After hearing protests, mostly about traffic, County Commission OKs Hi Hat Ranch project team request to continue hearing on plans for new borrow pit

Commissioner Smith first to broach idea of delay until after Fruitville widening between Debrecen Road and Lorraine Road

This graphic shows the location of the existing borrow pit on Hi Hat Ranch and the site proposed for the new one. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Having grown accustomed in recent years to seeing the Sarasota County commissioners approve projects she opposed, Jane Grandbouche, a resident of the Old Miakka community in the far eastern part of the county, told the current board members during a Jan. 10 hearing that, as an educator, she has learned, “The first word of a child is ‘No.’ ”

“I think we need to hear you say, ‘No!’ ” Grandbouche added, her voice rising. “We’ve had enough.”

This time, Grandbouche was speaking about an application for a Major Earthmoving Permit that the owners of Hi Hat Ranch, also in the eastern part of the county, were seeking so they could excavate a new, 155-acre borrow pit.

“I want to know why you guys don’t say, ‘No.’ ” Grandbouche continued as she addressed the commissioners. “I’ve been coming here for years, and you say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes,’ ” especially in regard to developers’ requests for changes to residential communities designed to be built under the guidelines of the county’s 2050 Plan.

“Sarasota County has been good to the petitioners and will be good for generations to come,” she added.

As for the borrow pit proposal, Grandbouche emphasized, “This is against the people’s health, safety and well-being.”

At the end of the nearly two-hour-and 20-minute hearing, the commissioners this time did vote “No,” in a manner of speaking.

At the request of the Hi Hat Ranch team, they unanimously approved the continuance of the hearing. However, board members’ earlier comments made it clear that the majority would not approve the permit, given existing circumstances.

Commissioner Neil Rainford was the first to indicate an unwillingness to grant the permit, even though the project team members had emphasized that the dirt from the borrow pit would be used on a number of projects — including several planned by county staff — in the vicinity of the site, reducing the cost of the fill dirt necessary for those initiatives.

The primary focus for the commissioners — as well as many of the 15 speakers during the hearing — was the potential that the additional dump truck traffic on Fruitville Road would contribute to an already dangerous situation.

“I’m highly concerned about this application,” Rainford said. “I used to drive this road quite a bit, and I think that having the hauling onto Fruitville Road is going to cause some significant issues.” More accidents, he added, would seem inevitable, as the dump trucks would be slow to accelerate after leaving the borrow pit site and exiting onto Fruitville Road.

One speaker, Becky Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club, testified that she has lived at the county’s eastern end of Fruitville Road for more than 40 years.

“If you’ve ever followed a dump truck,” she said, “they have a whole lot of gears that they have to go through, and they don’t go through them quickly.”

Ayech added, “Today, it took me an hour to get here; it used to take me 18 minutes.” Even without a traffic signal — which the project team planned, to allow the dump trucks to enter Fruitville Road at the Vic Edwards Road intersection — the vehicles headed west would back up past the Lorraine Road intersection, Ayech predicted.

In fact, she said, with that stoplight in place, “We’ll be backed up to Verna Road,” where Fruitville ends.

This chart, which county staff member Wafa Mahmoud provided to Becky Ayech, shows traffic counts for segments of Fruitville Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The only place a driver on Fruitville could try to pass the dump trucks would be west of the intersection with Sarasota Center Boulevard, where Fruitville widens into four lanes, she added. “Unfortunately,” Ayech continued, “some of my neighbors don’t understand how to drive. They prefer to take very, very, very, very dangerous actions on the road and pass on double yellow lines.”

Moreover, Commissioner Rainford pointed out, “I think stopping the traffic on Fruitville Road exacerbates an issue that we’re already going to have” when part of Fruitville is widened.

He was referring to drivers’ frustrations and the potential for even more dangerous situations as the construction is underway, even with two travel lanes maintained as that project proceeds.

When Commissioner Mark Smith asked Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division, when the widening of Fruitville Road from two to four lanes between Debrecen Road and Lorraine Road is expected to be complete, Wiggins told him that the design work should be finished this year, but the right of way acquisition efforts likely would take another year. Therefore, she said, “We’re looking at [Fiscal Year 2026] or so when you’ll actually see construction begin.”

Typically, Wiggins added, such a project would take about 24 months to complete.

Thus, Smith responded, “It’s probably four years” before drivers will have those four lanes to use.

This graphic shows the area where Fruitville Road will be widened, from Debrecen Road to Lorraine Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Smith told his colleagues, “I’m basically going to echo what Commissioner Rainford said.” Then Smith proposed that the application for the Major Earthmoving Permit be tabled until the Fruitville Road improvements have been finished.

“I’m going to be third on this train,” Commissioner Joe Neunder added. “I think we all remember that force is mass times acceleration.” Given the tonnage of dump trucks, and the potential for accidents involving them and other vehicles, Neunder said he felt Smith had a good idea. In his work as a chiropractor, Neunder pointed out, he sees what happens to human bodies from the types of collisions he felt would be likely on Fruitville.

Nonetheless, all three of those commissioners agreed with the project team remarks regarding the need for the borrow pit.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger then said, “This is one [application] that’s really challenging in a lot of ways. … I probably could go either way.”

With no board member willing to put forth a motion at first, County Attorney Joshua Moye suggested that if the applicant wished to seek a continuance, the commissioners could consider that option.

At that point, Bill Conerly, vice president and senior project manager with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, stepped to the podium on behalf of the project team to ask for a continuance.

Rainford made the motion to approve that request, and Smith seconded it.

This graphic shows planned projects within close proximity to the site of the proposed new borrow pit. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“This essentially benefits the taxpayer,” Rainford said of the proposal for the new borrow pit, as it would lower the county’s expense for upcoming construction projects. Yet, Rainford added, “Safety is our first responsibility.”

“I think I’m stating the obvious,” Chair Michael Moran said, “but the improvements to Fruitville Road can’t happen fast enough.”

Details of the application

During the project team’s presentation, Conerly explained to the commissioners that the plan would be to open up the new borrow pit about 4 miles east of Interstate 75, within the Hi Hat Ranch property off Fruitville Road. Because more than 100,000 cubic yards of dirt would be removed from the pit, he added, that necessitated the filing of the application for the Major Earthmoving Permit, in accord with a section of the County Code.

A county staff document noted that the borrow pit would comprise 155.7 acres and that it would be anticipated to produce 4,855,281 cubic yards of material. The pit would be excavated to a depth of about 25 feet, Mallory Lutz, a county environmental specialist, told the commissioners. County regulations stipulate that the operation cannot adversely affect groundwater levels, she added, and it cannot become a nuisance to adjacent properties in terms of noise and air and water quality.

When Commissioner Smith asked Lutz how county staff would ensure that adjacent property owners were not being subjected to problems as a result of the removal of dirt from the borrow pit, she responded that the first sign of a problem generally comes through public comments, including calls to the county about excessive dust, for example. Further, she said, staff does undertake regular inspections of such an operation, and staff members would check on the site at other times when they were driving through that area.

The pit would be a commercial operation, Conerly continued. “One of the benefits of having … access to a borrow pit is that it provides a supply of needed fill for public and private projects.”

He showed the board members a slide listing the sites of a number of upcoming infrastructure initiatives within close proximity to the new borrow pit location.

Moreover, he noted, “Once it’s served its useful purpose, this will turn into an amenity [for future residents of Hi Hat Ranch]”: a large lake.

The hours of operation would be from 7 4 p.m., Lutz said.

This graphic shows more details about the project plans. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Already, Conerly noted, the team had obtained two necessary permits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to open the pit.

Another project team member, Christopher Hatton, a registered professional traffic engineer with Kimley-Horn, pointed out, as well, that the trucks heading to and from the new pit would take the place of those already on Fruitville Road, transporting fill dirt from a site in Manatee County.

Wiggins of Transportation Planning concurred that staff did not anticipate much difference in the amount of truck traffic. “It’s just coming from a new location.”

When Smith asked whether the dump trucks could use a roadway other than Fruitville, she told him that Bee Ridge and Clark Roads had been mentioned as options. However, she noted, the applicant’s concern was the increase in costs, as Fruitville is closer to a number of the expected customers.

“In your department’s opinion,” Smith continued, “this is the best route … to haul the dirt?”

Fruitville Road is the shortest route in terms of delivering fill dirt to county project sites, Wiggins replied.

Jim Turner, an attorney with the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota and a member of the family who owns Hi Hat Ranch, pointed out that it made no logistical sense, either, to have the trucks use Clark Road, for example, as they would be going approximately 14 miles out of the way to avoid a drive of half-a-mile on Fruitville. He contended that the proposal “seems a bit unfair and unneighborly to our friends on Clark Road,” and it would be “economically unfeasible.”

Hatton also stressed that the trucks associated with the new borrow pit would represent only about 1.5% of the overall traffic headed westbound on Fruitville and approximately 0.5% of the number of eastbound vehicles.

He noted that county Transportation Planning staff had called for the project to include the traffic signal at the intersection of Vic Edwards Road and Fruitville Road, which would be activated only when needed, thanks to motion detection sensors.

Another project team member, Dana West, senior vice president of Environmental Consulting & Technology — based in Gainesville — explained that Hi Hat Ranch has been operating a borrow pit for 20 years. He called it a “vital part of the revenue stream” for the ranch, replacing money that used to come from citrus production, the raising of cattle and the production of sod, among other agricultural ventures, all of which had waned.

Both Hatton and West did acknowledge the concerns of neighbors about the extra traffic on Fruitville associated with the plans.

However, West pointed out that the current Hi Hat Ranch borrow pit is the only such operation remaining in Sarasota County, and it “is at the end of its lifespan.”

Having completed a three- to four-year comprehensive analysis of the entire ranch — including taking hundreds of soil borings — West said that the new site is the only one found that could produce the type of fill needed for commercial projects.

The site is centrally located, whereas borrow sites in eastern Manatee County and Charlotte County necessitate “extensive haul lengths,” producing even greater traffic issues, he indicated.

Air pollution and noise

Traffic was not the only issue that speakers addressed during the public hearing. The dust and noise were among others.

Keily Stiff, who lives on what she described as the back road of the Founders Club, said her house is between 1,000 and 2,500 feet from the current borrow pit. “Every morning during the week,” Stiff told the board members, “I can hear trucks, starting as early as 6 a.m. I hear the beeps; I hear the engines running …”

Moreover, Stiff said, “I have a layer of dust on my house. … Every week, we have to hose off our patio. It’s black dirt, and it’s not just at my house.” Her neighbors in the same area of the Founders Club have that problem, as well, she pointed out.

She has never complained about the situation to county staff, Stiff added, but, based on comments that day, she indicated that she wished she had, because staff might have intervened and sought a remedy.

In a Jan. 9 email sent to the commissioners at 8:08 a.m., Benjamin and Gisela Huberman, also Founders Club residents, wrote, “The increase in dust, air and noise pollution that surely will result from such a pit will certainly severely impact our health and that of all who would live in close proximity to the borrow pit. As one of us is fighting both cancer and lung impairment we are sensitive to the many deleterious impacts of such an action.”

Their email was part of a stack of correspondence that came in after the Jan. 10 meeting packet was published, Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, told the commissioners, noting that she had given the materials to the clerk to the board that day.

Those who did join Ayech of the Miakka Community Club in talking about the traffic problems emphasized the increasing danger of driving on Fruitville Road, especially during the morning rush hour.

Mahesh Sundaram, whose family owns Animal House Doggie Bed & Breakfast on Vic Edwards Road, noted the “back-to-back traffic going east and west.” With only two lanes, he said, and people hurrying to reach their destinations, drivers routinely pass vehicles illegally.

Adding the new borrow pit traffic into the mix, he added, is “asking for a disaster.”

Using his cell phone, Derrick Knepp, who lives on Vic Edwards Road, shows the commissioners a view of morning rush hour traffic on Fruitville Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Beyond that, Sundaram said, over the past 18months, he has lost a number of long-time customers for his licensed dog-boarding business. They have cited the traffic, he pointed out. When he recently was working on his 2023 tax return, Sundaram added, he found that his business was down 18%.