A proposed county Comprehensive Plan amendment would allow higher densities in a South County project

Winchester Florida Ranch is seeking the change as it plans about 9,600 homes on 3,660 acres next to North Port and Englewood

An aerial view shows the area of the proposed Winchester Florida Ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An aerial view shows the area of the proposed Winchester Florida Ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Call it a matter of closing the “doughnut hole.”

In formal terms, the Sarasota County Commission last week voted unanimously to seek state review of a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow a developer to use higher residential densities in segments of a project planned on about 3,660 acres in South County.

Florida Winchester Ranch would end up with no more than 9,617 dwelling units, a county staff memo explains. “[H]owever, the location of specific residential densities across the subject area could be higher,” consistent with the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, the memo adds. The development also would be subject to the guidelines of a Critical Area Plan (CAP). The latter process “creates efficiencies for public infrastructure and services,” the memo notes. “This [action] also supports the development of a variety of housing products to respond to differing economic means, allowing for a variety of income levels to be represented within the community.”

In response to a question from Commissioner Christine Robinson, county planner William Spaeth explained during the board’s Oct. 13 meeting in Venice that a CAP is “an extensive process” entailing an analysis of where all the necessary infrastructure will need to be located so a project can be created in the most rational and “the most economically appropriate way.”

Both public workshops and public hearings are necessary prior to the approval of a CAP, Robinson pointed out. A CAP requires such meticulous detail, she added, that it even includes locations of kayak launches, for example.

Spaeth concurred with her comments, noting that representatives of the applicant already have held one workshop.

A second public hearing on the Comprehensive Plan amendment is expected to be on the board’s Dec. 8 meeting agenda, county spokesman Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader by email on Oct. 19.

Further details

The application to change the Comprehensive Plan, privately initiated by Thomas Ranch Land Partners Sarasota LLLP, is an effort to allow planning for Winchester Florida Ranch to encompass 6,000 acres in North Port as well as the 3,660 acres, the county staff memo points out.

The aforementioned 2,882-acre section of Winchester Florida Ranch is in what the county terms a Future Urban Area. The maximum density is one unit per 2 acres in the segment designated Semi-Rural and one unit per 5 acres in the Rural section.

Staff recommended the Comprehensive Plan change, Spaeth explained, because the property long had been identified for inclusion in the county’s Urban Service Boundary. “A lot of planning policies already are in place,” Spaeth told the board.

The remaining 778 acres are situated within the county’s Urban Service Area, the staff memo says.

The properties wrap around a 2050 Plan Settlement Area Planned Development comprising about 438 acres on the north side of River Road, surrounding the Myakka Pines Golf Club, the staff memo points out.

The property in question also is adjacent to the City of North Port on its northern and eastern boundaries.

A graphic shows the subject area. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows the subject area. The solid blue line is the Urban Service Boundary. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When Robinson noted that sections of Englewood, which is an unincorporated community, are to the south and west of the acreage, Spaeth replied, “Correct.”

“And so basically we’re in a position where in order to try to treat this property through unified ownership,” Robinson continued, “we are talking about being able to blend some of the densities together, because the alternative is a North Port annexation [of property] at Englewood’s doorstep.”

Spaeth agreed that it is a matter of handling improvements to the area “all under one kind of coordinated approach.”

“If you’re looking at the densities, it’s a doughnut hole,” Robinson added.

“That’s the way the applicant describes it,” Spaeth said, referring to Thomas Ranch.

The applicant

Martin Black. News Leader photo
Martin Black. News Leader photo

Martin Black, general manager of The West Villages and vice president of Thomas Ranch Land Partners, explained to the board that he and his team began working with the Office of the County Attorney and other county staff members about nine months ago “to create a sustainable and economically sound community.” He added, “This is the sole remaining Future Urban Service Area in the county that hasn’t been developed,” and its inclusion within the county’s Urban Service Boundary was anticipated by county staff as long ago as 1989.

Black extended his appreciation to John Cannon, owner and president of John Cannon Homes Inc., and representatives of the Myakka Pines Golf Club and other surrounding property owners for their support.

During public comments, Cannon noted that property he owns is probably the closest to the land in question. “South County is the future of Sarasota County,” Cannon added, so proper planning is necessary to ensure that future is realized in the appropriate way.

Black pointed out that working on the Winchester Florida Ranch development under the terms of a Critical Area Plan includes inventory and analysis of the utility distribution, collection and pumping facilities; identification of existing drainage conditions; identification of existing and projected traffic volumes and level-of-service conditions on roadways, along with the location of existing and/or planned mass transit routes and bicycle paths and walkways; and the assessment of community services, such as police and fire protection, recreation and open space, schools and libraries.

Already, he said, Winchester Florida Ranch has offered to the Sarasota County Schools a 50-acre site for a kindergarten-through-eighth grade or kindergarten-through-12th grade facility adjoining the campus of the State College of Florida in South County.

Additionally, Black noted, the coordinated planning process would enable the extension of Winchester Boulevard through the property, creating a “reliever” for River Road.

Board action

Vice Chair Al Maio. Rachel Hackney photo
Vice Chair Al Maio. Rachel Hackney photo

Vice Chair Al Maio made the motion to approve the transmittal of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment to the state. “This is the essence of good planning, and this is not something that’s going to happen overnight,” he added of the development.

Further, he pointed out that a CAP “is a detailed, onerous and complex process.”

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo seconded the motion. He said issues related to the Urban Service Boundary “are very heavily politicized in the county,” adding, “I think this is going to be a very good and smart way to deal with this [section] of the county.”

While he does have some concerns about wildlife corridors and green space in the development plans, he said, plenty of opportunity will be provided through the CAP process “to figure out how to make those things work.”

“One of my concerns is the protection of Englewood,” Robinson said “and the alternative to not supporting this is [the property’s] annexation to North Port.”

She added that she felt the County Commission has a better idea than North Port’s City Commission about development compatible with Englewood.

Next steps

County spokesman Bartolone told the News Leader on Oct. 19 that, in general, a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment packet is transmitted to the state within 10 days of the board’s authorization of it.

The state usually takes a week to send the county a letter stating it has received the material, he added. In that letter, he noted, the state formally sets a 31-day timeline for all state agencies to review the proposed amendment and make any comments.

The whole process, Bartolone continued, can take 45 to 60 days. Based on that timetable, he wrote, county staff anticipates the final vote on the Comprehensive Plan amendment to take place on Dec. 8.