County Commission maintains revised Comprehensive Plan will continue to provide adequate protection for people as well as the land

Big part of public hearing focuses on revised policies regarding traffic, but board declines to modify staff-recommended language

The Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan is available on the county website. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan is available on the county website. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although almost 20 speakers pleaded for stiffening language they called weaker in the draft, the Sarasota County Commission this week unanimously approved a revised version of its Comprehensive Plan that it maintains will protect the county and its residents during future land-use planning efforts.

Arguably, the lengthiest discussion — a total of about 40 minutes — during the approximately four-and-a-half-hour-long hearing on Oct. 25 focused on traffic and development. Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now, urged the board to modify one policy that he said would allow it to have more control over potential impacts of new construction, but the commissioners ultimately chose to keep the language staff had proposed.

Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy and Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins explained that because of a 2007 vote by the Florida Legislature, the county no longer can require a developer to pay for projects designed to ease congestion associated with a new project. However, Wiggins pointed out, staff still can require specific studies and use that information in a model it is creating to extrapolate the need for widening roads and adding bicycle lanes, for example.

As directed in a motion by Commissioner Christine Robinson, County Administrator Tom Harmer is to make certain that Wiggins and her staff in four months complete the necessary amendments to county ordinances that will detail the types of traffic studies a developer will have to pay to undertake.

In the meantime, Roddy explained, the revised Comprehensive Plan will ensure that the county can use the new mobility fee system it adopted in 2015 to require payments from a developer to help cover the expense of transportation improvements.

The amended document will be transmitted to the state for a final review, Planning Division Manager Allen Parsons told the board. If it is not challenged, it will take effect 31 days from Oct. 25.

Another new policy the board approved on a 4-1 vote — at the recommendation of staff — provides criteria that the County Commission can consider in deciding whether a development might be too dense or intense for the area where the project is proposed, even if the county’s future land classification of the site allows such density.

Parsons explained, “There may be circumstances where a property is not necessarily entitled to go to a density or intensity” shown on future land use maps. Such circumstances may include the characteristics of the site, availability of adequate public infrastructure and compatibility with surrounding development patterns.

Commission Chair Al Maio. Rachel Hackney photo
Commission Chair Al Maio. Rachel Hackney photo

When Chair Al Maio sought clarification that, under those guidelines in Future Land Use Policy 1.1.1, a developer might not even get the minimum density shown as the future land classification, Parsons said that was correct.

“This conversation is important,” Commissioner Charles Hines told Parsons, referencing emails the board members had received saying they were eliminating policies from the revised plan that would allow them to consider compatibility.

The measure “is indicative of a number of different policies that really do have strong guidance in decision making for the commission, taking into consideration compatibility,” Parsons replied.

When Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo asked whether that new policy could be applied to a project proposed next to an existing neighborhood, Parsons told him, “Not necessarily.”

Caragiulo cast the only “No” vote on that recommended change, which consolidated the previous Future Land Use Policies 1.1.1 and 1.3.6.

Getting to this point

As Assistant County Attorney David Pearce put it in the response to a recent legal challenge against the county, the Comprehensive Plan “is similar to a constitution for all future development within Sarasota County.”

Planning Division Manager Allen Parsons. Rachel Hackney photo
Planning Division Manager Allen Parsons. Rachel Hackney photo

During his Oct. 25 presentation, Parsons pointed out that the last time the plan underwent a full revision was about 10 years ago; typically, such plans are updated every seven years.

The two-volume 1,300-page revision will replace the current document, Parsons said. The version the board addressed on Oct. 25 was the fifth draft since the process began about 18 months ago, Parsons pointed out. “This was an in-house effort,” he added, though counties typically hire a consultant to undertake such work.

Seven Planning Commission hearings were held on staff recommendations for changes, and the County Commission held three days of public hearings on them this summer — two in June and the final one on July 6.

On July 15, a staff memo notes, the document was transmitted to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and other state agencies for review, as required by state law. County staff received all comments by Aug. 19, the memo adds. “No adverse impacts” were identified, Parsons told the board on Oct. 25. Most of the remarks “were very much technical in nature.”

Lobeck and the traffic discussion

During his public comments, Lobeck specifically addressed the new Transportation Policy 1.3.12, which eliminates concurrency. That was the former system that required a developer to pay for traffic improvements necessitated by a new project. The new policy says the county “will review proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendments and Critical Area Plans, and take into consideration their effects on the multi-modal transportation system and the adopted levels of service, and any need for facility improvements they cause or exacerbate.”

“Level of service” refers to how drivers perceive traffic is flowing in a particular area.

Lobeck urged the board to modify the language to add rezonings and special exceptions to the sentence, along with Comprehensive Plan Amendments and Critical Area Plans. If the board would do that, he added, “you come out to where I think the public wants you to be.”

In a memo to the commission, Lobeck continued, Deputy County Attorney Roddy explained that the state would allow the county to require traffic impact studies if the county moved from concurrency to the use of mobility fees.

Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo
Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo

Commissioner Hines then referenced the new Future Land Use (FLU) Policy 2.3.7, which says, “In established residential areas, incompatible land uses shall be discouraged if traffic is generated on abutting local streets in amounts that would substantially and adversely affect traffic flow, traffic control and public safety.”

The existing policy — FLU 1.2.2 — reads, “In established residential areas, land uses shall be discouraged if traffic is generated on local streets in amounts that would adversely affect traffic flow, traffic control and public safety.”

Perhaps the revised version is too narrow, Hines suggested. What Lobeck was saying, Hines continued, was that the traffic studies are needed “so that we can have the information to make that determination of whatever [a development] adversely affects: traffic flow, traffic control and public safety.”

“Yes, sir,” Lobeck replied.

Modifying Transportation Policy 1.3.12 as he had proposed “takes care of the traffic issue,” Lobeck said, adding that that issue, “to most people, is No. 1.”

Commissioner Robinson referred to the first part of that policy, though, in suggesting the wording was sufficient. That first line says, “Sarasota County shall continue to review individual applications for rezoning, special exceptions, and approvals under the land Development Regulations for safety, adequate ingress and egress, compatibility, operational issues at impacted intersections and circulation, as provided in the County Code, but shall not apply traffic concurrency standards to them.”

Noting Lobeck’s suggestion to modify the second sentence, she added, “I think it’s a back-door way of saying concurrency …”

“You’re not requiring money,” Lobeck replied, which was a factor with concurrency.

“We can’t stop [developers] from overcrowding the roads,” Hines said, unless the board considers it a matter of public safety.

The new Transportation Policy 1.3.12. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is the new Transportation Policy 1.3.12. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Asked his opinion, Roddy said he felt the board could require traffic studies in conjunction with applications for rezonings and special exceptions, “if it’s looking at the broader impacts over a system and deciding that they are too much, too expansive …”

However, after Wiggins explained, “We were never intending on eliminating traffic studies. … We still need information about how many trips are being generated by the proposed development [and] the distribution of that proposed traffic. [For example], Where’s that traffic going?”

Dan Lobeck. File photo
Dan Lobeck. File photo

Already, she pointed out, her staff was undertaking the necessary research to draft an amended ordinance that would be compatible with the elimination of concurrency in the revised Comprehensive Plan. Even though the change would reduce the types of studies that could be required, Wiggins said, the new county modeling software would be able to extrapolate the information that can be asked of a developer, to achieve the projections staff needs in maintaining adequate roadways.

During comments after the hearing, Lobeck told the board he felt like a bride-to-be whose intended had given her an engagement ring and then just “yanked it off her finger.”

He added, “I was encouraged by our dialogue, and I see you made no change [in Transportation Policy 1.3.12].”

Wiggins had explained that the studies that will be required under the new Comprehensive Plan will be limited to crashes at intersections, ingress and egress and circulation within a development, he continued. “The upshot of all this is that now … Sarasota County will no longer be considering traffic congestion as a factor in approving or disapproving … rezonings and special exceptions. That is a remarkable change in policy.”