Concerns about who would be using ‘group living facilities’ at proposed Freedom Ranch in East County cited among reasons for County Commission ‘No’ vote

20-acre site adjacent to Verna Road also was to be home to place of worship and agricultural operations, including produce stand

An aerial graphic shows the location of the Freedom Ranch property, outlined in yellow. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Approximately 20 acres immediately east of Verna Road and south of State Road 70, in the eastern part of Sarasota County, was home years ago to a YMCA orphanage and later a school. On July 10, the Sarasota County Commission learned of a new proposal for the property, now called Freedom Ranch. It would encompass a 6,000-square-foot place of worship, group living facilities for up to 95 people, and a farm stand for produce grown on the land.

Expressing discomfort with that combination of uses — and questioning exactly who would be living there for the counseling purposes reported to be the focus of a church called Complete Transformation Ministries — the commissioners voted unanimously to deny the necessary Special Exception for the project.

The county’s Planning Commission members had voted unanimously on May 16 to approve the Special Exception,

During the County Commission’s public hearing on July 10, Commissioner Nancy Detert posed a number of questions of the application team.

Brian Lichterman of Vision Planning & Design in Sarasota, agent for the property owners, showed the county commissioners slides depicting dormitories with bunk beds, remaining from the days of the orphanage and the Ave Maria Preparatory School, which offered art therapy, speech therapy and language therapy, he said. Up to 85 students were allowed at the educational facility, he noted.

He also showed the board an image of the building housing a commercial kitchen, which would become a cafeteria for people staying on the site for counseling sessions. Lichterman added that the kitchen was large enough to be able to provide more than 100 meals a day.

A slide shows interior scenes taken in the existing buildings on the property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“It’s very neat and clean,” he said of the property as he clicked through images of the structures.

“It’s an opportunity to allow this property … to now be used as a place of worship,” he continued, as well as a retreat and an agricultural production and sales site.

The owners of the land are Christopher Coffin of Bradenton and Daryl Brown of Lakewood Ranch, the Special Exception application said. Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show Coffin and Brown paid $625,000 for the property in December 2017; the total market value of the site this year was put at $877,800.

The plans also called for five greenhouses to be constructed along the Verna Road side of the site, Lichterman continued on July 10, likening that part of the design to Fruitville Grove.

Further, he said, another area of the property could be used for soccer fields in the future, though no lighting would be installed.

At the suggestion of nearby residents who participated in the required Neighborhood Workshop about the project, Lichterman added, a new structure had been planned as the home of a caretaker who would oversee the agricultural operations. “The balance of the buildings are basically there already.”

All of the proposed uses are allowed under the current zoning, he said, with the property split between Open Use Estate 1, allowing one dwelling unit per 5 acres, and Open Use Rural, allowing one unit per 10 acres.

“Who would be living in all these facilities?” Detert asked.

“They are a church that has a strong emphasis on marriage counseling and other types of counseling,” Lichterman replied, referring to Complete Transformation Ministries.

“I understand a church,” Detert told him. “I understand a produce stand, but the … ‘group living’ — I need more details on that.”

The proposed Binding Development Concept Plan shows how new buildings would be added amid the existing structures. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Lichterman explained that the church would conduct community events, marriages and other ceremonies, as well as counseling sessions. “They’re going to be basically a faith-based rehabilitation and counseling services [program],” he continued, “including pastoral counseling, mental health therapy, child therapy … and pre-marriage coaching …”

The plans called for the property to serve a variety of churches as a retreat, he added. People could stay there up to a month, Lichterman said.

Earlier, Lichterman also had talked of plans to educate the people staying there about the nature of the rural community around them, including Old Miakka.

“Teaching people ‘Green Acres’ or whatever,” Detert summed that up, referring to the 1970s TV show in which a couple relocates from New York City to a very rural area.

“Are we going to have any children out there without their parents,” she asked, perhaps for substance abuse or mental health treatment or even educational purposes or camping?

A graphic shows the Binding Development Concept Plan overlaid on an aerial of the property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Lichterman asked the pastor of the church, Jordan Owens, to step up to the podium.

“It will be a place of worship, Owens explained of the plans for the site. Weeklong camps might be included in the programming, he added, as well as weekend retreats and educational sessions lasting one to three months. All of the activities, he said, would be “faith-based.”

Owens also talked of a focus on relationship and family seminars, along with training to help parents rear children. “We are a Christian organization,” so the educational emphasis would be put on Christ and the Scriptures, he continued.

No group home for children is planned, Owens pointed out.

“So you would state publicly, on the record, [that] you would never have any children without their parents?” Detert asked.

It is possible, he told her, that parents might drop off teenagers for a youth camp. He had no immediate plans for such camps to last longer than a week, he added; however, future camps might last two to three weeks. “I wouldn’t care to rule out that possibility.”

More opponents than supporters

Eight members of the public had signed up to address the County Commission during the public hearing. All but two were opposed to the board’s granting the Special Exception.

One of the advocates — Anne Fleming of Sarasota — identified herself as a volunteer with the church. The other, Nathan Groff, told the commission he is a licensed clinical social worker. Residents in that part of East County have little access to the type of assistance the church is proposing to offer at Freedom Ranch, Groff, said.

An opponent of the plans for the property, Becky Ayech, pointed out that she was speaking on behalf of the organization called the Miakka Community Club. Ayech then referenced comments Commissioner Alan Maio made early on in the public hearing.

As a representative of the County Commission on the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, Maio said, he is familiar with Florida Department of Transportation plans to improve the design of the intersection of Verna Road and State Road 70, which is very close to Verna Bethany Road. He added that the project would “take the jog out of [the configuration].”

That intersection, Ayech said, “is very dangerous,” noting that Old Miakka had lost residents to traffic accidents there.

An aerial map shows the configuration of the intersection of State Road 70 and Verna Road, with Verna Bethany Road nearby. Image from Google Maps

Then Ayech focused on the group living part of the church’s proposal. Based on the remarks the project team had made at the Neighborhood Workshop, she continued, it was clear to her that the people coming to the facilities for counseling and other purposes would be there “in 30-day increments.”

When the Planning Commission addressed the Special Exception petition, Ayech continued, she told the members of that advisory board, “‘This reminds me of a hotel …’”

Having been a manager of a 172-room Days Inn in the past, Ayech said, “I know a motel when I see one. This is a motel.”
However, she stressed, the county allows transient accommodations only in specific zoning districts, and the Freedom Ranch property does not have appropriate zoning for that use.

Furthermore, Ayech told the county commissioners, during the Neighborhood Workshop and the Planning Commission hearing, the project team also mentioned plans to bus Alabama residents to Freedom Ranch for marriage counseling sessions. “Really, you’re going to ride a bus with your husband or your wife you don’t get along with?”

Pastor Jordan Owens addresses the commission on July 10. News Leader image

Neither Pastor Owens nor Lichterman disputed that last assertion when they offered rebuttal to the public comments at the end of the July 10 hearing.

Other people cited a number of concerns with the Freedom Ranch proposal — from the potential intensification of traffic to questions about whether the septic system on site would be sufficient to handle all the people expected to attend events there.

Susan Zeugin, who said she had been a resident of the Old Miakka community since 1978, pointed out, “The traffic is like horrendous anymore,” and county staff has no plans for the immediate future to improve the situation.

Gary Dahl said he did not want to disparage any “noble and worthwhile causes.” Nonetheless, he continued, “I simply don’t believe the use of this property has been properly represented.”

During the rebuttal, Owens reiterated that the people who would be coming to the property would be seeking a variety of types of assistance through the faith-based ministry. Members of the church have to meet in homes, he continued. Freedom Ranch would serve as one big gathering place.

In conclusion …

After Chair Charles Hines closed the hearing, Detert made the motion to deny the Special Exception petition.

“We certainly owe it to the surrounding neighbors to let them know what kind of people are going to be there [at the ranch],” she said. “I would approve a produce stand,” she added, and related agricultural activities.

However, addressing Owens, she said, “I don’t think you gave us enough details that we’re not sorry later that we ever approved this.”
She suggested he come back “with more specifics.”

Maio said he agreed with many of the comments opponents of the project had made. “I am troubled by the layering of the uses.”
Then Maio continued, “The biggest thing I am troubled by is the amount of traffic that will occur on the property … with a problematic intersection at Verna and State Road 70.”

A slide presented by Brian Lichterman to the commission explains the history of the property. News Leader image

Commissioners Michael Moran and Christian Ziegler said they had mixed feelings about how to vote. Moran stressed that he took exception to public remarks that he felt had cast persons with substance abuse issues and mental health problems as “those people,” adding, “These are our constituents, too.

Hines did not offer a comment before the vote.