Planning Commission recommends approval of Special Exception request for mostly outdoor school
On Aug. 30, the Sarasota County Commission will conduct its public hearing on a proposal for a mostly outdoor, private school to be located near the Celery Fields in the eastern part of the county.
Following a July 20 hearing, the Sarasota County Planning Commission members voted unanimously to recommend that the County Commission grant the Special Exception petition request filed by Joel Freedman of Freedman Consulting in Sarasota on behalf of Erin Melia, principal of the Mangrove School of Sarasota.
Although a couple of the planning commissioners indicated concerns about the future potential for traffic congestion in the area, given an application for a new single-family home development close by, none of the board members voiced opposition to the school itself.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Planning Commissioner Andrew Stultz said in making the motion to recommend that the County Commission grant the Special Exception to the Mangrove School. “I love seeing schools being distributed throughout the county,” he added, “especially ones that are unique” and will appeal to what he characterized as a different segment of the population.
Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper seconded the motion, noting that he lives off Palmer Boulevard, near the site. “It’s such an oddly unique area,” Cooper noted. For example, he said, given the proximity of Big Cat Habitat, a person can hear a big cat roar in the morning while the person is drinking coffee.
“People walk their horses down the sidewalk,” he continued, and members of a radio-controlled airplane club often gather to fly those aircraft. “It’s a very — when I say ‘quirky,’ I mean it in a super positive way,” Cooper pointed out of that part of the county. “I think this [school] is going to be a great addition to that.”
He could not think of a better contribution to the area, he said, than adding children.
As The Sarasota News Leader reported earlier this summer, the school would be located on approximately 3.144 acres on the northern portion of the parcel located at 7015 Palmer Blvd., in the northeast quadrant of Palmer Boulevard and Center Road. The owner of the property, which comprises about 7 acres, is Linda R. Rosaire, according to the application filed with the county.
Freedman, the consultant, explained to the Planning Commission that the school would serve students from prekindergarten through eighth grade. The school hours would be from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., he said. However, he pointed out, “They have a staggered … dismissal period, which helps with the school’s traffic patterns.”
A maximum of 150 students would be anticipated, he said. “They don’t have anywhere near that now,” Freedman noted of the Mangrove School, which has been operating on Crestwood Avenue within the Pine Shores Estates community, which is just east of Siesta Key, near the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
The property proposed for the school is zoned Open Use Rural, which allows up to one dwelling unit per 10 acres, the county staff report pointed out. Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson confirmed for Freedman that the school would be allowed in that zoning district if the County Commission granted it a Special Exception, the application shows.
The county staff report explained that the parcel to the north of the site is zoned Open Use Estate, while the property to the east is zoned Open Use Rural; both of those parcels are home to the Big Cat Habitat animal rescue sanctuary. The Celery Fields, a major county stormwater project that has become an internationally known bird-watching destination, is across Center Road from the site proposed for the school, the staff report added.
One proposed staff stipulation, Freedman told the planning commissioners, is that the property “shall not be split or subdivided …” It must “remain under one common ownership.”
The principal, Melia, “has been a long-term lessee [of the northern section of the parcel], with, hopefully, many, many years of renewals,” Freedman said.
During her remarks to the planning commissioners, Melia explained that the Mangrove School has been in operation since 2001. The curriculum, she continued, focuses on sustainability, regenerative agriculture and nature. Lesson plans, she indicated, are varied so as to be age-appropriate. For example, Melia said, the younger students learn about the local flora and fauna and how to be together, “just in a natural setting, so they’re learning … a reverence for nature …”
The older children, she noted, learn more abstract ideas. They also focus on species interaction and the coastal areas.
The vision for the school at the new site, Melia pointed out, is for it to be part of “what truly is the crown jewel of conservation in Sarasota” — the Celery Fields. “It was once all sawgrass, then farms,” she added of the Celery Fields property. “We would like to contribute to that with various plantings.”
Additionally, she said, the children would learn about the importance of filtering pollutants out of stormwater, as well as about giving back to the community.
The Binding Development Concept Plan submitted with the application shows four portable classroom structures measuring 24 feet by 36 feet south of a parking lot and a one-way drop-off/pick-up lane. Additionally, 14 “gazebo learning areas,” which would measure 16 feet by 24 feet, would be south of the portables. A minimum distance of 30 feet is called for between the gazebos, the plan says.
The modular units will be only one story in height, Freedman told the planning commissioners.
In the application, Freedman explained, “The campus will include outdoor (covered from sun/rain) areas for each student grouping, along with innovative features that allow rainwater collection, compost building, space for homesteading skill building.”
After Melia concluded her comments during the July 20 hearing, Freedman added that the school structures would be connected to county sewer, noting that that would be one of the bigger expenses for the project.
The school will have no impact on the environment, he continued. “These outdoor education areas will be sitting in the middle of this wonderful natural area.”
He further noted that county Transportation Planning staff had reviewed the proposal and determined that the traffic associated with the school would be negligible. Ingress and egress will be via Center Road, Freedman said.
Additionally, the county staff report for the hearing explained that the school “will have a 6-foot parking buffer” on the northern end of the site, along with a 50-foot-wide landscape buffer on the eastern property boundary and a 10-foot-wide street buffer at the entrance on Center Road.
Concerns about children walking and biking to the school
Following the remarks by Freedman, Melia and county Planner Keaton Osborn about the proposal, Planning Commissioner Colin Pember asked about the width of Center Road.
Marquis Bing of the county’s Transportation Planning Division, in the Public Works Department, responded that Center Road has two lanes, each of which is 10 feet wide; thus, the total width of the road is 20 feet.
When Pember then asked whether a sidewalk exists along Center Road, Bing replied that he did not believe one is present.
Pember acknowledged that county regulations do not require an applicant for a new development to construct a sidewalk unless it will be on the site’s frontage.
“Correct,” Bing responded.
Nonetheless, Pember continued, “That’s a concern of mine, right out of the gate. … I foresee kids walking or riding their bikes to the school,” having to contend with traffic at the intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Center Road.
Then Planning Commissioner Emmalee Legler raised an issue that she said she was not certain the commissioners could consider: the plans of Texas-based developer D.R. Horton for construction of up to 171 single-family homes on approximately 49.13 acres — called the Smith Properties — near the Celery Fields. That site would be along Raymond Road, south of Palmer Boulevard.
Referencing Pember’s comments about children walking and biking to the Mangrove School, Legler said, “That’s one of the main questions I had.”
“This is a great school,” Legler continued. “think it’s going to be an awesome opportunity for kinds in town here.” However, she expressed the same worries that Pember had mentioned, in regard to youngsters navigating the traffic in the area.
“Are we having any consideration [of the effects of the proposed development on the Smith Properties]?” she asked Bing.
The Mangrove School project team was required to undertake a traffic analysis, Bing told her. However, a traffic signal cannot be erected unless the traffic situation meets nine specific criteria for such action, he added. The school itself was not found to generate enough trips to comply with all of those criteria, he said, based on Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) standards.
A table in the county staff report about the Mangrove School petition shows that the school would be expected to generate only 26 more vehicles during the peak afternoon drive time.
The project team for the Smith Properties proposal will have to undertake a traffic analysis, as well, Bing pointed out.
Then Legler asked Melia, the principal, “Do you anticipate the students coming from the adjacent neighborhoods across the street, across the way?”
Most of them will come from other parts of the county, Melia indicated, because the school is unique. Some even will come from as far away as North Port, she noted.
“One child per car?” Legler asked.
Usually two or three per vehicle, Melia replied.
The only member of the public who signed up to address the board during the hearing was Kay Rosaire Ross, founder and president of Big Cat Habitat.
“I think it’s a lovely concept that they have, and I hope it all goes well,” she told the commissioners.
Her only concern is that the operation of the school not create any problems for the animal sanctuary in the future, she continued. “We have 300 animals there that we care for,” she said, and thousands of people visit Big Cat Habitat every year.
“God forbid if [Melia] passes away,” Rosaire added, explaining that she has such a good rapport with the principal. Rosaire said she would not want to have to worry about the school’s leadership in years to come, if Melia no longer were to be involved with it.
Therefore, Rosaire added, she would like assurances in writing that would serve as protection for Big Cat Habitat.
Later, Freedman told the commissioners, “Erin is more than happy to put something in writing, so that it goes with the school … so they’ll be good neighbors.”
Rosaire also prompted a couple of titters of laughter when she ended her remarks by saying, “We love children. They taste just like chicken.”