Challenge to county Comprehensive Plan amendment for Grand Lakes development to be focus of December hearing in Sarasota

Florida Division of Administrative Hearings judge schedules two-day proceeding, with exact location yet to be decided

Florida Administrative Law Judge Francine Ffolkes. Image from Twitter

A two-day Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding has been scheduled for early December in Sarasota to address a challenge to Neal Communities’ planned Grand Lakes development east of Interstate 75 and south of Clark Road.

Florida Administrative Law Judge Francine M. Ffolkes has set the hearing for Dec. 4 and 5 “at a location to be determined.”

In August, a number of homeowners in the area around the Grand Lakes site filed the DOAH challenge, as well as a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota. They contend that in the process of approving Grand Lakes on July 11, the County Commission should not have adopted a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow the development to eliminate a commercial center from its design, even though Grand Lakes will not be contiguous to a Sarasota 2050 Village development with such a center.

After hearing testimony on the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment in March, the commissioners concurred with arguments by the Neal Communities project team that Grand Lakes would not have enough residents — even with up to 1,097 homes — to support a grocery store, such as a Publix. The board members also agreed that other retailers in the general area would be able to serve the Grand Lakes residents until the planned LT Ranch Village is constructed about 2.5 miles to the east of Grand Lakes. A 300,000-square-foot commercial and service center has been approved for that Village development, county staff pointed out to the commissioners in March.

Nonetheless, the petitioners in the DOAH case argue that the Comprehensive Plan amendment is inconsistent with other county policies governing development east of I-75 under the aegis of the Sarasota 2050 Plan.

In their DOAH case, the Sarasota County homeowners contend that the Sarasota 2050 Plan “affords developers additional density opportunities outside the Urban Services Boundary in exchange for the public benefits of Open Space, New Urbanism, and Fiscal Neutrality.”

On Aug. 10, the Grand Lakes opponents — David Anderson, Keath Cuyler, Mitchell Goldberg and Ronald Newmark — filed their petition for a formal DOAH hearing.

An aerial view shows the Grand Lakes property (in red). Image courtesy Sarasota County

Their attorney, Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, noted in the petition that the introductory paragraph to the Sarasota 2050 Plan policies states that the plan is designed to provide alternatives to urban sprawl “by guiding the development of lands … into compact, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly Villages [his emphasis].” Furthermore, he continued, the commercial centers in such Villages are to “provide for the daily and weekly retail, office,civic, and government use and services needs of the Village residents. The result is fewer vehicular trips outside of the Village to reach these services, and the opportunity for pedestrian access to these serviceswithin the Village. Without the non-residential uses in close proximity and integrated into the residential uses, the Villages resemble other suburban residential development typical of Sarasota County and other communities[his emphasis again].” Brookes was quoting from a Planning Commission staff report dated July 24, 2014, he wrote.

Additionally, the Sarasota 2050 Plan includes language explaining, “Villages are a collection of Neighborhoods that have been designed so that a majority of the housing units are within a walking distance or [one-quarter-mile] radius of a Neighborhood Center,” Brookes pointed out.

Neal Communities subsidiary allowed as intervenor

A graphic shows plans for the two neighborhoods in Grand Lakes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Aug. 17, Scott A. McLaren of the Hill, Ward & Henderson law firm in Tampa filed an Unopposed Motion for Leave to Interveneon behalf of Ibis Road Investors LLC, which is the Neal Communities subsidiary that owns the Grand Lakes site and is handling the development.

Florida Division of Corporations records show that Ibis Road Investors was established in 2016; its manager is James R. Schier, who is the senior vice president for finance with Neal Communities, according to the company website.

As McLaren pointed out in his motion, because Ibis applied for the Comprehensive Plan amendment at the heart of the homeowners’ petition, “the outcome of this proceeding will directly impact Ibis’ ability to effectuate its proposed development.”

On Aug. 20, Administrative Law Judge Ffolkes granted the motion for Ibis Road Investors to intervene in the case.

Preparation for the hearing

A graphic shows other planned 2050 villages in the vicinity of the proposed Grand Lakes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As is usual with such cases, Ffolkes has issued an order with pre-hearing instructions. That includes direction for all the parties in the case to “meet no later than 15 days prior to the date for final hearing” to discuss the possibility of a settlement and to “stipulate to as many facts and issues as possible.”

Since Aug. 31, the DOAH case docket shows, the parties have filed numerous notices regarding the taking of depositions and the filing of interrogatories and answers.

Interrogatories are written questions used to get information from the other party in a civil case. “Interrogatories often focus on facts that neither party disputes, in order to get these issues out of the way instead of wasting time with them at trial,” the Rottenstein Law Group explains.

As of a Sarasota News Leader search on Oct. 30, the most recent document in the docket — dated Oct. 22 — was a notice from Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy that the county has filed answers to the petitioners’ first set of interrogatories.