Comprehensive Plan’s new environmental section garners majority of questions and criticisms on opening day of board review

County Commission will resume the public hearing at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 10, in Sarasota

The County Commission sits in session in late January. File photo
The County Commission sits in session in late January. File photo

Hunting on the natural lands purchased through Sarasota County’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, public access to the county’s waterways, State Statute citations: Those were among the myriad issues the County Commission dealt with on the afternoon of June 8 as it began its formal review of the revision of the Comprehensive Plan, which staff initiated at board direction more than a year ago.

The last time the plan was fully updated was in 2006, Allen Parsons, the county’s Planning Division manager, explained during about 20 minutes of introduction on June 8. If all goes as planned, the commission-approved draft will be sent to state staff for review and then returned to the board in July for any adjustments. The goal, Parsons has said, is to complete the process by October.

By the end of more than three hours of discussion, the commission had asked staff to undertake a number of further revisions before it delved back into the draft on Friday, June 10. Among the requests was that staff remove citations to specific state laws — those are likely to change over the life of the updated Comprehensive Plan — Commissioner Christine Robinson pointed out — and eliminate redundancies. “We’re supposed to be making this shorter … more concise,” Robinson added.

First up on the June 8 agenda was the Environmental Systems section of the draft, which garnered the majority of public and board comments.

Rachel A. Herman. File photo
Rachel A. Herman. File photo

Among early commission concerns in that process, Robinson pointed to a new policy, 4.7.6, and asked, “What are we trying to do?”

That policy says, “Encourage dialogue between public entities, non-profits, residents, businesses, insurers, and other stakeholders through public education campaigns and workshops, in order to increase understanding of the potential impacts of sea level rise and coastal erosion, including the potential shared costs of action or inaction in human, ecological, and financial terms.”

Rachel A. Herman, manager of environmental planning, explained that a forum could be held, for example, or meetings scheduled for stakeholders.

“It seems to be taking a political position, which I am not a fan of,” Robinson told Herman.

“What are the measurables?” Commissioner Charles Hines asked. If the board approved the Comprehensive Plan with that language, he continued, what would the County Commission have to produce in three years to show it was complying with that policy, he added.

Herman acknowledged the concerns, noting that this was the first time the board members had had an opportunity to discuss the draft.

Public comments

While the format allowed for public comments on individual elements of the draft, eight people addressed the commission about the Environmental Systems section. Four of them represented business interests, including the Coalition of Business Associations (COBA), which had offered proposals for changes during the public meetings held to revise the current Comprehensive Plan, they pointed out.

William Merrill III. File photo
William Merrill III. File photo

Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the Gulf Coast Business Exchange, noted that COBA’s 10 member groups include the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, the Exchange, the Siesta Key and Venice Area Chambers of Commerce and the Argus Foundation.

Dougherty-Slapp joined representatives of Environmental Technology & Consulting (ETC), which has a Sarasota office, and the West Villages partnership in South County — along with attorney William Merrill III of Icard Merrill in Sarasota, acting directly on behalf of COBA — in asking for further revision of the draft after staff and the commission complete planned updates of the county’s Land Development Regulations and Zoning Code. Merrill noted that the Comprehensive Plan draft still contains regulatory matter, instead of strictly policy. It “should be more of a policy document,” he said.

On the other side of the issue, attorney Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now; Jono Miller, retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida; Andy Mele, vice chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club; and Pete Theisen, a past candidate for the Sarasota City Commission, criticized the board for, as Lobeck put it, making it “easier for developers to pave over paradise.”

Among numerous policies Lobeck pointed to in voicing concerns about the Environmental Systems draft was 4.3.1, which says the following:

“Increase public beach access.

  • “Address the existing parking deficiencies at beach access points and facilities through a variety of alternatives.
  • “Require public shoreline access in all County-sponsored and, where practical, private coastal development projects (for example, beach renourishment projects.”

The current plan deals with that in Environmental Policy 1.3.1:

“Extend every effort to increase the number of public beach access points and parking spaces.

  • “Address the existing parking deficiencies at beach access points and facilities through a variety of alternatives as proposed in the Parks and Recreation and Transportation Chapter.
  • “Acquisition of beach and dune property will take place in accordance with the Parks and Recreation Chapter criteria and in conjunction with hurricane mitigation/post disaster planning efforts.
  • “Require public shoreline access in all County sponsored and, where practical, private coastal development projects (for example, beach nourishment).”

Robinson insisted the change would provide more public access, which Lobeck disputed.

Andy Mele. News Leader photo
Andy Mele. News Leader photo

Mele also criticized county staff because materials documenting the evolution of the revision are not available. He added that he had found it difficult to track all the changes.

In response to a question from Commissioner Carolyn Mason, Elma Felix, a county planner, explained that the draft is 1,200 pages and weighs 12 pounds, if printed. “It’s very difficult to track in a linear fashion a document of that magnitude in a strikethrough/underline format to get us to this point,” she said. Moreover, this is a brand new version, Felix stressed, so every part of the original Comprehensive Plan would have had strikethroughs.

However, Felix continued, staff has material showing the series of changes in the goals, objectives and policies sections, and she could provide that to anyone who requested it.

The County Commission review of the draft will continue at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 10, at the Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.