Conservation easement to be placed on three of county’s Quads parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields

County Commission also authorizes staff to work on filling in bike lanes, sidewalks and portion of Center Road to improve public access to the area

This graphic shows the Quad parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Shortly after 4 p.m. on Nov. 6, cheers, whistles and applause rang out in the Sarasota County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota.

People packing the meeting room were showing their support for a unanimous board vote that came on a motion by Commissioner Alan Maio. That motion directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to have staff work with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and the Sarasota Audubon Society to place a conservation easement on three of the open “Quads” parcels the county owns next to the Celery Fields. His motion, Maio made clear, was to ensure that no commercial development would take place on the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Quads, so the property could continue to serve as a buffer for the internationally renowned bird-watching area on about 440 acres in eastern Sarasota County.

Someone 10 years from now could not come to the board, Maio said, asking for the rezoning of one or more of the Quads parcels without the commission’s having removed that easement.

“And I can only imagine, 10 years from now, this group [in the Chambers], or their kids or their grandkids, eating commissioners alive” for trying to get rid of that easement, Maio added, prompting laughter among the audience members.

Christine Johnson addresses the board on Nov. 6. News Leader image

Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation, and Jeanne Dubi, acting president of Sarasota Audubon, laid out details of their plans as the first two speakers Chair Charles Hines called to the podium on the afternoon of Nov. 6.

Working with the Sarasota Audubon Society as its partner, Johnson explained, the Foundation wanted to offer what she called “a solution to the Quad parcels conundrum.”

Their focus was on the Southeast and Northeast Quads, she continued. The goal, if the commission would give its approval, Johnson said, is “to create woodland on the southeastern parcel for different species of birds” than those found in the Celery Fields’ wetlands. The two organizations also would create trails for people, Johnson noted.

Calling the Northeast Quad’s stormwater retention pond “quite frankly boring,” Johnson said the goal would be to create “a more aesthetically pleasing pond” with shade trees and benches.

She added, “We would work with county staff to plan the best outcome.”

As their vision entails low maintenance expenses, Johnson continued, the Foundation and Sarasota Audubon would seek funding from their own members, private foundations and the general public to realize their vision.

The Foundation, she said, “will hold the conservation easement in perpetuity.”

Calling the Celery Fields “a beloved place,” she added that the plans would “protect it and buffer it.”

Maio pointed out that “whatever gets accomplished here” will take negotiations with County Administrator Lewis, the Office of the County Attorney and Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, and Rissler’s staff. He added that, at that time, he was not certain whether a lease or some other sort of agreement would work best for creating the easement.

“Both of our organizations have a long history of collaborating with the county,” Johnson responded.

During her remarks, Dubi of Sarasota Audubon reminded the commissioners that her nonprofit leases 1 acre of property from the county at the Celery Fields for the Nature Center it operates. That facility opened in October 2015, she noted.

In 2001, she continued, Sarasota Audubon began surveying the Celery Fields; its findings showed the potential for the area to become a “world-class birding area for ecotourists and an area for passive recreation. … Everything we thought could happen did happen.”

An estimated 100,000 people visit the Celery Fields every year, Dubi pointed out. “Maybe more.”

This is the Nature Center at the Celery Fields. Image from the banner of the Sarasota Audubon Society website

Over the 440 acres, she said, 246 species of birds have been counted. Of those, 40 breed in the area, she noted. Two are on the Florida Imperiled Species List, she continued, and three others considered imperiled species “are commonly seen at the Celery Fields.”

Development on the Southeast Quad, Dubi stressed, “could seriously affect the health of the bird populations. Once productive habitat is squeezed by buildings,” she explained, wildlife retreats into the center,” setting up competition for resources, which ultimately results in a decline in population. “It would be sad to see species declining when we could so easily prevent that from happening,” she told the board members.

Even before Johnson and Dubi made their remarks, Commissioner Nancy Detert had talked of a similar vision for the Quads.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

Detert pointed out that the Northwest Quad is home to a county fire station; a new facility is under construction, county Planner Steve Kirk noted in his presentation that afternoon.

Referring to that situation, Detert said, “So that’s a done deal; so that’s off,” indicating her belief that the county would not sell that property.

As for the Southeast and Southwest Quads, she continued, “I have no problem with just letting bare ground lay there so rain can go through, down to the aquifer.”

That comment prompted a round of applause and cheers from the audience, too.

Detert continued, “This board is 5-0 committed to water quality issues, [having voted to spend] hundreds of millions of dollars” to improve the county’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into county waterways.

“For what we’d make off of this,” Detert said of selling the Quads, she believed the return would be minimal compared to the value of preserving the parcels in a natural state.

A brief history and focus on the future

Just before he began calling speakers to the podium, Chair Hines explained that he has been on the board longer than any other commissioner. It was not that long ago, he continued, that the community endured “an incredible recession,” which prompted County Commission discussion about potentially raising taxes or taking other steps to keep the county budget balanced — which the law requires it to do, he noted later.

One source of revenue the board members explored was the sale of surplus properties, Hines pointed out. “These Quads … were laid out to be developed,” he said, with fill having been brought in to raise their elevation.

“Obviously, parks and open space are a government use,” he continued. However, the question at this point, he said, is whether the county should keep all the Quads as public space.

“Obviously,” he said, “the Celery Fields over time has developed into an incredible facility. Is there a reasonable basis to create buffers and setbacks?”

Ostensibly, the discussion that day was to focus on how the board wanted to proceed, given findings of a months-long staff analysis of how to incorporate future uses of the Quads into a Critical Area Plan (CAP) governing a 381-acre area east of Interstate 75, including development around Fruitville Road.

This graphic shows details about the Interstate 75/Fruitville Major Employment Center (MEC) Critical Area Plan properties. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As far as the approximately 30 speakers were concerned, the agenda item was a figurative referendum on whether the Celery Fields could be preserved from incompatible development.

Speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of the Celery Fields not just as a haven the 246 species of birds but also as a refuge for children, walkers, runners, horseback riders and those who relish the healthful boost from communing with nature.

Even Commissioner Christian Ziegler talked of how much his three young daughters love visiting “the big mountain,” which is what residents call “Mt. Celery.” That is the peak that piques interest of passersby who are unfamiliar with the Celery Fields, as other speakers noted.

“They have a lot of fun going up there,” Ziegler added of his daughters. “Sometimes, rolling down from there. It’s just a great experience.”

After approximately 90 minutes of public comments, Commissioner Detert initially made a motion that was similar to the one Maio made, which ultimately won approval. The difference with his direction, Maio explained was that he did not want staff to have to pursue any rezoning of the Quads before working on the conservation easement. Rezoning the property to Government Use (GU) — which allows only public or civic uses — could take six to eight months, Maio pointed out.

(Detert earlier had won clarification from county Planner Kirk that the “Quads are not zoned for industrial use.”)

Moreover, in exchanges with Maio, Kirk concurred that the conservation easement would limit development on the parcels except for uses designated by the easement.

Additionally, in his exchange with Maio, Kirk pointed out, “This is not a public hearing.” That fact also cleared the path for board direction for staff to start on the easement process, Assistant County Attorney Joshua Moye told Maio.

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

With no one having seconded Detert’s motion, it died, allowing Maio to offer his.

Commissioner Michael Moran seconded the motion before Maio even finished making it, prompting chuckles from his colleagues.

Maio then explained that the consulting firm with which he was a principal before his 2014 election to the board — Kimley-Horn and Associates of Sarasota — “did the Celery Fields project. It was a gigantic stormwater project. … We had, with major rain events, major in-structure flooding in that part of the county.”

Creating the stormwater area solved the flooding issue, Maio continued. “Then it created this entire bird sanctuary. … Everything grew up around it. … Hundreds, thousands of homes, with more to come, built up around it. … This is isolated here,” he added of the Celery Fields, “and that’s why we probably need to conserve it.”

Moran called the action that afternoon “just a great example of how this board does listen to its constituents. … There’s absolutely no substitute for facts and detailed testimony and meaningful data …”

“For me,” Moran continued, “the Conservation Foundation and the Audubon Society were the missing piece of this puzzle.”

One other piece of the puzzle

On a separate motion on Nov. 6, the commissioners also voted unanimously to direct staff to undertake the necessary steps to fill in gaps that staff analysis had identified in regard to bicycle lanes and sidewalks, as well as a missing segment of Center Road, in the vicinity of the Quads.

Planner Kirk explained staff’s findings in detail in regard to those points.

This graphic illustrates gaps in sidewalks, bicycle lanes and Center Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is a closeup of the county map. Image courtesy Sarasota County

For example, he said, Center Road — a local road — comes south off Fruitville Road and runs along Celery Hill before terminating near that area, just north of Palmer Boulevard. About 1,400 feet of road is missing, he said. Filling in that gap would be a boon to drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists, he added.

For another example, Kirk noted that a sidewalk is needed for the Porter Road crossing of the Main C Canal adjacent to the Celery Fields. Additionally, he said, sidewalk gaps had been identified on Coburn Road along Ackerman Park and on Apex Road along the northern boundary of the Quads.

The largest missing section of bike lanes, Kirk continued, is along Porter Road from Palmer Boulevard to Raymond Road; another section — approximately 600 feet — is needed on Raymond Road north of Porter Road.

Plenty of unanimity in perspectives

Nancy Nallin. News Leader image

Among the 30 speakers, Nancy Nallin of Sarasota talked about her unawareness of the Celery Fields until she began working at Big Cat Habitat several years ago. (Big Cat Habitat is a neighbor to the Celery Fields.)

She lives near Siesta Key, Nallin noted. On her commute to Big Cat Habitat, as she approaches the Celery Fields, she continued, “It’s almost like a herald of angels when you see all that open space. … That area really is the gateway to what has become such a regional treasure for Sarasota.”

Then Nallin talked of Mt. Celery, noting it is “almost like our Ayers Rock, only with palm trees and grass,” referring to the Australian landmark.

Robert Wright, conservation chair of the Sarasota Audubon Society, explained that he attended his first County Commission meeting when he was 16 years old. On that occasion, he said, the board was considering the future of Caspersen Beach, as the owner of that property had died and the heirs had a decision to make about whether to develop a condominium project on the site. Hundreds of people attended that meeting, he continued, and the commission that day ensured that Caspersen Beach would remain open to the public.

Wright urged the commissioners to unify all four Quads with the Celery Fields, ensuring that members of the community “don’t ever have to worry about something coming in there that is going to be a detriment to the economy, to tourism, to the environment …”

Tom Matrullo, one of the leaders of a community organization called Fresh Start for the Celery Fields — which worked last year, at the commission’s behest, on potential uses for the Quads — emphasized that industrialization of the county’s Quads property would go “against everything that’s happening there” in the area around the Celery Fields.

He also noted the road constraints, which “are too tight. [Planner] Steve Kirk’s excellentpresentation made that perfectly clear.”

Staff offered the commissioners these recommendations in regard to the Quads. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Carlann Evans was one of numerous speakers who referred to themselves as “bird nerds” who relish the wildlife at the Celery Fields. She also joined many others in asking the board members to keep all the Quads in public ownership.

Carlann Evans offers her thoughts on Nov. 6. News Leader image

When red tide was so bad last year, Evans continued, to find some relief, “I hung at the Celery Fields.”

When her teenage son “got completely annoyed” at her, she added, where did he go? He rode his bike out to the Celery Fields, Evans said, “ ’Cause he could just chill out there.”

“Athletes, track kids, moms and dads — everybody loves [the Celery Fields] so much.”