Members of public plead for county to purchase Smith Properties next to Celery Fields, but county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources director says pending development deal forbids any intervention at this point

Residents stress opposition to D.R. Horton project during March 7 Parks Advisory and Recreation Council meeting

This graphic, shown to the May 2023 Neighborhood Workshop participants, shows the general area around the proposed D.R. Horton development site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the March 7 meeting of the Sarasota County Parks Advisory and Recreation Council (PARC) meeting, a number of residents urged the members to encourage county leaders to make an effort to acquire the approximately 49-acre Smith Properties site near the Celery Fields, to preserve it from a proposed D.R. Horton residential project.

The residents were focused on the county’s potential use of funds raised through the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) to purchase the land, so the property could be preserved in perpetuity.

Each year, county property owners pay a 0.25-mill assessment that goes into a fund for transactions involving not only environmentally sensitive lands but also neighborhood parkland.

As the county’s website explains, “The ESLPP is a voter-approved and taxpayer-funded program that began in 1999. Since its inception, the ESLPP has protected and preserved more than 40,540 acres of natural habitat, with more than 21,000 of those acres placed under a conservation easement. Conservation easements remove the land’s development rights and require the landowner, current and future, to protect the land for greenways, water quality, habitat, and wildlife protection in perpetuity.”

Yet, during the March 7 PARC meeting, the chair, Michelle Stanley, read a letter that she had received from the family that owns the property, protesting the residents’ efforts.

The family members had learned of the residents’ initiative through social media, the letter said. “We do not agree that our property is environmentally sensitive,” the letter continued. In fact, the Smith family members pointed out, the land has been used for agricultural purposes for 50 years, and it contains no wetlands or other protected spaces.

Then the family members contended that residents of the nearby Sylvan Lea community simply wanted to prevent the construction of new homes close to their development.

This aerial map shows the location of the Smith Properties. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moreover, the letter pointed out, no one proposing the county’s purchase of the land had spoken with the Smith family members about that idea, which led to their being “greatly surprised” by it.

Finally, the letter characterized any attempt to interfere with the family’s pending contract for sale of the property to D.R. Horton as “tortious interference,” indicating that legal action could result.

In light of that letter, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), explained during the meeting that the ESLPP and Neighborhood Parklands Program require “a willing seller.” Staff does “not move forward” with any offer of purchase, Rissler added, unless the owner of property wishes to engage in negotiations with county staff; that is a facet of the program’s guidelines.

Further, she explained, the guidelines prevent staff from engaging in any offers for property through the ESLPP or Neighborhood Parkland programs if an “entitlement process” is underway. She was referring to D.R. Horton’s plans to buy the Smith Properties, provided the company can win approval from the County Commission for its residential development.

Nonetheless, Rissler added, “We, as staff, don’t disagree with … many of the speakers today [in regard to the] wonderful possibilities” of the land, given its proximity to the Celery Fields.

Last year, as The Sarasota News Leader has reported, a vice president of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota filed a formal application with the county’s Planning and Development Services Department for project with up to 170 homes on the site, which comprises seven parcels. The Smith Properties afford vistas of the county’s regional stormwater initiative known as the Celery Fields.

This is the Binding Development Concept Plan for the project, as shown in July 2023 application packet from agents of D.R. Horton. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Even before a May 2023 county-required Neighborhood Workshop about the application for the rezoning of the site, residents of surrounding communities had begun protesting the plans, decrying the proposed density of the D.R. Horton development and its potential to scare away the wildlife — especially migratory birds — that have made the Celery Fields an internationally known tourist attraction.

On Nov. 1, 2023, Jeanne Dubi, president of Sarasota Audubon Society, and the other members of the board of directors of that organization, formally issued a statement of opposition to the proposal. In a document with the heading Raymond Road aka Smith Property, they wrote, with emphasis, “A high-density residential development does not belong here. It will negate and undermine all the millions of dollars and planning invested by Sarasota County and its Stormwater Division.

During the May 2023 Neighborhood Workshop, Dubi stressed to Klepper, who was hosting the event on behalf of D.R. Horton, “We are concerned about the noise levels. We know that birds are affected by noise.”

Whatever is done [on the site],” Dubi added, “we must protect the Celery Fields and the wetlands.”

In response to a News Leader March 18 inquiry about the status of the D.R. Horton application, the county’s Planning and Development staff wrote in an email, “The petition is still under review. We are waiting for updates from the applicant. We have not scheduled the Planning Commission date yet.”

After an application for a land-use change has been deemed complete, it is presented to the county’s Planning Commission first for consideration during a public hearing. The necessary County Commission hearing generally follows in about a month.

‘Extremely opposed’

Dubi, who was among the speakers at the March 7 PARC meeting, pointed out to the advisory board members that Sarasota Audubon members have documented visitors at the Celery Fields from all 50 states, along with people who have traveled there from 50 countries “so far.”

“We are extremely opposed to a development [on the Smith Properties],” Dubi added, noting Sarasota Audubon’s partnership with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to “re-wild” 33 acres of the county’s “Quads” parcels adjoining the Celery Fields. The goal of that initiative, as the Conservation Foundation explains on its website, is “to create an effective and appealing buffer for one of Florida’s premier recreational and environmental areas. This is a huge win not only for wildlife, as more than 240 species of birds have been recorded here, but for people as well. This special public-private partnership will be a community conservation success story that lives on for generations to come.” (Dubi did note during the PARC meeting that the number of acres is down to 27. That is a reflection of county construction projects on two of the Quads.)

“We are all in for the county or some other entity to acquire this property” and preserve it, Dubi stressed to the PARC members.

This is a photo of the Quads by Karen Willey, for the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. Image from the Foundation website

Given the growing amount of development in the environs, Robert Wright stressed to the PARC members, “Greenspace has dropped tremendously in this area.” Moreover, he said, the Smith Properties site could end up being necessary to handle additional stormwater resulting from new construction in the area.

A letter in opposition to the D.R. Horton plans, sent by county resident Tom Matrullo — who was unable to attend the meeting — was read into the meeting record by Rissler of PRNR.

In that correspondence, Matrullo described himself not only as “a citizen who loves the Celery Fields” but also as a Sarasota Audubon Society member.

“At a critical moment in the history of the Celery Fields, the county took an extraordinary step: Recognizing the need to protect the nesting birds as well as the human users of the area, the [County Commission] placed three quad parcels under an easement to be supervised by Sarasota Audubon and the Conservation Foundation. This pledge of commitment recognized the essential value of the Celery Fields, a public investment of far more than $50 million that successfully meets three objectives simultaneously: stormwater management, birding sanctuary, and recreation,” he pointed out.

“Now, immediately to the east on Raymond Road, a subdivision on the 49-acre Smith Property is proposed: 170 DR Horton homes generating noise, light, runoff, and traffic extremely close to the nesting area. Horton’s build-out will take away a buffering area where birds now safely feed and rest,” Matrullo continued.

“What if the county were to consider another opportunity for the Smith Property? Consistent with the Board’s wise care for the Celery Fields, the site could usefully serve as an eastern buffer, as well as allowing space for additional public parking for those who visit the Raymond Road birdwalk. Thanks to an increase in visitors, parking now is often at a premium. Instead of adding light and noise, this 49-acre site would give Parks, the Conservation Foundation, and Sarasota Audubon confidence that the Celery Fields has a strong future,” he added.

This is the chart that Tom Matrullo included with his letter. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Given the public amenity value here, has an in-house analysis been done to examine the potential negative impacts of the Horton proposal, and to explore the potential benefits of investing in protecting the nesting area with a buffering site to its east on Raymond Road?” Matrullo asked. “Isn’t strategic buffering of delicate environmental areas one of the prime uses for Conservation Easements?”

Further, Matrullo included in his letter a chart listing construction projects underway along neighboring Apex and Fruitville roads.

“Given this rapid intensification quite nearby, more people than ever will be using the Celery Fields — more reason to consider what can be done in anticipation of more intensive uses in the future,” he wrote.

The very first of the nine speakers on the issue during the PARC meeting, Luigi “Verace” Costello, pointed out that he lives only about one-eighth of a mile from the Celery Fields.

“I understand the need for housing,” he said, but adding more traffic on Raymond Road would have severe effects on wildlife and stormwater drainage. “It’s just kind of an insane concept,” Costello added of the D.R. Horton proposal.