Celery Fields advocacy group to present proposals to County Commission about potential uses of county land near popular park

Fresh Start plans roundtable beforehand to narrow down ideas offered by residents and business owners

Fresh Start for the Celery Fields is an advocacy group for the county’s bird-watching park. Image from the Fresh Start blog page

On April 25, advocates for care in planning the future of Sarasota County property next to the Celery Fields will present proposals to the County Commission and seek direction going forward.

That discussion will come about five months after the commissioners voted 4-1 last November to give Fresh Start for the Celery Fields six months to offer, as Commissioner Charles Hines put it, “some realistic options” for use of one county-owned parcel at the intersection of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard. The board members agreed to hold off on marketing that surplus land until after members of Fresh Start returned to them with suggestions.

During that Nov. 28, 2017 budget workshop, the commissioners debated selling three of the county’s “Quads” parcels adjacent to the internationally known bird-watching and wildlife area the county also owns. Finally, they agreed to take one Quad — the southeast one — off the market. They also decided to pay a consultant to review the potential rezoning of the northwest Quad before they tried again to sell it.

A 2017 graphic explains the county’s ‘Quads’ parcels. None of the parcels is on the market at this time. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Staff has made it clear that the northeast Quad should not be put on the market because it holds a stormwater retention pond.

That left the fate of the southwest Quad in the balance.

After a day-long public hearing on Aug. 23, 2017, the commissioners voted 3-2 to deny a rezoning petition that would have transformed that Quad into the home of a new construction and yard waste recycling facility owned by TST Ventures. Then-Chair Paul Caragiulo, then-Vice Chair Nancy Detert and Hines voted in the majority, with Commissioners Alan Maio and Michael Moran supporting TST Ventures’ owner James Gabbert’s vision for the site.

During the November 2017 workshop, Detert was the only board member to oppose the motion to allow Fresh Start to work with staff on proposals for the southwest Quad. Both Quads 1 and 2 — the southeast and southwest parcels — should be removed from the county’s surplus lands list, she said. “[That land] blends with the Celery Fields.”

Scheduling a presentation

Fast forward to March 13: As the board members wrapped up their personal reports during their regular meeting that day, Detert announced that she would like for the Fresh Start representatives “to make a formal and public presentation about their ideas that they’re entertaining, so that they can get a sense from us which one of those they could pursue.”

Detert told her colleagues she understood the group had been meeting with them one-on-one. “They’ve got a lot of ideas,” she added of the Fresh Start leaders.

Commissioner Maio asked when Detert met with the Fresh Start representatives.

“Yesterday,” she replied.

“I didn’t get a meeting,” he told her, acknowledging later that, “in their defense, they probably came to you solely as the chair.”

Commission Chair Nancy Detert. File photo

“Right,” Detert said, though she added that she thought they had met with all the commissioners.

It had been about three-and-a-half months since the November 2017 board discussion, Maio noted. “I would love to sit down and talk with them again.”

When they spoke with her, Detert said, they felt it would be good to make a presentation to the entire commission, but “they thought it might be difficult to get on the agenda. … So if Mr. Lewis could make sure that they get 20 minutes for a presentation” before the end of April, she continued, she felt that would be appropriate.

Detert was referring to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis.

No board member objected to her suggestion.

Final preparations

On April 10, in preparation for the County Commission presentation, the leaders of the Fresh Start Initiative will hold a roundtable meeting to gather community comments on proposed uses for the southeast and southwest Quads parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields, “a valued birding and recreational area east of I-75 in Sarasota County,” a news release says.

That session will not be open to the public, one of the Fresh Start organizers, Tom Matrullo, told The Sarasota News Leader this week. “[T]he roundtable process has its own sort of discipline,” he wrote in an April 4 email.

The Fresh Start news release explains that the southeast and southwest Quads comprise about 23 acres of public land on two corners of the intersection of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard.

Save Our Celery Fields members hold a protest outside the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard on Aug. 23, 2017, prior to the public hearing on the TST Ventures proposal. File photo

Fresh Start also points out in the release that about 300 residents attended the Aug. 23, 2017 public hearing on the TST Ventures proposal, and “more than 70 of [them] testified as to the inappropriateness of the waste plant idea.”

Earlier in 2017, the members of a consortium that proposed a restaurant supply warehouse on the northwest Quad withdrew their county petition after protests that that facility was not a good fit as a Celery Fields neighbor, either. The limited liability company that applied for a rezoning of the property for the warehouse project also had refused to disclose all the members of the company, which is a requirement of the county rezoning process.

In the aftermath of both those events in 2017, a “group of concerned Sarasota residents then approached the commissioners with the aim of working together to explore uses proposed by the community,” the news release explains. “Forming the Fresh Start Initiative, they pledged in late November 2017 to return in six months with good ideas, vetted by qualified area professionals, and supported by more than 50 [homeowner associations] and area businesses,” the release adds.

More than 40 conceptual proposals have been offered by residents of the area, the release notes. An eight-member advisory board applied four criteria to each: feasibility, utility to neighbors, compatibility with the area, and economic viability. “This narrowed the field to nine proposals for the parcels. The advisers also furnished a host of recommendations to give the area a unified, attractive, and more coherent design,” the release adds.

An observation deck enables visitors to look out over the marsh at the Celery Fields. File photo

It is these nine remaining proposals that community representatives will consider on April 10, the release says. “Via a weighted voting process, delegates will select those options that they believe will most benefit the community and the surrounding area.” The successful proposals then will be presented to the County Commission on Wednesday, April 25, the release notes.

After that discussion with the board, the release says, “Fresh Start intends to continue to work with the county and community, as well as to report on the ultimate decisions made about these parcels.”

“Our ’big picture’ aim is to put rational, coherent planning of our public lands back on the radar in Sarasota County,” said Matrullo in the release.

The county is “poised to see an explosion of growth east of I-75, which until now has been largely populated by ranches or small clusters of homes,” he added in the release. Large-scale planning needs to balance developers’ ambitions “with careful and creative consideration of the common good, or it can simply turn into sprawl,” Matrullo pointed out. “Call it ‘answerable growth,’ because it responds with good sense and a flair for beauty to the will and the needs of all the people.”