Residents protest that project will exacerbate traffic congestion on North Tuttle Avenue
Although a majority of the seven speakers during the April 24 public hearing criticized the additional congestion the planned development would create on North Tuttle Avenue, the Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 to approve a 486-home project on the 139 acres of the Rolling Green Golf Course site.
Commissioner Michael Moran cast the “No” vote.
The property is located at 4501 N. Tuttle Ave., north of Myrtle Street and south of 47th Street.
“We know that 480 homes are going to bring more traffic to the road,” Robert Heere, president of the Desoto Acres Homeowners Association, told the commission. “This is one of the largest developments that has come along in the area from Bee Ridge Road [to] University Parkway … west of I-75.”
County staff analysis showed that an additional 3,900 vehicle trips per day would be generated by the project, Terry Lipman, a Desoto Acres resident, pointed out. Yet, the level of service for North Tuttle Avenue in that area already is an F, Lipman and other speakers stressed. (As with report cards, an A is the best level of service; an F, the worst.)
More “impatient, speeding drivers” will cut through Desoto Acres, with its 25-mph speed limit, Lipman told the commissioners, and that will pose greater safety and quality-of-life problems for the residents.
David Brain, a representative of the homeowners association for Northwoods, one of the adjacent communities, said, “Gridlock on North Tuttle Avenue is pretty serious. … It’s … having a dramatic impact on our quality of life and the value of our properties.”
When Chair Charles Hines asked county Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins about the timeline for the widening of Tuttle Avenue to four lanes from 27th Street to 47th Street, she replied, “It’s not within our five-year [Capital Improvement Program] CIP.”
“It does need improvements,” Wiggins added of North Tuttle. “I believe it’s severely congested …” It would be up to the commission, she continued, to direct staff to make the widening a higher priority than other CIP transportation projects.
That will be among decisions the board will have to make as it works on its budget for the 2020 fiscal year, Hines replied. “Maybe moving some things around [on the CIP priority list].”
William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill law firm in Sarasota, the representative of the developer, acknowledged that traffic has been the primary concern for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Widening North Tuttle “would be a solution for that,” he added. Yet, he continued, some Desoto Acres residents, especially, are opposed to that prospect.
Nonetheless, Merrill continued, “This [new development] will be contributing a significant amount … of mobility fees towards that [widening] …” The preliminary estimate, he said, is $2.5 million in mobility impact fees.
The developer, Merriwater Golf LLC of Sarasota, also will have to pay other county impact fees, he pointed out.
Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion to approve the rezoning request for the project, which was the focus of the April 24 public hearing. The golf course was zoned Rural Estate 2, which allowed for 1 dwelling unit per acre. The board vote changed that to Residential Single Family (RSF) 2, which allows up to 3.5 dwelling units per acre. That new zoning complies with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, Maio pointed out.
“This, at 3.5, is right in the middle” of the density level of surrounding developments, he continued, referencing statements by County Planner Todd Dary and Merrill.
“Nobody wants to see the golf course go away,” Maio added. However, by his count, he said, the county has lost six golf courses in recent years.
Furthermore, Maio pointed out of the proposed project, “We have rules … we need to abide by. This fits that criteria.”
Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who seconded the motion, explained to the audience members, “What we struggle with up here is no one wants urban sprawl,” which makes it necessary for infill developments to be created west of Interstate 75. “I don’t think it’s over the top, what’s being asked [with this project].”
Commissioner Nancy Detert also talked of the difficulty of making a decision on the proposal. What ultimately swayed her, she said, was Merriwater Golf’s proffers for buffers that well exceeded the standards required by county regulations.
She understood the distress of nearby residents, nonetheless, she continued. “We all feel that we have an expectation that if that’s our view, we own our view,” she said, referring to the golf course. “But you don’t, unfortunately.”
“I know I’ve seen way worse plans that would really disproportionately affect the value of your property,” she told opponents of the project in the audience.
Commissioner Moran did not comment on the proposal itself. Instead, he talked about other comments that Desoto Acres resident Lipman had made.
Lipman told the board that during the county Planning Commission hearing on the rezoning petition, he heard one of the commissioners refer to the group of opponents from Desoto Acres “as being a mob” and not understanding county policy.
“We are not a mob,” Lipman stressed to the County Commission. “We are residents who are passionate about what we have. Don’t we as citizens have the right and responsibility,” he continued, to talk about quality-of-life issues?
“It’s troubling to me,” Moran said of Lipman’s experience. Moran added that he hoped it had been a matter of miscommunication.
“This board has to make tough decisions,” Moran continued. “What’s important to me is to know that you’re heard. … I always feel heard up here.”
Details of the proposal
The application for the rezoning petition identified the manager of Merriwater Golf LLC as Eldon Eric Johnson of Sarasota. A document in the application says Johnson has a majority stake in the company.
In a Sept. 18, 2018 letter to the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, Merrill — the agent for Merriwater Golf — wrote, “The Subject Property is currently developed with an aging and outdated golf course, clubhouse and related support and mechanical facilities.”
County Planner Dary explained that the golf course dates to 1968. The county’s Future Land Use maps in the Comprehensive Plan call for moderate residential density on the property, Dary noted. That would place the number of allowable dwelling units between 2 and 5 per acre.
Dary also showed the board graphics with information about the other developments around the site. They range from Northwoods Subdivision, on the east side of Tuttle, with 2.2 dwelling units per acre; to the Rolling Green Apartments and Rolling Green South Condominiums, on the southern border, with 9 units per acre.
“This project has demonstrated extraordinary public outreach,” Merrill told the commissioners. Along with two county-mandated Neighborhood Workshops, he said, Merriwater had held 11 meetings with neighborhood groups.
The original proposal was for 609 dwelling units, Merrill pointed out. After the initial Neighborhood Workshop, Merrill continued, Merriwater reduced the number to 599. Then, “after numerous meetings and correspondence with neighborhood groups,” he said, Merriwater settled on 486 dwelling units through RSF-2 zoning.
Moreover, Merrill emphasized, even though Merriwater was not required to do so under county regulations, it committed to a binding development concept plan, showing details about the buffers on the northern, southern and western boundaries of the property.
That binding plan limits the number of lots next to the north property line to 10, he said, and the homes will be one story only. Along the western 561 feet of the southern property line, he noted, only 10 single-family lots will be developed, as well.
On the northern boundary, Merrill pointed out, the landscaped buffer will be 60 feet wide, with a 6-foot fence atop a 3-foot berm. On the southern boundary, the buffer will vary from 20 to 30 feet — again, with a 6-foot fence atop a 3-foot berm. The western boundary will have a 30-foot buffer with the same fence and berm configuration. Finally, along Tuttle Avenue, the buffer will be 10 feet wide, with the potential of a 6-foot fence or wall.
“I was very glad to see that you practically doubled the size of the buffer in three out of four cases,” Commissioner Detert told Merrill. “That’s very good.”
Detert did ask why several of the stipulations that Merriwater had proffered were non-binding. They involved internal lakes, sidewalks and amenities, she noted.
No final determination has been made, Merrill explained, about the exact size and location of the lakes or the location of the roads and lots. Even under the terms of a binding development concept plan, he added, lots and lakes can be moved around on the site, as long as they are internal to the project boundaries. “Nonetheless, we will still have lakes. … We will still have roads. … [However], the engineering hasn’t been done on that yet.”
Later during the hearing, in response to one speaker’s comments about flooding in Desoto Acres during heavy rain events, Clint Cuffle of WRA Engineering, who worked with the project team, pointed out that he has studied the drainage on the golf course property. “We’ll be adding inlets and stormwater pipes through [the planned] berms,” to ensure stormwater flows as it should, he said. About 20% of the site is within the floodplain, he noted.
“Anywhere from 18% to 20% of the site will be a stormwater pond,” he said; it will be much larger than the existing stormwater facilities on the property.
“They cannot adversely impact the existing developments,” Transportation Planning Manager Wiggins pointed out of Merriwater, referring to county stormwater regulations. “They can’t make [flooding] worse than it already is.”