Neal wins County Commission approval for delay of hearing on 3H Ranch development

County Planning staff and residents point to concerns about Neal Communities’ request for variations from county policies

Pat Neal addresses the commission on June 5. News Leader image

At the request of Pat Neal, the former state senator who founded Neal Communities, the public hearing before the Sarasota County Commission on his company’s latest development, 3H Ranch in the eastern part of the county, has been delayed indefinitely.

The hearing had been scheduled for the commission’s regular meeting on June 5 in Sarasota. Neal appeared during the Open to the Public comment period at the start of the session to ask for the postponement.

“It takes up about two years and $800,000 to get here,” he told the commissioners, referring to fees related to the application and his team’s work with the county’s Planning Division staff. In fact, he added, he and other representatives of his company have been working with county staff for the past 24 years on his Grand Palm development in Venice.

On June 5, Neal said, his “long-time lawyer,” Edward Vogler of Plantation, was unable to be present for the 3H Ranch hearing. Therefore, Neal added, he respectfully requested a postponement. “We hope to come back on another day with a full team.”
Nonetheless, Neal continued, he would be happy to meet with any of the people who had signed up to speak during the hearing. That would mark the 10th or 11th public meeting on the 3H Ranch proposal, he noted. “We’ll have as many public meetings as may be necessary.”

With no commissioner objecting to the postponement, Chair Michael Moran did point out that any of the people who had signed cards so they could address the board during the hearing would be welcome to offer their remarks during Open to the Public. However, he cautioned, instead of the 5 minutes allowed during a hearing, each would have a maximum of 3 minutes.

Moreover, Moran noted, none of their comments would be part of the public record of the hearing, whenever it ended up being conducted.

This aerial map shows the location of the planned 3H Ranch development, outlined in yellow. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Three county residents did choose to speak that morning during the Open to the Public period, all with concerns about the plans for 3H Ranch.

The first was Joan Farrell, a member of the Venice City Council who pointed out that she was present as a private citizen.

“This commission should defeat the reckless and irresponsible development of the 3H Ranch,” Farrell began. “If approved, this development will seal the fate of wildlife and destroy a huge chunk of what was once a beautiful paradise.”

In times past, Farrell said, planning councils existed in the state to provide oversight and growth management. “Now the guardrails are gone; there are no checks and balances, only developers pressing for more and more concessions.”
Neal, she continued, is seeking a change in zoning of the site that would allow more than 6,500 homes, “a density increase of 1,600%,” compared to what the current zoning would permit

Venice City Council member Joan Farrell. Image courtesy City of Venice

Moreover, she told the commissioners, Neal is asking for a 50% reduction in the amount of open space that the county requires for what are known as 2050 Plan communities east of Interstate 75. The county’s policies allow such action “only if a net ecological benefit can be determined,” she stressed.

Further, Neal wants to reduce the required 500-foot greenbelt perimeter for the community to 50 feet on two sides.

If those requests were approved, she said, “[They] would create a dangerous precedent in Sarasota County, creating a sense of entitlement by Neal and other developers and lowering the bar for all future developments.”

She also questioned whether sufficient water exists to serve the new residents who would occupy the 3H Ranch homes.

(Earlier this year, the commissioners agreed to support and help pay for plans of the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority to expand that organization’s capacity to serve Sarasota County residents and those of the other counties the Authority serves — Manatee, DeSoto and Charlotte — plus the City of North Port.)

Another speaker voiced concerns about Neal’s proposal to reduce the width of the greenbelt. A resident of Rivo Lakes, which borders the northwestern edge of the 3H Ranch property, Todd Mapes explained that his development has a 100-foot setback, which he called reasonable. “Taking a 500-foot greenbelt requirement down to 50 feet is not reasonable,” he pointed out.

“There’s plenty of space to develop here,” he added of the 3H Ranch land bordering Rivo Lakes. The extra width is critical, he said, to afford his neighbors and himself privacy, so they would not have “two-story homes looking in [their backyards].”

The third speaker also lives in Rivo Lakes. Chris Kemper expressed worries about the lack of plans for an east-west connector through 3H Ranch until what is called the “site and development process,” when a developer who has won County Commission approval of a project works with county staff on the necessary details to prepare the site for construction.

This is the graphic that Chris Kemper showed the commissioners on June 5. News Leader image

Traffic studies conducted for 3H Ranch show that that connector is a requirement, Kemper told the commission.

As other residents of communities have done in the past in regard to development in the same general area — including what Neal Communities originally called Grand Lakes and is now Grand Park — Kemper emphasized that the only other route besides Ibis Street that serves the homeowners is Telegraph Road, which is a dirt route “on the edge of [Interstate]-75.”

He implored the commissioners “to push staff” to accelerate the timing of construction of the east-west connector, especially with a new school planned in the 3H Ranch community.

“If there is a problem on Ibis,” he pointed out, “there is no way to get through.”

Multiple variations requested

Although the six members of the county’s Planning Commission who were present for the April 18 public hearing on the 3H Ranch plans voted unanimously to recommend that the County Commission approve them, county Planning Division staff has raised a number of concerns about the variations from County Code that Neal Communities has requested.

For example, the staff report on the project, prepared for the County Commission, explains, “The subject site of ±2,727-acres contains only approximately 438 acres of native habitat,” or about 16% of the entre site. “Although the percentage of existing native habitat is significantly low in relation to the entire subject site,” the report continues, “the proposed development [would] preserve [approximately] 384 acres of the existing native habitat,” with about 63.54 acres of habitat created on site, “for a total of ±447.57 acres of protected habitat,” the report points out. That would result “in an increase of just 9.52 acres of native habitat over what already exists.”

That section adds, “This ecological allocation of habitat will be part of the total proposed Open Space area of 899 acres or 33% of the entire site. Based on the site area, the [Open Space] amount otherwise required [to reach the county’s 50% mark] would be ±1,365 acres, or an additional 466 acres … Therefore, since the criteria to allow for a reduction in Open Space requires a net ecological benefit from what would be provided with a 50% minimum area, staff is of the opinion that the increase of 9.52 acres of created habitat does not ecologically offset 466 acres of additional Open Space areas.”

This graphic shows the planned open space for 3H Ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The report further says, “The staff recognize that the Open Space proposed will offer a substantial connected network of Greenway [resource management area] lands, native habitats, and other Open Space, but this will mostly be achieved along the southern boundaries of the subject site … The west side property boundary is also the western perimeter of the Clark Road Properties [development area], and therefore should also include a more significant ecological value of Open Space, like the southern side or the eastern boundary of the neighboring Skye Ranch [community], to meet the criteria for a reduction in Open Space.”

The report notes that the project team has proposed a reduced greenbelt width of 50 feet along the entire west side, “which does not contribute to an enhanced or connected Open Space as would the standard 500-foot greenbelt buffer.”

Yet another example of staff concerns regards the greenbelt issue that speakers raised during the June 5 meeting.

The staff report also explains, “To qualify for a greenbelt exception along the Rural Heritage [resource management area] sides, the project needs to show that the adjacent properties have a similar density and form to the proposed project … [That] can be met for the properties to the north based on the existing and yet to be developed residential subdivisions. However, along the west boundary … the project can only demonstrate the same compliance with lands that have been zoned as [Village Planned Development].”

This graphic shows the Rural Heritage resource management areas. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This graphic shows the location of the 3H Ranch property in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The report adds that the 3H Ranch plans cannot demonstrate the necessary compliance “with a cluster of [Open Use Estate-1] zoned properties that do not share a similar density and are too small to be developed as a future Village.”

For another example, the staff report points out that Neal Communities is requesting the ability to exceed the maximum 45-foot height for multi-family housing structures in the development; the proposal is for an 85-foot maximum. While the report adds that staff did not object to that, “[N]one of the neighboring Villages are exceeding standard heights so [approval of that request] could potentially lead to a lack of compatibility with neighboring structures.”

Yet another section of the report says that Neal Communities has proposed that the development include 120,000 square feet of office space and 250,000 square feet “for commercial/retail uses to be distributed within at least 1 Village Center,” with Neighborhood Centers to be located within each one of the [14] residential neighborhoods.”

This is the master plan for the development, as shown in the application. Image courtesy Sarasota County

However, the report notes, “The Market Study for 3H Ranch … indicates a need for more than 300,000 [square feet] of non-residential uses, which is the current maximum allowed per [County Code] for a [Village Planned Development] VPD, unless the Board approves a larger size. The analysis shows that based on the projected number of residents and growth overall within the area, the Village can sustain additional non-residential areas to meet services and needs of the future residents.”

The report further discusses staff concerns in regard the plans for parks in the new community:

“The project will apply the minimum requirement of 1 acre of park area for every 47 units proposed to comply with a minimum amount of 140-acres of parks, based on the 6,576 unit total proposed. The Master Plan shows approximately 173-acres for parks to be distributed among the fourteen (14) Neighborhoods. The parks will range in size to satisfy needs for mini-parks, neighborhood parks and at least one (1) community size park. Although the minimum amount of park acreage per code is accounted for, staff would prefer to see a more distributed number of parks that are calculated per the acre size of each neighborhood, and not the overall size of the site.”

That section notes, “Staff is of the opinion that using an overall amount does not always provide for an adequate amount of park sizes that can provide for multiple recreation amenities within each neighborhood. Unfortunately, the [County Code] language is not explicit for this purpose and the applicant can choose to calculate the number of parks either way.”