$8.6 million freed up to help acquire Legacy Trail’s North Extension into downtown Sarasota

County Commission’s capital project decisions this week also make borrowing possible for the South County court facilities

The CSX railroad line between Tuttle and Shade avenues in Sarasota is part of the planned North Extension of The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Through a series of votes on March 29, the Sarasota County Commission freed up about $8.6 million that could be used for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail in the next fiscal year. It also made it possible for the South County courts project to be added to its Capital Improvement Program list.

The latter action, Isaac Brownman, the county’s chief engineer, explained, “allows us to have the capacity to issue debt” of about $14.6 million to build the new structure on the county’s R.L. Anderson Administration Center campus in Venice and remodel the Anderson facility to accommodate the 12th Judicial Circuit Court’s expansion there.

The Legacy Trail and the courts project are among the board’s top funding priorities as it heads into its 2018 fiscal year.

Brownman also confirmed that $10 million has been set aside in the current fiscal year budget for the construction of the new Venice library.

“So everything that this board claimed [and] said about Venice library is happening just as we promised,” Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out, with the goal that construction will begin in the third quarter of this fiscal year.

Isaac Brownman. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

“Yes, sir,” Brownman replied.

Commissioner Charles Hines called the results of the budget workshop “a phenomenal start for Day 1— [from] zero to $8.6 million” in the effort to pay for The Legacy Trail project.

The purchase of CSX railroad right of way and the necessary construction to create extension from Culverhouse Park in Palmer Ranch to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota has been estimated between $56 million and $60 million. The Trust for Public Land has negotiated a deal with the railroad company to buy the land and then sell it to the county, staff explained in February. In accord with that, the commission on Feb. 15 agreed to a plan calling for the county to purchase the property from the Trust in two segments. The approximately $20-million payment for the first — from Clark Road to Bahia Vista Street — is due by the end of this year. The land for the second phase — from Bahia Vista to Fruitville Road — will cost about $18 million, and that must be paid by March 2019, Brownman reminded the board this week.

Staff had identified about $900,000 in North and Central County mobility fee revenue for the current fiscal year, plus $2 million in North County park impact fees funds, that could be used for The Legacy Trail, Brownman also noted. The potential exists for $600,000 in City of Sarasota impact fees to be allocated to the project, as well, he said, but “that would require future discussion with the city.”

A third major priority

Additionally on March 29, Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, told the board that staff plans to issue a Request for Proposals “within the next month” for a new Central Energy Plant to replace aging equipment in downtown Sarasota that provides air conditioning for the county detention center, court facilities and other county offices. “We will float that to a number of energy-saving companies,” he added, including “some big heavy hitters out there.” The response time for the Request for Proposals will be 30 days, Lowdermilk noted.

Lowdermilk and Brownman talked with the board last year about the potential for an arrangement to be finalized that would allow the county to lease a new facility, which would be considerably less expensive than building one.

Lowdermilk added on March 29 that staff hopes interested firms will make presentations to county staff this summer; afterward, staff will provide an update to the board members, so they can decide how to proceed.

“If this [Central Energy Plant] fails, we’re in all kinds of trouble,” Hines stressed.

Making the decisions formal

A graphic shows the facilities served by the Central Energy Plant (CEP) in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Near the conclusion of the workshop, Brownman told the commissioners staff would prepare a resolution memorializing the actions they had taken relative to the county’s Capital Improvement Program for the next five years, so they could approve it during their next budget workshop. That is set for May 26.

Several of the votes this week were linked to projects that would have been funded by Surtax 3 revenue. That local option sales tax, which was approved by voters in November 2007, will produce revenue through Dec. 31, 2024, Brownman noted.

A graphic shows the county’s progress to-date on the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among their March 29 decisions, the board members did the following:

  • Chose to forgo the purchase of the Myakka Big Waters/Myakka River Oyster Bar property in Venice, with a total expense of $2,515,900.
  • Chose to backtrack on an earlier decision that the county’s Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program should pursue the purchase of a 2.79-acre parcel located at 1700 and 1710 Vamo Drive, which would have cost $4,043,750. That property included 440 linear feet of waterfront adjacent to Vamo Drive Park, Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, explained during a Feb. 7 presentation.
  • Chose not to proceed with transforming the Tuscano Park site into a mega-playground, “destination” facility near Jacaranda Boulevard and Englewood Road; that was budgeted at $3.5 million this year from impact fee revenue allocated to South County parks projects.
  • Reduced funding for the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program by $5.4 million. Nonetheless, 68% of the 15,155 properties identified in the study on which that project was based will be hooked up to the county’s sewer system after one final initiative has been completed, Scott Schroyer, director of the county’s Utilities Department, explained.
  • Deferred construction of the Palmer Point Park restoration project and other plans to improve islands created by the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway; that put $2.7 million in Surtax 3 funding back into the “pot.”

The Parkland Program projects

People dine at the Myakka River Oyster Bar in Venice. Photo by Jane Moore from Google Maps

During the almost six-hour workshop, the longest discussion on a single topic focused on the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program projects — about 45 minutes.

As Brown, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, pointed out, the balance in the program’s account as of March 8 was $7,482,726. Properties under consideration for purchase totaled more than that, she added. However, if the board chose to forgo some of the purchases, that would free up money that could be allocated to The Legacy Trail, Brown said.

When Commissioner Maio asked Brown how much additional revenue comes into the program account each year from the voter-approved tax, she told him, that over the past three years, it has ranged from $860,000 to $1.5 million.

Along with the Myakka Big Waters/Myakka River Oyster Bar and the Vamo Drive site, the other priorities Brown pointed out were as follows:

  • Siesta Key parcels at 162 and 168 Beach Road on which the commission previously turned down property owners’ petitions for Coastal Setback Variances to build homes. Brown reported to the board in October 2016 that the owners had expressed a willingness to sell the parcels to the county. The cost has been estimated at $2,950,000, according to a slide Brown showed the commission on March 29.
  • An easement at Patriots Park in Venice to enable users of The Legacy Trail to access the restrooms and other amenities at the park. The cost of that addition to county property, in a deal with the City of Venice, was put at $47,842.
  • Various parcels in the city of North Port for the Myakkahatchee Creek Greenway, at a cost of $300,000.
A graphic shows facets of the North Extension project for The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Regarding the Patriots Park addition, Maio said, “That, to me [is] a necessary link down where Business 41 and Bypass 41 split.” As for the Myakkahatchee Creek Greenway, he continued, the board had made promises to the City of North Port about that deal.

And while the board endorsed the purchase of the Vamo Drive land last month, he said, he subsequently received emails from residents who have become concerned that if the county creates a public park on the site, tourists would be driving down their neighborhood road to reach it.

Commissioner Nancy Detert immediately favored the Patriots Park addition and the Myakkahatchee Greenway purchases, but she called for more discussion on the Vamo Drive site. As for the Myakka River Oyster Bar: “We’re pretty far down the road on negotiating that one.”

An aerial view shows the location of the Myakka River Oyster Bar. Image from Google Maps

During the public comments period at the outset of the meeting, one of the restaurant owners, Joann Stegenga, pointed out that staff first approached her in January 2016 about the potential for the county to buy the property. “We would like to see the county take control of [it] for a future park,” she said, adding, “The contracts have all been completed.”

The deal originally was scheduled for the board’s consideration on its April 3 meeting agenda, County Administrator Tom Harmer noted.

“I believe we are the only commercial property left on the river,” Stegenga told the board. If the county did not buy the land, she said, she and her co-owners would have no choice but to make it available to developers.

Commissioners Hines and Mike Moran and Chair Paul Caragiulo also favored the Patriots Park and Myakkahatchee Creek Greenway purchases.

As for the property on the Myakka River: Hines explained, “I’m the one a year-and-a-half ago that was really excited about this project,” because it could be linked to Senator Bob Johnson’s Landing on the river, which the county acquired in 2009. The plan was to make that area more amenable to rowing teams for practice, he added.

Since then, Hines continued, he has heard from rowers that the Myakka River does not meet their needs well, and environmentalists “don’t want rowers out there.”

He concurred with Maio about the Vamo Drive site.

Commissioner Moran sided with Hines and Maio on the Vamo Drive site. However, he said felt the board should go ahead with the purchase of the Oyster Bar property.

Caragiulo added that he was not convinced that the board should pursue the deal, saying he “would lean towards [The Legacy Trail]” for use of the money.

Detert likened the Oyster Bar to Snook Haven. “I thought you guys were nuts when you bought Snook Haven,” she said. “But now I see how wildly popular it is.”

Deer Prairie Creek Preserve is in South County. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Brown agreed about the public’s attraction to Snook Haven, but she cautioned that comparing the two was not an “apples-to-apples” situation.

The Oyster Bar, Moran pointed out, “[means] water access for the community, which I feel is an overall priority for us …”

Hines responded that the public already has ample access to the Myakka River through the 8,500-acre Myakka River State Park, Senator Bob Johnson’s Landing and the county’s Deer Creek Preserve, which has a kayak launch.

Caragiulo did note of the Oyster Bar site, “That’s old Florida. … There’s something to these types of spaces …”

Hines finally made a motion to remove the Vamo Drive site and the Oyster Bar property from the Parkland Program priority list. Maio seconded it. Moran proposed an amendment to delete the Oyster Bar from the motion, but it died for lack of a second.

When Caragiulo called for the vote, Hines’ motion passed 4-1, with Moran in dissent.

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Charles Palmeri, who told the board he has been a commercial Realtor since 1955, said, “I was astonished to hear that you had decided not to go ahead with the purchase of the Oyster Bar.” He had been negotiating with county staff on behalf of the owners for more than a year, he added. “This is one of the best buys on a square footage basis. … It is worth more than $2 million.”

In response to an earlier question from the board, Brown noted that the purchase price was $2 million, but she indicated the remaining funds would be needed for improvements for public use of the property.