Groundbreaking held two days later
Altogether, six residents of the community that will be closest to the Sarasota County Regional Fire Academy in Nokomis took their time during the Nov. 15 County Commission meeting to voice worries about how the facility’s construction will exacerbate flooding in that area and result in negative consequences for the existing wildlife habitat.
Yet, on a unanimous vote, the County Commission approved the plans for the new facility, including the rezoning of a parcel on the southern portion of the site that encompasses about 9.25 acres; its address is 3445 Rustic Road in Venice.
The later action designated that segment of the site Major Government Use; it had been zoned Public/Conservation Preservation.
Then the board members also had to approve the rezoning of the whole site from Government Use to Government Use with amended stipulations. The other portion of the land has the address of 4000 Knights Trail Road.
The county already owned the entire 34.4 acres.
Two days later, the commissioners participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the academy. That was before the terms of Commissioners Alan Maio and Christian Ziegler ended this week. (See the related article in this issue.)
The timeline calls for construction to begin in February 2023 and end in September 2024. The total cost of the project budgeted through the 2027 fiscal year is $21,918,692, a county document says.
The expense of the construction alone is expected to be $18 million, that Capital Projects Department document adds. That money will come from a county borrow that will be repaid by fire and Emergency Medical Services assessments, the document notes.
The rest of the funding will come from South County Fire Impact Fees, Emergency Services Impact Fees, and Fire and Rescue Impact Fees.
Hurricane Ian’s aftermath
The very first speaker during the Nov. 15 public hearing, Kris Belligan, who lives on Lightfoot Drive in Nokomis, pointed out that 18 households are situated in the area of the private Laurel Oaks Road adjacent to the Fire Academy site. Their parcels range in size from 4 to 8 acres, he added.
Although county staff has said that the Fire Academy will be built to withstand a 100-year, 24-hour rain event, many of the homes in his neighborhood flooded following Hurricane Ian’s strike on Southwest Florida, Belligan pointed out.
The Myakka River, he continued, is 3 miles from his house, “as the crow flies.”
During the height of Hurricane Ian’s effects, Belligan said, he was able to measure 1 inch of rain falling every 30 minutes.
In the aftermath of the storm, he told the commissioners, he is unable to live in his home.
Without the open land where the Fire Academy is planned having been able to absorb the rainfall, he stressed, he likely would have had 3 to 4 feet of water in his house instead of a couple of inches.
Jason Patton, whose home is closest to the Fire Academy site, talked of what he called “factual discrepancies” in the county staff report on the Fire Academy project. One of them, he continued, is “The flooding in this area is historically not an issue.”
During Ian’s rainfall, Patton pointed out, “Our entire community, including the proposed [academy] site, flooded.”
“We have had flooding issues several times,” he added. “Air boats and swamp buggies have been the only way in and out of our neighborhood on many other occasions.”
A third resident of the community, Ann-Marie Brown, called the plans to change the zoning on the 9.25-acre parcel from Public/Conservation Preservation “a dangerous precedent.” She added that it would be a precedent that developers and their attorneys would use in the future.
“At what point do we stop moving our green space and our animals and realize the green space is necessary for our survival?” she asked. “Should we really just cast that aside because it’s convenient for you?”
Moreover, she told the commissioners, “Your experts lose a lot of credibility” when they discuss computer modeling to predict future flooding events, as she and her neighbors have witnessed actual occurrences.
A county report on a required Neighborhood Workshop that the project team conducted this summer on the Fire Academy plans noted the response to a question raised about why staff had settled on the Nokomis site: “Our goal was to find county-owned, government use zoned land with enough acreage to support the proposed fire training facility. We looked at a variety of locations and chose this site due to these attributes.”
The county Planning Division report prepared for the Nov. 15 public hearing does note that the site “is located within the Cowpen Slough Basin — Dona Bay Watershed.”
That staff report also acknowledged that the Fire Academy proposal is inconsistent with two of the county’s Future Land Use (FLU) goals, policies and objectives in the Comprehensive Plan. It says the following:
- “FLU Policy 1.2.2 (A) Protect environmentally sensitive lands, conserve natural resources, protect floodplains, maintain, or improve water quality, and open space.
“The proposed project intends to use designated Conservation/Preservation lands for a fire training facility which will not preserve the natural open space.
- “FLU Policy 2.7.3 Civic and Government land uses are encouraged in the Urban Service Area.
“The proposed project is not within the Urban Service Area.”
However, the report explained, situations arise when “public and civic uses are needed outside of the [Urban Service Area] …” Among those are the requirement for “a large tract of land” and the need to provide a regional service, the report said.
The Urban Service Area is the portion of the county with infrastructure in place — such as water and sewer lines and roads — to serve development.
Factors in favor of the site
Laura Wilson, senior planner for the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota, who was part of the project team, pointed out during the Nov. 15 public hearing that the Fire Academy site’s location in mid-county is “best suited to serve the county and the region.”
She added that the property also is large enough to accommodate all of the programs planned for Fire Academy attendees.
The county’s Capital Projects Department document about the initiative points out that fire training in the county is conducted at four county sites: the Suncoast Technical College (STC) Fire Science Academy, which stands at the intersection of Beneva and Proctor roads in Sarasota; that college’s main campus; and county Fire Stations No. 10 and No. 23.
The “STC Fire Science Academy is located on a constrained site,” the document adds, and the training props are outdated.
The November project fact sheet that county staff published said the complex “will consist of classrooms, associated outbuildings and training props to assist in the training and preparedness of first responders. The primary training goals focus on physical skills, muscle memory, and simulating fire training conditions as close to real life as possible.”
A county staff memo in the Nov. 15 agenda packet added, “Hours of training may occur as late as 10 p.m. but not occur often.”
Further, that memo pointed out that “live fire training sessions … will utilize hay or straw burning and there will be safety measures in place to ensure the live fire is controlled.”
A county news release about the Nov. 17 groundbreaking further noted, “The planned 50,500 square-foot facility will allow firefighters throughout the region to hone their skills in realistic scenarios across several disciplines including fire attack, ladder truck operation, technical rescue, hazardous materials response.”
The news release said that the facility “will be utilized for training by partners in law enforcement,” too.
The county staff report for the Nov. 15 hearing added that county staff “has provided information on efforts to mitigate the incompatibilities of this land use change,” including landscape buffering, the location of the access points, “and guidelines to limit disturbance.”
Tom Burke of the firm Cardno — which Stantec bought about a year ago — did point out during the hearing, though, that the main entrance to the Fire Academy will be just north of Laurel Oaks Road.
Specifically in regard to stormwater, the county staff report for the hearing says that county policies make it necessary for any developer — even the county itself — to ensure that new construction will not “result in an increase in demand upon deficient stormwater facilities prior to the completion of improvements needed to bring the facility up to adopted level of service standards.”
The report further notes, “Stormwater runoff shall not be diverted or discharged in such a way as to cause an adverse increase in off-site flood stages or have an adverse impact upon natural system values and functions. Stormwater management plan designs shall provide for the attenuation/retention of stormwater from the site. Water released from the site shall be in such a manner as to ensure that no adverse increases in off-site flood stages will result for up to and including a 100-year, 24-hour storm. The County shall pursue opportunities for offsite public or private regional stormwater attenuation/retention facilities to be used to accomplish stormwater attenuation requirements.”
Responding to the concerns
After Chair Alan Maio closed the public hearing, he asked for a motion. Commissioner Michael Moran made it, calling for the board to approve the necessary steps, including the rezoning of the site, to enable staff to proceed with construction of the Fire Academy. Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded the motion.
Just before he and his colleagues voted unanimously to approve the motion, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger told the residents who had addressed the board, “It’s difficult to always find the exact perfect spot for something. It truly is.”
Wherever the county decided to locate the facility, he continued, it would have an impact on the nearby residents.
“Ultimately,” Cutsinger said, “this is for the good of our community long-term.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert also address comments about the potential that the structure could lead to lower property values for the residents who live in the area of Laurel Oaks Road. She noted that hear home is near a police and fire training center; in fact, she said, she is as close to that as the Laurel Oaks Road residents will be to the academy.
The fire training center has had no negative consequences on the value of her property, Detert added. Unlike the police training operation, she continued, no weapons are used at the firefighting center.
As for the flooding: Detert told the residents, “I would hope that our county staff would work with you on [that issue].”
Moreover, Detert pointed out, it would be inevitable that something would be built on the approximately 34.4-acre site in Nokomis. “There are a lot worse things to go on [that property] than this,” she said of the regional fire academy.
Chair Maio stressed that the Sarasota County Fire Department serves all of the unincorporated areas of the county, plus the City of Sarasota; the number of the residents receiving the department’s services is about 345,000.
The county also has mutual aid agreements with the other, municipal fire departments in the county, he added.
Already, Maio continued, the Fire Department has approximately “550 men and women,” most of whom are cross-trained as firefighters and paramedics. He himself had sworn in 172 of them in his eight years on the County Commission, he said.
“This is a growing community,” he added. People keep moving to Sarasota County, Maio pointed out, which means even more Fire Department personnel will be needed in the future.
After he made the motion, Commissioner Moran focused on the attention that has been brought to the issue of attracting and retaining workers. He called that “just a national, massive problem,” adding, “I can assure you we’re not immune to it just because we’re a governmental entity.”