Community advocates for the internationally known bird-watching and passive recreation area preparing for battle once again
In 1994, Sarasota County acquired approximately 400 acres east of Interstate 75, to create a major stormwater project. Agricultural interests had found in the 1920s that celery would flourish there; thus, the property became dubbed the Celery Fields.
The county initiative achieved significant improvements in flood control, as Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio often has pointed out during board meetings.
By happenstance, the pastoral setting also began drawing birds — hundreds of birds. Along with species that began making their home in the area year-round, avian “snowbirds” started frequenting the Celery Fields.
“The location of the site, the large number of diverse bird species, and its public ownership by Sarasota County make the Celery Fields an ideal location for wildlife watching and passive recreational use,” the Sarasota Audubon Society says on its website.
“In early 2001,” the website continues, “Sarasota Audubon began conducting bird surveys at the Fields. To date, 246 species have been recorded. Wintertime offers particularly good birding, hosting sparrows, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, and several species of rails, including Sora and Virginia. The Fields also host breeding birds, including Black-necked Stilts, King Rail, Least Bittern, Limpkin, Purple Gallinule, Barn Owl and Eastern Meadowlark. Least Terns breed on nearby buildings and use the ponds as a primary food source. Rarities show up from time to time, including Upland and White-rumped Sandpipers, Short-eared Owl and Nelson’s Sparrow. In the winter of 2018/2019, birders found a Least Flycatcher and an Ash-throated Flycatcher, the first for the Fields, these birds are unusual for Florida and particularly unusual in Sarasota County.”
Slightly more than two years ago, advocates of the Celery Fields in eastern Sarasota County thought they had saved the internationally renowned bird-watching area from the threat of nearby development.
Now they are preparing for battle again, as the County Commission on Nov. 6 will address a staff report on potential uses of the four county-owned parcels known as “the Quads,” right next door to the Celery Fields.
A draft analysis was completed on Sept. 23 by the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, The Sarasota News Leaderlearned through a public records request. Officially, that document takes a look at what the county calls the Interstate 75/Fruitville Road Major Employment Center (MEC) Critical Area Plan.
Like Sarasota Audubon, the draft acknowledges, “The Celery fields has become a prime location for bird watching and other passive recreational activities, and the expansive views of open natural land are a unique urban experience.”
Yet, the question once again for the County Commission will be what to do about the adjacent Quads — sell them, keep them as a buffer between the Celery Fields and other development, or, perhaps, engage in a public/private partnership for affordable housing on one or more of the parcels.
Like ‘Groundhog Day’
In 2017, Sarasota resident Adrien Lucas organized peaceful protests at the Celery Fields, urging residents, in turn, to implore the County Commission not to approve a construction demolition and yard waste recycling facility on what is known as the Southwest Quad.
It took all day on Aug. 23, 2017 for the County Commission to hear the presentation of the staff report, the project team members’ proposal and 73 speakers — out of 81 who originally filled out a card requesting the opportunity to address the board.
Finally, on a 3-2 vote, then-Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo, along with Commissioners Nancy Detert and Charles Hines, denied applicant James Gabbert’s petition for the rezoning necessary for construction of the recycling facility. Commissioners Michael Moran and Alan Maio supported the project.
Behind the scenes, Lucas had worked with opponents of Gabbert’s plans to ensure that all its potential negative repercussions would be provided to the board members during the hearing. The vast majority of the 73 speakers emphasized the incongruity of — and potential degradation from — the siting of such a business center so close to the Celery Fields. They talked about the prospect of frequent tractor-trailer rig traffic. And even two former city commissioners — Suzanne Atwell and Susan Chapman — talked of the rapidly increasing value of the Celery Fields as a destination attraction in the community.
On Oct. 7, Lucas stood at the podium during the commission’s Open to the Public session, saying she could not believe she was going to have to fight for the Celery Fields all over again.
She likened the coming experience to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character repeatedly finds himself having to relive Feb. 2.
Although she is a part-time Denver resident, she added, she will be in Sarasota for the next four months.
“I will be loud and proud about trying to save those Quads and stop each and every one of you from doing what is wrong. You have not listened to your community, and it is shameful the way you waste our time,” she told the board members. “We send you emails and you don’t even respond,” she pointed out, emphasizing that the commissioners fail to provide so much as a generic response. “You don’t even give us the time of day!”
The surplus lands issue
A frenzy of fund-finding measures by the commission and staff in late 2017 and early 2018 — in an effort to balance upcoming budgets in the face of projected multimillion-dollar deficits — raised a new threat for the Celery Fields: selling one or more of the Quads as surplus properties.
Ultimately, the board members found enough money through other cost-cutting steps. Yet, the discussions resulted in board direction to let a group called Fresh Start for the Celery Fields work to come up with suggestions about how best to utilize the Quads.
In early October 2018, Commissioner Caragiulo suggested that staff take another look at the I-75/Fruitville MEC Critical Area Plan (CAP), incorporating the potential uses of the Quads in proximity to the Celery Fields.
On Nov. 6, at 1:30 p.m. in the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, the commission will address the report staff has prepared as a result of that CAP analysis, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader.
That document notes that when county staff held a public workshop on the CAP study — on May 14 — approximately 220 people were present. Of those, 26 offered comments. The report adds, “[T]here was a general agreement of speakers, and demonstration by the audience, that the Quads should remain as open space or ‘green’ in support of the Celery Fields.”
And Lucas already has organized another peaceful protest at the Celery Fields ahead of the commission meeting.
Set for Saturday, Nov. 2, at the corner of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road, the event will begin at 10 a.m.
A flyer for the gathering calls it the “Last Stand for Celery Hill,” adding, “The battle to save the Quad properties is not over.”
Those planning to be present have been asked to RSVP on Facebook.
A focus on facts and constraints
The draft Sept. 23 county staff report explains, “The CAP area is mostly developed with approximately 1,900,000 square feet of light industrial and office uses. The development consists of ‘flex space,’ or multi-tenant buildings occupied by various uses …” Among those are fabrication, manufacturing, plumbing, electrical or specialty contractors “and other similar uses occupying both warehouse and office space, with little or no retail sales buildings.”
Coburn Road/Apex Road and Porter Road run north to south through the CAP, the report notes. Palmer Boulevard traverses the area east to west. All three roads, the report points out, are just two lanes, and they are designated to remain as such in the county’s Future Thoroughfare Plan.
Coburn/Apex Road has a 70-foot-wide right of way, the report adds, while Porter Road has a 50-foot-wide right of way. Palmer Boulevard’s right of way is 80 to 100 feet, with bike lanes, the report says.
“Some people have described Palmer Boulevard in this area as a ‘gateway,’” the report points out.
The constraints of the road network were the primary concern of both the county’s Planning Commission members in 2017 and County Commissioner Caragiulo, as they considered the Gabbert proposal for the recycling facility.
Again, last fall, in suggesting the CAP be reopened to encompass the Quads, Caragiulo cited his worries about the capacity of the road network to support much development.
“In this case,” Caragiulo said, referring to the area of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road, “just about anything [except] a lemonade stand not seating more than five people” will lead to more traffic problems.
“That road can’t be widened,” Commissioner Charles Hines added of Palmer Boulevard.
In an Oct. 2 email to county Planner Steve Kirk — who has been overseeing the CAP analysis — Adrien Lucas emphasized the traffic issues.
“The County draft CAP study continues to showcase the failing ‘LOS’ Level of Service for the roads that crisscross the Quad properties,” she wrote.
“Introduction of more light industrial or faux light industrial use does nothing to improve the quality of life for the people who own or rent homes near the Quad properties,” Lucas continued.
Then she referenced comments Commissioner Hines has made in recent months: the potential of the county’s collaboration with a developer who would be interested in constructing an affordable housing project on one of the Quads.
“Considering any of these parcels as acceptable for housing is insulting to people who need affordable housing,” Lucas pointed out. “The land there, as we all know, remains dangerously polluted. We all know it. The birds sadly don’t but that is the price they must pay for man’s poisons.”
Lucas was referencing a section of the draft staff report, which explains that the Quads were used for vegetable production between 1924 and 1995, which would have entailed the use of agricultural chemicals. “In addition,” the report says, “soils with arsenic levels above the residential soil cleanup target level were stockpiled on the sites. Because of this history, it is recommended that some site assessment work be done to determine what, if any, action should be taken prior to development.”
Tom Matrullo, a leader of the Fresh Start Initiative, submitted a comment to Planner Kirk on Oct. 5, stressing, “A plan for public lands should:
- “Put people first.
- “Advance Sarasota’s long-held values of good stewardship and intelligent planning.
- “Situate the specific discussion within the larger context of changes and area trends.
- “Respect Sarasota’s distinguished tradition of protecting and preserving public lands.”
Matrullo did note that the draft CAP analysis points out that the Level of Service on Palmer Boulevard between Porter and Apex roads has been “found to be unacceptable,” though the possibility of widening that section to four lanes was considered, with the resulting recognition of the potential negative impact on the Palmer Boulevard corridor.
That, Matrullo continued, is “a sign of [staff’s] judicious approach to the task it was given. But — and this is the crux of the matter — the larger reality of that acknowledged ‘negative impact’ is never fully given its due.”
Matrullo added, “The ultimate welfare and fate of a substantial evolving area of beauty, recreation, community health and economic opportunity should be the primary and central concern of this plan, and so far, this most certainly is not the case.”
The Quads and the possibilities
On Page 44 of the 66-page draft staff analysis, options are offered for what staff has identified as appropriate uses of three of the Quads. The fourth — the Northeast Quad — is the site of a stormwater pond that makes development of the other three possible. That parcel long has been intended to remain vacant, the report notes.
For the Northwest and Southwest Quads, the report says, commercial uses alone are not recommended; however, industrial and office projects would be suitable. Mixed-use development — combining commercial, residential and public/civic construction — and multi-family residential housing both carry the notation, “May be suitable.”
Additionally, the report explains, a temporary fire station stands on the Northwest Quad; a permanent facility is under design, with construction already planned.
The Southeast Quad — which commissioners purposely had left off the county’s surplus lands list — is “connected open space and a view shed to the Celery Fields,” the report says. Among potential uses for a portion of that property would be a museum, a county history center, an interpretive/information center, a public use facility, and “Passive and active recreation.”
However, staff also identified what it called “Conditions for Development Approval,” which it recommended prior to any use of the three Quads.
Those conditions are as follows:
- Establish a 170-foot roadway corridor width for Palmer Boulevard.
- “Limit construction of buildings and other structures in the identified ‘Palmer Boulevard Celery Fields Open Space/View Shed.’
- “Establish Palmer Boulevard setbacks and landscape buffers.
- “Establish building height limitations.
- “Provide regulations/guidelines for landscape materials and elements.
- “Provide minimum open space and architectural design standards.
- “Restrict inappropriate uses,” (for example, heavy industrial).
- Limit the build-out of each Quad “through limitations on building area (by use), number of residential units, or total trips generated by each parcel.”
Adrien Lucas continued in her Oct. 2 email to county Planner Steve Kirk, “You have heard measurable, quantifying public comments from your constituents and people from around the world who have spent hundreds of hours contacting Sarasota County government with their desire to ‘Save Our Celery Fields’ whether by email or in person for the past three years.”
She added, “Zoning’s fundamental purpose is to protect a community’s health, safety and welfare.”