County’s draft Parks Master Plan points to a focus on regional facilities and planning for slower population growth

County Commission will discuss the document on June 21

The draft Parks Master Plan was release this week. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The draft Parks Master Plan was released this week. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Given the expectation that Sarasota County’s population will grow more slowly over the next 20 years and remain relatively low in terms of density, the focus of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department should be less on small neighborhood parks and more on community and regional facilities and services, the county’s draft Parks, Preserves and Recreation Strategic Master Plan says.

The aging population also will have an impact on needs for accessibility, the document’s Executive Summary notes.

Yet, the document continues, funding for additional capital improvements and staffing will be limited for at least the next five years.

Carolyn Brown, director of the Parks Department, provided the County Commission this week with a copy of the Executive Summary and the complete draft in advance of the board’s discussion of the material on June 21.That exchange is scheduled for the morning session of the regular County Commission meeting, which will begin at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

The creation of the Master Plan began in February 2014. The last update the board had from the consultant assisting staff with the project was in early February.

The draft’s Executive Summary points out that the county’s system of parks and preserves contains more than 160 sites encompassing about 3,600 acres of park land and more than 50,000 acres of managed natural areas.

It also notes that more than 2,900 residents and stakeholders participated in a needs assessment process for the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department; they completed surveys, engaged in interviews with commissioners, met in focus groups, attended public workshops and special events, and evaluated sites and levels of service.

The key findings from the process determined that county staff should address changing population needs and trends; deferred maintenance and repairs; and sports tourism.

Continued focus also should be placed on dog-friendly and off-leash dog parks; fitness and exercise facilities; playgrounds; athletic fields and complexes; access to natural preserves; connectivity; paved trails such as The Legacy Trail; nature trails and centers, along with wildlife habitat; restrooms; large spaces for community events; and small neighborhood parks, the Executive Summary points out.

These classifications are scheduled to be updated, the draft says. Image courtesy Sarasota County
These classifications are scheduled to be updated, the draft says. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Because of anticipated funding constraints, the Parks, Department should put its attention over the next few years on developing a regional framework for the parks system, the summary adds. Among the characteristics of such a system are facilities that serve multiple communities and cross political jurisdictions; larger parcels — typically greater than 100 acres; and accessibility by means of “a good network and roads and trails,” the document says.

The process should include updating and refining interlocal agreements with each of the municipalities, “focusing on the County’s role as a regional park provider,” the summary notes.

Among other top priorities are evaluating the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) and Neighborhood Parklands Program funding, with an eye toward allocating “a higher percentage toward maintenance and operation of existing sites”; planning and designing the North County Sports Complex on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota; acquiring property for the planned Mid and South County sports complexes; extending The Legacy Trail (see the related story in this issue); and continuing to sell Transfers of Development Rights (TDRs) “to supplement acquisitions.” (TDRs are part of the county’s Sarasota 2050 Plan for development east of Interstate 75; they are designed to concentrate density in certain areas to ensure open space is protected in others.)

A graphic shows the types of park facility amenities the county has. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic provides details about park facilities and amenities in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among notes of concern in the draft plan are the following:

  • Many of the fees the county charges for programs and events do not bring in sufficient revenue to offset costs, which “often results in the County subsidizing these activities.” An updated comprehensive fee policy that is being finalized “will establish and formalize a fees and charges schedule to address this issue,” the draft points out.
  • The Parks Recreation and Natural Resources Department has limited staff time to initiate activities and events and to manage those provided by others because of the “need to focus on ensuring parks are clean and safe.”

The draft also points out that the Master Plan’s focus “will be on sustainability, preservation, access to land and water, recreational services that positively impact health and wellbeing, connecting the community through trails and opportunities to bring people together.”