County Commission approves scope of work for process, which will include broad public engagement, staff says
Supporters of the ecotourism that has flourished at the Celery Fields in the eastern part of Sarasota County have urged the county commissioners for more than two years to approve only compatible uses if they allow development on adjacent, county-owned property known as the “Quads.”
Last fall, the board members listened to a consultant staff had hired to determine how the county should market one of those parcels, to maximize the county’s proceeds from a sale. Afterward, then-Commissioner Paul Caragiulo suggested that the commission have staff undertake an in-depth analysis of the Quads in the current context of neighboring properties, including residential areas.
He won unanimous support from his colleagues for staff to reopen the Critical Area Plan (CAP) that governs development of the area near Fruitville Road and Interstate 75, so the Quads could be included in that CAP.
This week, county Planner Steve Kirk presented a proposal for a scope of work designed to accomplish what Caragiulo had sought. The commissioners unanimously approved it.
Staff expects the work to be completed and brought before the commission in October or November, Kirk said on Jan. 30.
Additionally, one of the leaders of a Celery Fields advocacy group — the Fresh Start Initiative — voiced support for the outline of the CAP process county Planning and Development Services Department staff had outlined in a memo to the board.
“The excellent planning memorandum clearly indicates that this holds promise for a new vision of these public lands and the Celery Fields area,” Tom Matrullo told the commission. Noting that the scope of work will examine the gamut of appropriate issues — mobility, buffering, “[p]ossible and reasonable development limits,” building heights and setbacks, and limitation of incompatible uses — Matrullo added, “All of this is music to the ears of our communities.”
Among the potential uses of the Quads that Matt Osterhoudt, director of Planning and Development Services, and Kirk outlined in a Jan. 29 memo to the commission are a hotel, indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, affordable or workforce housing, a park, and civic or cultural amenities, Matrullo pointed out.
However, Matrullo did ask the board members, “as fiduciary stewards of our public lands, “to ensure the scope of work is open, transparent and inclusive.”
Speaking on behalf of residents of the area around the Celery Fields, Matrullo recommended that the commission make it “unambiguously clear that no preference or deference will be given” to any group during the public engagement process staff has outlined. He added that his coalition’s goal is for “all citizens [to be] equal stakeholders.”
He further asked that staff make sure every public meeting during the analysis be advertised broadly and that it be open to everyone who wants to attend it.
During his presentation, Kirk explained that staff plans “multiple forms of engagement at various stages of the study process.” Among the people staff will seek to involve, Kirk pointed out, are surrounding property owners and tenants, neighborhood and citizen organizations, and users of the Celery Fields.
Commissioner Nancy Detert told Kirk she is interested in uses of the property that the commission could pursue. Kirk replied that staff would consider all the possibilities without making judgment on how appropriate any of them might be.
“I think part of the study will be looking at the specific conditions of these parcels and the area,” he added. “Out of that, I think, will come some facts that may illustrate what the appropriate uses might be. … Certainly, the public input is going to provide us lots of information and direction for that.”
Detert referenced the fact that when the CAP — known as the I-75/Fruitville Road Major Employment Center Critical Area Plan — was approved in 1985, the area it encompassed was planned largely for industrial uses — “things nobody wanted to look at.”
“Now,” she continued, “you have homes out there,” and the residents are asking for a variety of different uses.
An area in transition
As Kirk explained to the board on Jan. 30, the I-75/Fruitville Road CAP encompasses 395 acres. Eighty percent of the area has been developed, mostly with light industrial and office uses, along with some other buildings.
The Quads are all zoned Open Use Rural, a designation, Commissioner Alan Maio noted, that no longer complies with the county’s land-use development guidelines.
About 2.4 acres of the Northwest Quad, Kirk continued, is the site of a future fire station. The design and rezoning process for that project is expected to be back before the board for approval in June or July, he added.
“I do not want to see this [analysis] delay the construction of the fire station,” Maio told Kirk. Funding already has been programmed out of the revenue from fire assessments county property owners pay, Maio added. The firefighters assigned to that station, he pointed out, are in “trailers, [and] extremelyexpensive, extremely expensive, equipment [is] under some sort of Quonset hut or tent.”
Maio said he realized staff had to follow the county’s process for the design of the fire station and the rezoning of the site for the new facility. Still, he added, he was concerned that the June/July timeline could get pushed back to August/September.
As Kirk continued his presentation, he noted that the Northeast Quad has sufficient stormwater capacity, so stormwater retention planning would not have to be incorporated into any uses of the other Quads.
Because of the stormwater pond on the Northeast Quad, he also noted, no construction can occur on that parcel.
As for the Southeast Quad: The commissioners in November 2017 agreed to remove it from the county’s surplus lands list, which was designed to ensure property the county does not need can be sold. The board members agreed that, because of its proximity to the Celery Fields, it should not be marketed.
The Northwest and Southwest Quads remain on the surplus list, Kirk reminded the commission.
In 2017, advocates of the Celery Fields fought an application for a construction and yard waste recycling facility, which was proposed for the Southwest Quad. On a split vote in August 2017, the commissioners voted to deny the necessary petitions for that project.
Earlier, an application for a 60,000-square-foot wholesale restaurant supply warehouse on the Northwest Quad was withdrawn. That occurred after questions arose about the fact that not all the owners of the company that had petitioned for approval of the project had been disclosed, which was a violation of county regulations. However, the applicants’ agent, Sarasota attorney Charles Bailey III, cited community opposition to the plans as the main reason his clients chose to back away.
In late November 2017, in the aftermath of those situations, Commissioner Maio won his colleagues’ approval for the hiring of a consultant to determine the best marketing strategy for the county to sell the Northwest Quad, so the board could get as much money as possible for the property. The board at that time was looking to plug revenue gaps in its budgets for the next several years.
However, after listening to a representative of the consulting firm in October 2018, Commissioner Caragiulo cited ongoing concerns about the insufficiency of the road infrastructure in the area of the Quads. In fact, questions about the traffic in and out of the proposed construction and yard waste recycling plant was one of the primary reasons Caragiulo said he decided to vote against that project in 2017.
The commissioners subsequently agreed to allow the Fresh Start Initiative, representing 50 homeowner associations in the vicinity of the Celery Fields, to propose potential uses for the Quads.
At the end of a Sept. 14, 2018 presentation, the Fresh Start group pleaded with the board to pursue commonsense planning for the Quads, given the international popularity of the Celery Fields as a bird-watching park.
Then-Chair Detert responded that no decisions would be made that day, as more extensive commission discussion would be necessary.