Contract should be ready within two to three weeks for hiring of consultant to suggest zoning districts for county property near the Celery Fields

Commissioner Maio voices disappointment with the delay

The Celery Fields draws a wide variety of migratory birds — and human visitors. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Within two to three weeks, Sarasota County staff hopes to have a contract ready to recommend to the County Commission regarding the hiring of a consultant to rezone a parcel near the Celery Fields.

That was the news County Administrator Jonathan Lewis provided on Jan. 30, referencing county-owned land that staff calls the Northwest Quad.

On Nov. 28, 2017, the commissioners voted unanimously to direct staff to hire an outside consultant for the rezoning of that property to a district they indicated should be compatible with the adjoining land that already has been developed and with the Celery Fields, the county’s internationally known bird-watching park. Then the County Commission plans to try to sell the property.

During the board’s Jan. 30 meeting, Commissioner Alan Maio asked about the status of the rezoning, prompting the response from County Administrator Jonathan Lewis about the expected timing for the contract to appear on a board agenda.

In March 2017, a company proposing to construct a 60,000-square-foot restaurant supply warehouse on the Northwest Quad ultimately cancelled its agreement with the county to purchase the land; the sale was contingent on the rezoning of the property for the project.

Advocates for the Celery Fields had protested the JMDH Real Estate of Sarasota proposal for the warehouse, arguing that the business would not be compatible with the adjacent stormwater area that draws such a wide variety of migratory birds and serves as home to other types of wildlife. The natural area draws visitors from around the world.

Since then, representatives of an organization called Fresh Start for the Celery Fields urged the commission to keep the three Quads parcels that originally were on the county’s surplus lands list. The board voted not to sell one, and it agreed to have Fresh Start work with county staff to propose ideas about the future of a second one.

A graphic explains the county’s ‘Quads’ parcels. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, during a Nov. 28, 2017 discussion on the issue, Maio proposed that an outside consultant handle the rezoning of the 6.9 acres of the Northwest Quad; he anticipated the expense at $30,000 to $40,000, given his professional planning background prior to his election to the board.

In his recent one-on-one discussions with representatives of Fresh Start, Maio pointed out at that time, they had indicated they would not be totally opposed to any development on the Quads, but they were concerned about the types of projects that might be proposed. If the County commissioners agreed on permitted uses of the Northwest Quad before it was offered for sale again, Maio said, that potentially would prevent future public disputes.

After Lewis on Jan. 30 explained the status of the effort to hire the consultant, Maio replied that he thought the process would be simpler, that staff would be able to choose someone from the county “library” listing firms already approved by the Procurement Department to handle specific work under circumstances that would not necessitate advertisement for bids.

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

“But here we are, two months into it, and we still have not selected the planning firm,” Maio said. “We never want speed to replace accuracy,” he continued, “but we won’t get this to vote on till sometime in February,” which would be about two-and-a-half months after the board authorized the hiring.

That is all the more reason, Maio pointed out, for the county library to have “a standing group of professionals in a whole host of areas.”

“There was nobody in the library that could do the scope of work,” Lewis explained. Staff is at work to remedy that deficiency, Lewis added. “You hit the nail on the head,” he told Maio.

Speaking again of the timeline, Maio responded, “It’s just a little heartbreaking.”

Still, Maio told Lewis, “No worries.”

The board formally hired Lewis as county administrator during its first meeting of the year, held on Jan. 16. Former County Administrator Tom Harmer’s final day was Dec. 8, 2017. Harmer accepted an offer from the Town of Longboat Key to become its new manager.