Board members cite conflicts between the proposed modifications and the vision for mixed-use development
It all came down to the vision for the Fruitville Initiative, a years-long community process to create a signature look for the area considered the gateway to Sarasota County from Interstate-75.
Benderson Development’s director of development, Todd Mathes, was appearing before the County Commission on Oct. 28 to seek rezoning approval so the firm could deviate from regulations crafted for the Fruitville Initiative. Benderson wanted to modify the design of its light industrial manufacturing and mixed-use project for a 42-acre site adjacent to the Fruitville Library and the Celery Fields, which it purchased from the county in the summer of 2014. The sale price was $3 million, with Benderson agreeing to another $1.35 million for the expense of fill material.
Benderson sought to reduce the number of public secondary streets, decrease the number of blocks from seven to two — thereby increasing the block size — and provide for a deeper setback of a mixed-use building that would front Fruitville Road.
After more than three hours of discussion and public comments, the commissioners voted 5-0 to deny the rezoning petition
The first hint of how the vote might go came early in the public hearing, after county Planner Steve Kirk completed his presentation.
“Might as well just deal with this right upfront,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo began. “Anybody understanding a very synoptic version about what you just said, how we might or might not feel about form-based codes, how we might or might not feel about New Urbanism and all these quote-unquote smart growth principles,” Caragiulo said, would ask how Kirk could square the proposed changes with the principles of New Urbanism.
“Well, I don’t,” Kirk replied, referencing the material he provided to the board in advance of the meeting. “[The Benderson proposal] is a departure from those standards. … The traditional town center design envisions a main street that has a mix of uses,” Kirk said, with primarily retail businesses on the ground floor and upper-story offices and residences on the main street.
“They really don’t meet that design concept,” Kirk continued of the Benderson plans. The Fruitville Initiative was structured so those design concepts would be met, he added. Therefore, Benderson had to submit its application to change the zoning code if it wanted to pursue the project as planned.
When it came down to the vote, Caragiulo made the motion for denial. Commissioner Charles Hines seconded it, telling the approximately 40 people in the audience, “I feel that this project … does not match with the goals and intents of [the Fruitville Initiative].” The Benderson team’s revised proposal, he said, “does not have a true mixed-use [component],” and it changes the grid and road system envisioned for Fruitville Initiative development. “To me,” he added, the Benderson project “should be in another place.”
Vice Chair Al Maio concurred. “It’s the wrong thing here.”
When Caragiulo clarified that the Benderson proposal represented “basically, a more conventional development scheme for a parcel,” Kirk said that was an accurate assessment of the light industrial portion of the plan.
Chair Carolyn Mason talked about the fact that the Fruitville Initiative planning was under way when she first was elected to the County Commission in 2008. “That was a long hard process for all of the property owners, for all of the concerned citizens, who took part in that process.”
She added, “I would like to see some more work done on a proposal that can work for everybody.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Christine Robinson, Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy said that, according to county regulations, a petitioner cannot come back to the board with a new proposal until a year has passed following a denial or the end of any litigation following a denial. However, Roddy said, a petitioner can seek a waiver of that time period.
The Sarasota News Leader attempted to obtain a comment from Mathes after the hearing ended, but Mathes and the other Benderson team members rushed to the ground-floor exit of the Ringling Boulevard Administration Center, not stopping to speak with anyone.
Mathes of Benderson Development told the board during the public hearing that, according to Future Land Use regulations for a major employment center (MEC) — the zoning under which the firm has planned for the site — Benderson is entitled to 516,000 square feet of space with a mix of industrial, office and retail uses as well as 300 dwelling units. However, the section of code that governs the Fruitville Initiative allows Benderson or any other property owner in that Initiative to change the uses at the administrative level, without having to appear before the commission.
Mathes stressed, “We are not changing the use with this application.” The company is just proposing “a slight adjustment to how that street grid lays out.” Instead of creating blocks that would be four-tenths or five-tenths of a mile long, for example, the plan called for blocks that would be six-tenths or seven-tenths of a mile long.
He added that the commission should not consider development under the Fruitville Initiative on a parcel-by-parcel basis but in the entire context, with mixed uses.
“We have developed a strong main street,” Mathes added. “What’s different is that [one] street would be totally eliminated by the proposed buildings here,” he said, showing the board members a graphic of the layout. Further, he told the commissioners, “as we don’t particularly know where a door or window may go in the future,” the mixed-use structure fronting Fruitville Road would have green screens to indicate the potential locations of businesses.
He noted that the result would be “a highly articulated building” with a sidewalk in front of it, landscaping and street-front and side parking. He said the area would be “pedestrian-friendly.”
The main north-south street, which would connect with Coburn Road, would have sidewalks on both sides, Mathes continued, and landscaping would include shade trees and palms, “to make it a pleasant experience” for pedestrians.
The east-west connector road would border the Celery Fields, he added. The site plan also called for a 10-foot wide paved walkway, a viewing platform the full length of the property “and a high amount of native landscaping to provide cover to the users of the Celery Fields,” as well as foraging sources for the wildlife that frequents that natural area.
The goal is to start construction of the buildings “very, very soon,” he told the commissioners. “It’s going to be a very successful start to the Fruitville Initiative.”
The 50-foot-wide linear park at the rear of the property, the east-west connector and the building on Fruitville Road will be in the first phase, he added.
When Commissioner Charles Hines asked for clarification about whether the project would feature a mix of retail businesses, Mathes replied, “We are not giving up our allotted retail square footage” for the project site. Some of the firms utilizing the warehouses, he continued, would be expected to have retail storefronts, for example.
“Is it something that people are actually going to walk to and use as a town center?” Hines asked. Further, would people have to “fight tractor-trailer traffic?” he questioned Mathes, referring to the trucks expected to come and go regularly because of the businesses using the warehouses.
The project team “went to great lengths,” Mathes replied, “to ensure that [the design] is very inviting. No trucks will be traveling along the road at the rear of the property, he added.
Mathes emphasized that the application for the rezoning focused on “block and perimeter size.”
Hines also pointed out, “Sometimes folks get upset if a deal is changed. That happens all the time … but you need to explain to me why [the revised plan] is better than what’s currently allowed.”
Hines added, “What we’re hearing, basically, is this is going to be a big truck stop.”
“This is not going to be a truck stop,” Mathes responded, pointing out again that industrial uses are allowed on parcels in the Fruitville Initiative. The biggest difference is that the revised plan calls for two large buildings in place of four medium-sized ones, he said, noting that the larger structures would provide better protection for the activities in the Celery Fields behind them.
“You’re not changing the use,” Caragiulo agreed with Mathes, “ but the problem I’m having is that it’s such a fundamental departure from the intention of the [Fruitville] Initiative.”
Caragiulo added, “It’s very easy to look at this and see this as conventional development, which is exactly the opposite of what someone who wants to apply New Urbanistic principles wants.”
Vice Chair Maio pointed out that another property owner in the Fruitville Initiative could opt to ask for revisions under the code as well. “At some point,” he said, “that New Urbanist character goes away.”
The views on the Initiative
During the public comments portion of the hearing, Scott Featherman provided each of the commissioners with a set of copies, about 2 inches thick, of the materials he had gathered during the charrettes and workshops held to craft the Fruitville Initiative. “I’m proud of this document,” he said. “We are indeed talking about an aesthetic, and sometimes ‘aesthetic’ is hard to explain,” he added, noting, “I do feel … most people can tell the difference between a Monet and a stick figure. … We don’t want a Monet to turn into a stick figure.”
He said the Benderson project does not adhere to the provisions created for the Fruitville Initiative. While the plan may “seem to be coherently functional within its use,” he continued, it conflicts with two of the major concepts: lot sizes and building size on the lots. The code’s provisions for interconnectivity and pedestrian- and bike-friendly design will “actually very much be hampered by having these large lots and these large buildings.”
Gary Heffner, chairman of the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance, told the board that when Benderson purchased the property from the county, it promised “to work in harmony with [the] guiding principles” of the Fruitville Initiative. If the board approved the petition for the zoning changes, he added, the Fruitville Initiative “will begin to fall apart, parcel by parcel.”
John Krotec, former chairman of the Fruitville 210 Alliance and the current county liaison to that group, pointed out that the years-long process to create the Fruitville Initiative involved residents of more than 3,400 homes in 20 neighborhoods and cost about $1 million in public funding. “We created an innovative vision [of] mixed-use, safe and walkable neighborhoods surrounding the Fruitville Library [on Coburn Road] … [which would be] the crown jewel for the main gateway into our beautiful county,” he added. “This petition disrespects and disregards the citizen process that created this Initiative.”
Kathleen Welch-Wilson, a resident of one of the neighborhoods along Fruitville Road, said she participated in the Fruitville Initiative planning from its inception. People trusted the County Commission to adhere to the code the residents helped craft, she pointed out. Mathes was correct in saying Benderson had the ability to create light industrial warehousing on that acreage, she said, but the Initiative’s focus was on mixed uses. Further, she added, referencing the Benderson proposal to increase the block size, “I don’t think that walking six-tenths of a mile in the Florida sun is very much fun.”
Mona Baker, another member of the Fruitville 210 Alliance, told the board, “‘No big boxes’ was the mantra” during the Fruitville Initiative planning process.
“Walkability isn’t a sidewalk with trees,” Cathy Antunes, a member of the board of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations said, adding, “You all have the obligation to set the table for prosperity for this community.”
Judy Earl, a former Sarasota County attorney who noted she helped write the county’s Comprehensive Plan, pointed out that the project “on its face [is] a departure from smart growth compact principles. … These are going to be gigantic buildings that all look alike.”
Sarasota architect William Zoller told the board that, based on his review of the Benderson application, the buildings — which are proposed to be 40 feet tall — would take up 33 1/3 percent of the site, equivalent to the square footage of 10.4 football fields with the end zones. In comparison, he said, The Mall at University Town Center — also a Benderson Development project — comprises about 800,000 square feet.
All but one of the 23 speakers voiced opposition to the proposed zoning changes.
The sole person who did not was Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley of Bentley & Bruning, who was representing an adjacent landowner; Bentley submitted to the board an agreement about utility access upon which his client and the Benderson team had agreed.