Development would entail up to 5,000 homes on about 4,100 acres in northeastern part of county
Once more this week, regardless of the pleas from the public to do otherwise, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously in favor of a development — this one with up to 5,000 homes that will expand Lakewood Ranch into the northeastern part of the county.
Commissioners pushed back against speakers who were critical of the plans that Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, initially laid out to them in February.
Several of the individuals who addressed the board members on Oct. 25 cited or read sections of letters from representatives of state agencies that were required to review the Lakewood Ranch Southeast proposal under the guidelines of state law.
A number of those speakers referred to the plans for Lakewood Ranch Southeast, on approximately 4,120 acres, as “urban sprawl.”
However, project team member Caleb Grimes, a principal in the Bradenton law firm Grimes Galvano, argued during his rebuttal that those individuals had mischaracterized the responses of the agencies.
The letter from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) said that “you need to have data to support what you’re doing,” he acknowledged. However, he continued, he found that “very disappointing,” because, “apparently, [DEO officials] didn’t look at the data you had to support [this application]. The data is massive. Your staff did an excellent job.”
Commissioner Michael Moran, who made the motion to approve the plans for Lakewood Ranch Southeast, pointed out, “For over 20 years, I’ve been saying that you do not need to be a land planner to know that the growth is going to happen out East and in the North Port area.” Such new residential development, Moran continued, “is in dire need of true master planning.”
Moreover, Moran contended, Lakewood Ranch Southeast is not a new community. It is an extension of Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, he said, though he noted that people might disagree with his view.
The Village Transition Zone proposed for the development, as an amendment to the county’s 20-year-old 2050 Plan for growth east of Interstate 75, was crafted for use only by a master developer who will commit to long-range planning and oversight through the build-out of the community, Moran added. (It was created to apply just to Lakewood Ranch Southeast, as project team members have explained.)
Moran contrasted that type of growth with what he characterized as “leapfrogging subdivision development” in the eastern part of the county.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger stressed that Lakewood Ranch Southeast will be “a significant development [that] deserves a lot of attention. … I just completely disagree that this is urban sprawl.”
Without the master planning taking place for Lakewood Ranch Southeast, Cutsinger continued — concurring with Moran — the result would be “a little patchwork” of developments.
Both Cutsinger and Chair Alan Maio also objected to speakers’ assertions that, if the board members voted for the Lakewood Ranch Southeast plans, they would be approving a design with too little open space and insufficient preservation of natural habitats.
Cutsinger and Maio emphasized that commissioners have helped preserve about one-third of the county’s land in perpetuity, partly through the county’s purchase of property. The imposition of conservation easements on other parcels has contributed to the total.
Of the slightly more than 4,000 acres in Lakewood Ranch Southeast, Cutsinger said, approximately 2,000 would be “dedicated open space.”
Noting that one speaker had sung part of Joni Mitchell’s famous song Big Yellow Taxi, which has the line about “paving paradise,” Cutsinger added that when county staff years ago undertook a study of the Old Miakka Community in the far eastern part of the county, staff reported that that area comprises about 36,000 acres. Approximately 12,000 of those acres have been placed in public ownership or otherwise protected, he said.
Lakewood Ranch Southeast will have from 43% to 50% open space, project team member Katie LaBarr of the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota pointed out during her Oct. 25 presentation.
Additionally, Commissioner Nancy Detert noted, “When the 2050 Plan was passed … no one envisioned the growth that we would experience, nor the critical need for housing.”
Referring to the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Ian, she added, “I think we’re going to get a lot of people from Fort Myers …” They will skip over Charlotte County, she continued, because of the damage it suffered, and come to Sarasota County, “where we already have a housing shortage.”
“The only way to get affordable housing,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler added, “is by increased inventory,” since existing residents have made it clear that they oppose taller building heights and more widespread development.
Noting that she has lived in the county for 44 years, Detert said, “Never in my wildest dreams” would she have predicted the growth that the county has experienced. “I don’t know how you stop people from coming here.”
Instead of cattle and citrus crops, which used to be the top industries in the state, Detert pointed out, “Our No. 1 industry is tourism.”
Chair Maio noted that, since 2000, the population of the United States has climbed from 282 million people to 335 million. “That’s 53 million more Americans.”
Development of Critical Concern approval, as well
Along with voting unanimously on Oct. 25 to approve the Village Transition Zone amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan, the commissioners approved the designation of Lakewood Ranch Southeast as a Development of Critical Concern (DOCC). Such a development encompasses master planning elements because it “is presumed to create significant impacts on local environmental systems, drainage systems, public facilities, and the local economy,” the county staff report said.
Although the base residential density of Lakewood Ranch Southeast, as specified in the Village Transition Zone, will be one dwelling unit per gross acre, that density may be increased through specific incentives, the county staff report explained. Among them, two extra dwelling units would be allowed for every single unit provided for a family whose income was at or below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI). The latter is an annual figure set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Metropolitan Statistical Areas. This year, for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area, the median family income is $90,400.
‘A horrible plan’
The very first speaker of 13 during the Lakewood Ranch Southeast public hearing — all opposed to the project — was county resident Johannes Werner.
“I’m very concerned about a train wreck happening,” Werner told the board members. “This is a time of rising sea level” and hurricanes that intensify before they make landfall, he continued. A homeowners insurance crisis already is underway, he added. “Yet, you’re about to approve thousands of new homes. … We’re actually speeding [the train] up at this point.”
Werner also was the first speaker to refer to Lakewood Ranch Southeast as urban sprawl.
He referenced part of the letter that county staff received from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), after the commissioners voted on Aug. 31 to authorize transmission of the draft Comprehensive Plan amendment to the DEO.
Among other points, that letter said, “Given the character, size and location of the development potential on the proposed site, the amendment should be revised to be supported with additional data and analysis to demonstrate that it will not contribute to urban sprawl.”
Further, Werner noted that the DEO called for refinements of the amendment in regard to designated open space and buffers, specifically the need for wider greenbelts surrounding much of the property.
The letter said that the county should require “a greenbelt minimum width that is wide enough to appropriately ensure that the greenbelt functions to clearly separate urban uses from rural uses.”
Instead of the usual greenbelts encompassing 500 feet in 2050 Plan developments, Lakewood Ranch Southeast would have 50-foot-wide buffers on three of its eastern borders with neighboring areas.
Another speaker, Charles Gauthier of Tallahassee, appeared again this week on behalf of a new nonprofit organization, Keep the Country Inc., as he had during the “transmittal hearing” on Aug. 31.
Gauthier, who worked for many years in the state’s Division of Community Development before the Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott abolished it, noted the plans for the 5,000 homes “in a remote, rural location,” with no provision for retail shops or employment centers, as well as “significantly reduced open space …”
“If you approve this,” he told the commissioners, “there’s nothing to stop future urban sprawl farther and farther out east.”
Moreover, Gauthier said, the proposal for the Development of Critical Concern “is remarkable in its vagueness,” with the details deferred to the drafting of the actual zoning changes for the site.
Yet another speaker, attorney Richard Grosso, who was representing the Miakka Community Club, called the development proposal “a horrible plan.”
“It is really inconsistent with state law and with your own  Plan,” he told the commissioners.
County leaders and residents, Grosso continued, “came up with some of the most detailed, surgical, appropriate, balanced ways” to provide for growth in the eastern part of the county that he had seen in his 30 years of land-use planning in Florida.
Yet, the plans for Lakewood Ranch Southeast would change the 2050 Plan, he said.
The new development, Grosso pointed out, “jumps over all sorts of acreage of available land. It’s classic urban sprawl.”
State law calls for infill projects to take place before available land is used for growth, he continued.
Moreover, Grosso said, “We’ve not seen the demonstration that you’re running out of land” for new county residents, he pointed out.
In its letter to the county regarding its review of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment for Lakewood Ranch Southeast, he also pointed out, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) said that the site “is chock full of wildlife,” but practically no protections for those animals have been built into the development.
That letter says, “FWC recommends that wildlife crossings be considered in land use planning when significant areas of productive green space, including wetland and upland forests or small streams or riparian zones, are crossed by major roads.” (The development would be built between University Parkway and Fruitville Road, with part of a new north-south connector, Bourneside Boulevard, to be constructed on its eastern side.)
FWC continued, “The overall purpose and need for crossings are to maintain habitat connectivity within natural landscape linkages within the Lakewood Ranch Southeast, avoid habitat degradation, reduce wildlife roadkills, and increase public safety.”
In a letter he sent to the commissioners, on behalf of the Miakka Community Club, Grosso pointed out that the site for Lakewood Ranch Southeast is outside of the county’s current and future Urban Service Area Boundary, which is supposed to separate the portion of the county with infrastructure such as water and sewer lines from those areas without the services. Therefore, Grosso continued, the development “would require the extension of new wastewater, potable water, roads, and other public facilities. The [Schroeder-Manatee Ranch] application does not analyze response times of sheriff, EMS, fire etc.,” he further noted. “Such information cannot be disregarded now and provided only at the rezoning phase. The impact on public services is a required analysis and basis for the decision now — at the comprehensive plan amendment stage.”
Moreover, he wrote, “The applicant … totally ignores the obvious adverse impact on the surrounding rural communities, including the Old Miakka Community, which, by replacing 4,120 acres of rural land with … large suburban subdivisions, it will surely not preserve and strengthen.”
Grosso added that Old Miakka was founded in 1850. In 2019, he continued, it “was recognized as a ‘This Place Matters,’ part of the Place Matters national campaign that celebrates special communities in the U.S.” The Village Transition Zone amendment, he wrote, “threatens an historic rural community which has cow pastures, homesteads and row crops and hay fields. The Sarasota Comprehensive Plan is about preserving the opportunity for current and future generations to have the ability to have a rural lifestyle where they can live on, learn from and love the land.”
A smaller number of speakers than expected
Email blasts sent out over the past week by opponents of the plans for Lakewood Ranch Southeast encouraged like-minded residents to turn out for the Oct. 25 County Commission hearing, as The Sarasota News Leader noted in copies it read.
Although the item was listed almost at the end of the agenda, Chair Maio announced at the start of an earlier public hearing that he had talked with county staff about making a change in the proposal at the heart of that hearing. As a result, the residents who had planned to oppose that amendment told Maio one by one that they no longer wished to address the board.
Thus, it was late morning, instead of afternoon, when Maio read into the record the Lakewood Ranch Southeast agenda items.