Board of new nonprofit considering legal challenge of County Commission’s approval of Lakewood Ranch Southeast plans

President of Keep the Country Inc. points to having secured help of pre-eminent planning experts in the state  

None of the individuals who urged the Sarasota County Commission this week not to approve plans for up to 5,000 new homes in the northeastern part of the county used the “L” word in their comments.

However, in laying out a multitude of reasons they believed the commissioners should at the very least call for refinements of the Lakewood Ranch Southeast plans, a few hinted at the potential that a legal challenge could ensue if the board approved the Comprehensive Plan amendment that will make that development a reality.

Commissioners acknowledged few of the speakers’ comments — mostly to criticize them — before voting unanimously for the amendment. (See the related article in this issue.)

During an Oct. 26 telephone interview, attorney Susan Schoettle, president of a new organization called Keep the Country Inc., told The Sarasota News Leader that the board of directors of the nonprofit “is strongly considering getting a coalition of people … to look at the possibility of an administrative challenge” of the commission’s actions on Oct. 25.

“We feel like we’ve got a very good legal argument,” she added.

In 2011, the Florida Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott eliminated the Florida Department of Community Affairs. Prior to that, the planners with that state office regulated how cities and counties could change their comprehensive plans, which guide how communities grow.

Since then, Schoettle pointed out to the News Leader, the state agencies tasked with reviews of comprehensive plan amendments have offered few to no comments on those proposals. For the most part, she continued, the responses have seemed “to be very pro forma.”

However, after receiving the draft Village Transition Zone amendment that Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch — the developer of Lakewood Ranch — first proposed to the Sarasota County Commission in February, to facilitate the expansion of Lakewood Ranch into Sarasota County, the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and other agencies provided numerous comments. “That’s a very strong piece of the puzzle,” Schoettle added.

For example, in its letter, the DEO staff wrote, “The proposed amendment does not establish meaningful and predictable standards as required by 163.3177(1), Florida Statutes.”

For example, the DEO staff continued, Village Transition Zone (VTZ) “Policy 2.1 does not clearly identify all of the general types of nonresidential land uses that are allowed.”

Further, “VTZ Policy 3.3 allows alternative greenway buffer configurations and defers the design criteria of the buffers to the land development regulations.”

Moreover, the letter says, “VTZ Policy 3.1 allows land uses (public facilities such as public safety stations and community centers) that are not consistent with the proposed definition of Open Space. … Buildings that comprise public safety stations and community centers should not constitute open space.”

During the Oct. 25 hearing, attorney Caleb Grimes of the Grimes Galvano firm in Bradenton, who was representing Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, dismissed speakers’ citations of the review agency comments as mischaracterizations. The review agencies provided “some technical assistance,” he added, stressing that those agencies had failed to review all of the data that the project team had provided.

A Grimes Galvano letter to County Commission Chair Alan that included formal responses to DEO findings emphasized that those comments “are suggestions and do not form the basis of a challenge.”

That letter from the law firm nonetheless included responses to the specific DEO concerns. For example, in regard to the issue of public safety stations and community centers not being allowed in open space, the letter said, “What the County allows to be placed in Open Space is a policy decision that the County Commission can make. Such a decision does not violate any State rules or regulations.”

Attorney Schoettle told the News Leader that, in the case of the Lakewood Ranch Southeast Comprehensive Plan amendment, she believes state officials “looked at it and found it to be lacking.”

Not only does Keep the Country Inc. have support of the members of the Miakka Community Club, which represents residents in that 170-year-old area in the eastern part of the county, but it has garnered a lot of support from residents “across the entire county,” Shoettle said, thanks to the outreach that she and other leaders of Keep the Country have undertaken.

People are concerned about their quality of life, she pointed out, even though that “doesn’t seem to be valued by the ‘Powers that Be.’ ”

‘An agenda to do away with the rural lifestyle’

The commission vote on Oct. 25 made the Lakewood Ranch Southeast amendment part of the county’s 2050 Plan for development east of Interstate 75. Adopted in 2002, Schoettle noted, the 2050 Plan balanced an array of interests, including the need for wildlife to have corridors through which it can continue to roam and sustaining agricultural operations. “Unfortunately, those parts of the 2050 Plan have repeatedly been ignored,” she said, “and we’re saying those are critically important and need to be followed and need to be recognized …”

She has no complaints about Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, Shoettle told the News Leader, acknowledging that that “lifestyle appeals to a lot of people.”

Yet, she continued, “It doesn’t suit me …” Residents of the eastern part of Sarasota County have been made to feel “like there’s an agenda to do away with our rural lifestyle,” she added. Over the past several years, she said, those residents have been faced with more high-rise developments and “cookie-cutter neighborhoods.”

Sarasota County still needs cows and agricultural operations, Schoettle said. One important reason for that, she continued is so children in 4-H can “learn where food comes from.”

County planners long have described the 2050 Plan as a three-legged stool, she pointed out.

A county graphic explaining the plan says those three legs represent open space — balance between the community and the environment; New Urbanism — “[w]alkable, livable, comfortable [neighborhoods]”; and fiscal neutrality — “New development pays for itself.”

More recently, Schoettle continued, it seems the 2050 Plan has only one leg, which stands for “development at all costs.” She added that she believes many county residents are recognizing that.

Moreover, Schoettle pointed out, the commissioners in recent years have approved numerous developments that still are years away from construction, just as Lakewood Ranch Southeast is.

If people are unhappy with how things feel in the county,” she said, “then [they should] hold onto their hats, because it’s going to get a lot worse.”

“We really feel like this is our opportunity to make a stand,” Schoettle added.

Bringing on board the ‘leading people in their fields’

Schoettle also talked about the two esteemed experts who have been working with her organization and other county advocates for slowing down what she characterized as “development marching all the way down to Venice.”

“Between the Miakka Community Club and Keep the Country Inc.,” she continued, “we have sort of pre-positioned ourselves with one of the premier land-use attorneys in the state.”

She was referring to Richard Grosso, who has testified in opposition to the Lakewood Ranch Southeast amendment.

The two organizations also have engaged Charles Gauthier, she noted, who presented testimony, as well, during the Lakewood Ranch Southeast hearings. He is a “pre-eminent planner,” Schoettle pointed out.

In correspondence about the Lakewood Ranch Southeast amendment that he sent to the County Commission on behalf of Keep the Country, Gauthier wrote that he has worked in Florida for 44 years “as a professional planner in the areas of growth management, land use planning, environmental planning, land use regulation, zoning, and site planning.”

He added that he has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 1988. In 2011, Gauthier noted, he “was inducted as a Fellow [of that organization] for outstanding contributions to the public interest, the highest achievement available at a national level.”

At one time, Gauthier was chief of the Bureau of Local Planning within the Florida Department of Community Affairs, the News Leader learned through online research. Prior to that position, he served as the department’s growth management administrator.

He has been an expert witness in a number of cases, Schoettle told the News Leader.

“We feel like we are getting very good, very qualified and knowledgeable advice and assistance from [Grosso and Gauthier,” she said. They are “the leading people in their fields.”

Schoettle added, “We are very pleased that we got both of them on and got them on early.

Because they have reviewed all of the Lakewood Ranch Southeast documents, she added, They’re both ready to hit the ground running.”