To accomplish his goals, Jensen said, he needs to be able to create a community that has greater density than the Hamlets provided for in the county’s 2050 Plan for growth east of Interstate 75; yet, he does not want the density of a Village. His proposal is for a new type of community that would apply just to the area of Lakewood Ranch Southeast. It would be called a Village Transition Zone, with a base residential density of one dwelling unit per gross acre. (The county staff report on the amendment notes that additional units could be gained through means provided in the 2050 Plan, including credits received for providing affordable housing.)

The base density for a 2050 Plan Village is three dwelling units per acre; for a Hamlet, one dwelling unit per acre. If the property were developed as a Hamlet, speakers noted, it would have a maximum of 1,600 homes.

One section of the Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR) application for the Comprehensive Plan amendment indicated that the residential density of Lakewood Ranch Southeast more likely would be two dwelling units per acre.

Yet another point of contention during the hearing was the fact that 60% of a Hamlet would remain open space, to maintain wildlife corridors, for example, and to preserve other environmental features of the land. However, SMR’s Village Transition Zone would keep 43% to 50% of the site as open space, as noted in county documents.

In an effort to counter speakers’ criticism, Caleb Grimes, a partner in the Bradenton law firm Grimes Galvano who is part of the project team, told the commissioners that Lakewood Ranch has 150 miles of trails and 11 parks with “hundreds of acres,” plus numerous other preserved areas — again, with hundreds of acres. Further, he emphasized, the 2050 Plan will require 1 acre of parkland for every 47 acres of developed land in Lakewood Ranch Southeast. The project team will abide by that, he said.

Nonetheless, several certified planners with decades of experience testified that Jensen’s proposal violates the tenets of good planning. One of those speakers was Charles Gauthier of Tallahassee, who was director of the state’s Division of Community Development from January 2007 to April 2011, his resume says. (In 2011, then-Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature abolished that division, which oversaw growth management in the state. As part of that action, Scott and the legislators “significantly curtailed state and regional authority over planning and land development,” as Paul Owens, president of the nonprofit 1000 Friends of Florida, wrote in a 2019 article for the Orlando Sentinel.)

Gauthier explained that a new nonprofit organization created by county residents — Keep the Country Inc. — hired him to undertake an independent review of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment. He recommended that the commissioners send the document “back to the applicant” and require extensive outreach to the residents in the affected area.

Gauthier acknowledged that comprehensive plans “aren’t set in concrete,” but he added, “This amendment would punch a gaping hole in the fundamental planning strategy Sarasota County has had” for the areas east of Interstate 75. Moreover, he called the design of Lakewood Ranch Southeast “textbook urban sprawl.”

Nonetheless, following the approximately four-and-a-half-hour-long hearing, the commissioners voted 4-0 to transmit the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which, under the guidelines of state law, must review any new comprehensive plan policy before it can be implemented.

(Commissioner Nancy Detert did point out more than once on Aug. 31 that she could not recall an occasion, since she joined the board in November 2016, when the DEO staff told county staff that the DEO could not approve a proposed amendment that county staff had forwarded to it for analysis.)

After the DEO review, county Planner Brett Harrington pointed out, a public hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 25 so the County Commission can decide whether to adopt the Village Transition Zone Comprehensive Plan amendment.

Commission approbation

In making the motion to approve the transmission of the proposed amendment to DEO, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger acknowledged “a lot of passion” among the speakers that day.

He also noted that many of them had talked of their appreciation for the 5- and 10-acre ranches on which they live. “That is the definition of urban sprawl,” Cutsinger stressed.

Further, he said, while residents had emphasized that they accepted the completion of the 20-year-old 2050 Plan as a promise of limited residential development around them, that plan “should and can evolve.”

Lakewood Ranch Southeast, Cutsinger added, “is planning the way it should be done.”

Cutsinger and Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who seconded the motion, both put emphasis on Jensen’s vow to pay $4 million in impact fees upfront, to give the county leverage in seeking more funding from the Legislature to widen Fruitville Road. Numerous speakers also had pointed to the growing congestion on that east-west route.

Jensen also offered to work with the county on a donation of land from the Lakewood Ranch Southeast property for part of the right of way that the county will need to widen Fruitville Road farther east. (Plans already are in place to expand the road to four lanes from Debrecen Road to Lorraine Road.)

“I might understand the traffic on Fruitville Road more than anybody else in the county,” Ziegler pointed out.

He lives near Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School, which is on Fruitville Road, Ziegler said. Each weekday morning, he explained, he has to drive out to Lorraine Road to drop off one of his children. Then, he continued, he has to head back east to drop off his other two daughters in downtown Sarasota. Afterward, he said, he heads east again, to his office, which is located near the intersection of Lorraine Road and Fruitville Road. “It takes forever,” he added, to make those trips, which he begins at 8 a.m.

Then Ziegler talked about the leaders of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. “They have a strong reputation, and I think what they build is so nice.”

Moreover, he continued, “There is a big need” for new homes.

“With this product, this developer,” he added of Lakewood Ranch Southeast, “I have full faith that it’s going to come out as a good product.”

Referencing one speaker’s comment, Commissioner Detert said, “I do feel we have our finger in the dike. What the dike is holding out is a tsunami of humanity that wants to move to Sarasota County.  … We can’t legally stop it; they’re going to keep coming, and as they come, they keep driving up the [home] prices.”

Houses that she sold for $68,000 decades ago, when she was working in real estate, sell for $500,000 today, she pointed out. Because of supply and demand factors, Detert pointed out, more homes should mean lower prices in the future.

The idea that the 4,120 acres that Schroeder-Manatee Ranch owns essentially would remain a bird sanctuary, Detert said, “is really not only unrealistic, but irrational.”

Referring to the Lakewood Ranch Southeast plans, she added, “This is a best-case scenario.” Jensen could have applied for a 2050 Village development on the site, Detert pointed out, which could have resulted in 12,360 dwelling units. “If they stick to the plan,” she said of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch’s vision for Lakewood Ranch Southeast, “it’s an excellent plan.”

Nonetheless, she said, “I hope we will continue to work with the Miakka folks.” She would like for them to be able to maintain their lifestyle, she pointed out.

Just before the vote, Chair Alan Maio criticized speakers who indicated that, as he put it, “Every square inch of Sarasota County is being developed.” That assertion, he stressed, “is not accurate.”

Both Maio and Cutsinger emphasized the fact that approximately one-third of the county’s acreage has been preserved in perpetuity from development — 190 square miles.

Commissioner Michael Moran was absent on Aug. 31. Thus, the vote to approve transmitting the proposed amendment to Tallahassee was 4-0.

Passion of the people

Although residents of the eastern part of the county comprised the majority of the 35 speakers during the public hearing, others joined them in expressing their appreciation for rural living.

Denise Martin, who lives on 5 acres near Bee Ridge Road and I-75, said of the leaders of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR), “They already have a nice pie. They don’t need to cut it into 5,000 pieces.”

She chided the board members for their excitement over the prospect of Jensen’s helping them with the widening of Fruitville Road, likening them to “a trained seal” as someone dangles a fish in front of it.

She and her family used to be able to enjoy dark skies at night, Martin continued. However, the Bee Ridge Park of Commerce and other development around her has turned the nighttime sky to a gray shade, she added.

“Do something to protect us,” she urged the board members.

John Lambie, a past director of the Florida House Institute who pointed out that he is a 70-year resident of the county, showed the commissioners graphics used during the process of creating the 2050 Plan. “I’m afraid we’re moving backwards here with this amendment,” he said. “I urge you to go back to the drawing board with this proposal [and] engage the community. … Give them the chance to participate in redesigning our future.”

Lambie added, “A lot of thought went into 2050, a lot of thought.” To change it, he said, “We need a lot of thought.”

Beth Schaub, a resident of Bern Creek, explained that she and her husband and four children moved from Palmer Ranch to that community eight years ago, so the children could be closer to nature.

“Nothing blesses my heart more,” she said, “than to see my children run around, playing outside, with what God has blessed us with.”

A native of the area out east told her early on, Schaub continued, about “a condition” seen in children that is called “Fruitville feet.” It is caused by “running around barefoot in the dirt and grass, enjoying all Nature has to offer, Schaub added. “I can happily say my children have Fruitville feet.”

Kenneth Castro of Bern Creek Ranches told the commissioners that when he moved out to that community in 1986, “There was peace and quiet …” He knew more development would take place around him, he added. However, the Lakewood Ranch Southeast proposal for 5,000 homes is “unreasonable,” he said. “That’s just greedy, is what that is.”

Alan Yaruss, also of Bern Creek, talked of his pleasure in moving to the country, as well. He realized a dream in doing so, he pointed out.

“I live on 5 acres,” he continued. “My nearest neighbor is 5 acres away. The nearest neighbor in Lakewood Ranch,” he added, “is the distance from Commissioner Ziegler to Commissioner Detert [on the dais].”

Ayech of the Miakka Community Club talked about wanting to see Old Miakka grow with more 5-acre and 10-acre homesteads, so future generations will have the opportunity “to live on, learn from, and love the land.”

Although she was not the final speaker, Ayech pointed out that she had heard no member of the public voice support for Lakewood Ranch Southeast. “I don’t see how this can be beneficial to the community,” she continued. “It’s not community-supported.”