Celery Fields advocates planning rally and protest in advance of County Commission hearing on recycling project proposed on Palmer Boulevard

TST Ventures proposal to be the sole business item on Aug. 23 agenda

Editor’s note: This story was updated on the morning of Aug. 18 to remove an in correct link.

Save Our Celery Fields plans a rally on Aug. 19. Photo from the Stand Up Fight Back SRQ Facebook page

Opponents of a proposed construction recycling facility near the Celery Fields in eastern Sarasota County are planning a rally on Saturday, Aug. 19, and a peaceful protest outside the Sarasota County Administration Center on the morning of Aug. 23.

Members of the group called Save Our Celery Fields have been working for months to try to prevent the construction of the business in the vicinity of the stormwater area that has become an internationally known bird-watching park.

The Aug. 19 rally will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at the intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road. Organizers recommend that participants park their vehicles on the berm of Palmer Road, which — they point out — is legal. The rally notice also encourages people “to carpool and to leave the Celery Fields parking lot open for guests who are visiting the park.”
Among the participants, Save Our Celery Fields says, will be a broad-based non-partisan group of Sarasota County taxpayers, neighborhood association members, Sarasota bird-watchers and people who frequent the Celery Fields. They “will be gathering in protest to what is turning into what may be the biggest blunder of the Sarasota County Government officials,” the rally notice adds.

The Saturday rally will take place four days before the Sarasota County Commission will hold a public hearing on petitions related to the recycling project proposed by TST Ventures.

The protest in front of the county Administration Center will begin at 8 a.m. on Aug. 23, Save Our Celery Fields has announced. The Administration Center is located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

Save Our Celery Fields has created this graphic in urging supporters to protest the TST Ventures proposal. Image courtesy Save Our Celery Fields

The County Commission “has set aside an entire day” to hear testimony regarding the proposal for the recycling facility, an Aug. 15 email blast from the group Save Our Celery Fields pointed out.

The commission meeting will begin at 9 a.m.

Save Our Celery Fields opposes the proposal by TST Ventures to purchase county land for the project, as well as the firm’s requests that the County Commission amend a Critical Area Plan and rezone property to Industrial Light Warehousing (ILW). James Gabbert, the principal of TST Ventures, also has requested a special exception that would put “a 16-acre, open air waste processing facility adjacent to the Celery Fields owned by Sarasota County and the people of Sarasota County,” the email blast said.

Save Our Celery Fields reminds recipients that people will have 5 minutes each to make public comments during the Aug. 23 hearing. People also may bring printed materials to display on the county’s document camera — which county staff and the board members refer to as “the Wolf.” Items must be no larger than 12 inches wide and 8.5 inches high, the email blast noted.

When the county’s Planning Commission held its hearing on the TST Ventures’ petitions — on June 1 — the session lasted about six-and-a-half hours. Approximately 45 of the 66 people who submitted cards to speak ended up addressing the board. Afterward, the County Commission agreed with staff to set aside the Aug. 23 date for its next public hearing, with no other business on the agenda.

The Planning Commission ended up voting unanimously to recommend that the County Commission deny TST Ventures’ requests. The primary concern the planning commissioners voiced was the inability of the road network in the affected area to handle the additional traffic that would be associated with the project.

“[That] does not mean the battle to prevent the sale and industrialized development of lands next to the Celery Fields is over,” the Save Our Celery Fields email blast pointed out. “We need to make it clear, one more time, that the Celery Field belongs to the stakeholders of Sarasota, not to Mr. Gabbert and his proposed dump,” the Aug. 19 rally notice said. “Our Sarasota Commissioners must adhere to our county’s standard that ‘Zoning’s fundamental purpose is to Protect a Community’s Health, Safety and Welfare.’”

Facets of the proposal

The site of the proposed TST Ventures recycling facility is on Palmer Boulevard. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As county Planner Kirk Crane explained the petitions during the June 1 Planning Commission meeting, TST Ventures proposes to develop the 16-acre site south of Palmer Boulevard and west of Apex Road into a recycling facility — including stockpiling — for construction debris and yard waste. The company won approval from the county in 2015 for a special exception to allow a waste transfer facility on 4.3 acres of the property, Crane noted, though that has not been built. It would be part of the planned recycling facility, Crane added.

Both access points to the TST Ventures facility would be on Apex Road, Crane explained.

“Trucks [with recyclables will] come in, [get] weighed, inspected … off-load in the appropriate area, [will be] weighed on the way out,” Crane described the flow of operations. Then the trucks, with materials sorted and processed — as well as materials that cannot be recycled — will exit the site “and [head] to an appropriate location to take that material,” he added.

Because of the recycling activity, Crane pointed out, TST Ventures would need to obtain a number of permits; its operations would be “heavily regulated and subject to inspection.”

Crane also noted, “The maximum height of any stockpile shall not exceed 35 feet above grade.”

The Celery Fields is to the east of the site, Crane said.

Molly Williams, the county’s stormwater utility manager pointed out to the Planning Commission that the Celery Fields land was purchased for a county flood control project. “It protects [approximately 1,000] downstream properties from the threat of flooding through a 100-year event,” she added.

As the Celery Fields was developed, she continued, “the birds came. As much as we like to think we invited them,” Williams said, “it was their choice.”

The Celery Fields draws all sorts of birds — and a multitude of bird-watchers. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Mount Celery Field on the east side of the site “has become a very active recreational [location],” Williams noted; the county has constructed a parking lot and restroom facilities to accommodate visitors.

During the applicant’s presentation, Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning pointed out to the Planning Commission that the site of the facility has been designated Major Employment Center on the county’s land use maps, and the area “has been dominated by industrial uses … It would not be the closest industrial-zoned property to the Celery Fields if it were rezoned.”

The man behind the plan

Gabbert, the principal of TST Ventures, also addressed the board, identifying himself as a third-generation Sarasotan. He started his construction career in 1980, he said, and operated Gabbert Brothers Trucking until 1987. In the latter year, he noted, he merged the company with Meyer Excavating to form Meyer & Gabbert Recycling. Then, from 1987 to 1995, Gabbert continued, he was a site contractor and demolition contractor in Sarasota and Manatee counties. During that period, he said, he and his partner “began aggressively recycling material during the demolition process,” saving dump fees and space in the landfill. It “also was an economic incentive to us and our customers.”

Meyer & Gabbert was chosen to be the county’s recycling contractor in 1995, he continued. The county’s goal was a 75% recovery rate by weight of material, he pointed out. “We met and exceeded our guideline during the entire contract. At times,” he said, “we touched on the 90% recovery of construction and demolition materials coming from any customer into the gate that met the rules for construction demolition waste.”

James Gabbert. File photo

He went on to open recycling facilities in Manatee and DeSoto counties, he added.

In 2005, Meyer & Gabbert Recycling was sold to WCA Waste of Florida, he told the board.

Gabbert is a member of the county’s Charter Review Board; he was elected to that position in 2014, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office records show. As a Republican, he won 56.2% of the votes for the District 4 seat, defeating Shawna Machado, a Democrat who is chair of the board of directors of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

Gabbert also is chair of the Caldwell Trust Co., which has offices in Sarasota and Venice.

The opponents

Residents voiced a variety of concerns during the Planning Commission hearing — pointing to the potential for the recycling facility to produce pollution — including degradation of air quality — and for it to increase traffic woes.

Among the speakers was Tim Litchet, director of the City of Sarasota’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department. He explained to the commission that he not only is a member of the Florida Bar but that he also has 30 years of experience with the city. He was present for the hearing “as an affected citizen,” he added, “but I do have expert knowledge in the fields of zoning and planning.”

Litchet questioned why county staff used an Invitation to Negotiate process instead of a Request for Proposals (RFP) in an effort to dispose of surplus land, part of which Gabbert has a contract to purchase. “An RFP would have solicited the highest bidder for the site, while the Invitation to Negotiate allows more flexibility for the [County Commission] to get the use and the person they want and not rely solely on price.”

Tim Litchet. Filephoto

Litchet added, “So, apparently, the idea is that the county board wants to get a dump or a recycling center.” Then Litchet pointed out that, based on the backup agenda material provided to the Planning Commission, Gabbert “was instrumental in helping draft” changes to the Zoning Code that affect just the site of the proposed recycling facility.

The revisions, Litchet noted, “reduced the minimum acreage for the dump recycle center from 35 acres to 15, and [appear] to allow the dump to not necessarily be in an enclosed building.”

If the changes to the Zoning Code had not won county approval on Dec. 14, 2016, he continued, “Mr. Gabbert could not have even asked you or the county board [to approve his plan], but, yet, Mr. Gabbert filed this petition on Nov. 13, 2016, a full month before the county board even considered that zoning change. … How can we have a petition filed before the law is in place?”

In response to a question from Planning Commissioner Laura Benson, Medred of Genesis Planning acknowledged that the zoning text amendment was pursued in anticipation of Gabbert’s proposal for the recycling facility. When applicant team members asked county staff about why the Zoning Code required completely enclosed recycling buildings, staff had no idea, Medred pointed out. After about two years of discussions with staff regarding potential changes, Medred continued, Gabbert chose to initiate the amendment process.

‘A lot of heavy use’

The Planning Commission members focused largely on concerns about the inadequacy of the roads in the project area to handle the anticipated traffic that would be associated with the facility. After making her first of two motions to deny Gabbert’s requests for approval, Commissioner Benson pointed out, “Fundamentally, the types of vehicles coming and going would wear on that road and burden that area in a way that I don’t think we could even anticipate. … That’s a lot of heavy use for a limited roadway that is currently experiencing incredible problems.”

Responding to Benson during the hearing, Gabbert said, “Anything from a pickup trick to a roll-off truck and occasionally a tractor-trailer” would be coming into the facility.

“Dump trucks?” Benson asked.

“Dump trucks, yes, ma’am,” he replied.

“My concern … is there’s a significant traffic problem on Palmer Boulevard not caused by … this potential development,” Benson said, but the recycling facility “can absolutely exacerbate what is already untenable for the businesses and the residents who have to travel [Palmer]. There are not many alternatives.”

In the right location, Benson added, “I think this [project] is excellent.”