County Commission agrees with staff’s view that the existing wetlands continue to function, even though the project team’s proposed mitigation plan would have created new wetlands encompassing triple the space of the current ones
They agreed in late March to give the applicants an opportunity to persuade the county’s environmental staff — and them — that a mitigation plan would be superior to leaving existing wetlands in place. This week, the Sarasota County commissioners remained unconvinced that the mitigation proposal submitted by Kobernick-Anchin-Benderson, The Meadows Community Association and The Meadows Country Club was sufficient.
On June 7, the board unanimously denied a petition to rezone property located northwest of 17th Street and Honore Avenue in Sarasota to allow the Aviva senior living facility to create 85 new independent living units after destroying wetlands on the site.
County Planner Jack Wilhelm explained that the Aviva facility has 225 dwelling units, and it wanted to increase the number to approximately 310.
Yet, Wilhelm said, “The applicant has not provided sufficient evidence that demonstrates the project meets the criteria justifying the proposed wetland impacts.”
(Commissioner Michael Moran filed the formal paperwork to recuse himself from the hearing, citing a conflict of interest because of his and his wife’s ownership of property in the area.)
Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson Development, told the commission that the team members behind the proposed Aviva expansion had put “four years into this effort. They have considerable expense they have incurred. … For them to walk away with nothing,” he added, “would be a terrible thing. It would be a complete injustice to them.”
Nonetheless, Commissioner Nancy Detert made the motion to deny the rezoning, telling Mathes, “Basically, you have an unbuildable lot that you’re trying to turn into a buildable lot. It’s not our job to help you do that.”
Mathes asserted a number of times that the proposed mitigation plan would create new wetlands triple the area that would be destroyed. County staff members remained firm that the existing wetlands sites on the Aviva site continue to function; therefore, consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, they should be preserved.
“When you’re dealing with a natural environment,” Environmental Permitting Manager Howard Berna explained, in almost every case, “[it is] functioning better than what we can create.” Berna added that “it takes many years” for a man-made wetlands to function as well as a natural one, though the new one may look as good as a natural one in a relatively short period of time.
Berna likened the situation to a main street with building facades in “an old Western movie,” noting, “It’s not quite what it seems.”
Referring to the Aviva site, Berna continued, “The wetlands that are there today … that have been there decades, centuries — however long Florida has been above the sea level … function differently” than wetlands created for mitigation would function until at least several years have passed.
Mathes referenced the Wetland Mitigation and Monitoring Plan that the WRA environmental services firm in Bradenton completed for Aviva in April 2017. That report says the wetlands on the project site are “surrounded by commercial and residential development,” and the “water environment in the project area has been heavily impacted due to runoff from the surrounding development.”
The WRA analysis, Mathes continued, shows that the wetlands on the Aviva property have a functionality level equivalent to 30% to 40%. “Usage by wildlife is very limited,” he added. Furthermore, the wetlands are isolated, whereas the proposed mitigation area proposed would be connected to streams that ultimately would lead to Phillippi Creek, he said.
The plan called for 17.9 acres of new wetlands, the report says, whereas the existing wetlands comprise 5.8 acres.
Delving into the debate
In response to board questions, Berna pointed out of wetlands such as those on the Aviva property, “These areas … as isolated in an urban environment are becoming increasingly important as stepping stones or islands in a field of concrete.”
Berna reminded the commissioners about the migratory bird species that fly back and forth between North and South America. If a wetlands area those birds have been using for respite on their journeys disappear, he said, “they have to find somewhere else to go for their resting spots, for their feeding … These insular wetlands in urban areas are becoming more important for those types of creatures.”
Detert also noted the fact that the mitigation area is the site of a Florida Power & Light Co. easement. Yet, Bryan Beard, an environmental specialist with the county’s Environmental Protection Division, testified, “We haven’t received any information from the applicant that FPL is OK with the mitigation going into that area.”
Detert told Mathes she was not sure he and the project team even had the power to convey that easement to the county. She added, “I think we already have access to that land without your generosity.”
The president of The Meadows Community Association — Claire Coyle — and the general manager — Jay Brady — both urged the board to support the mitigation plan.
“Aviva is a very, very important part of our community,” Coyle said. The mitigation plan, she added, is “a big favor” to The Meadows, because the resulting lake will give homeowners “a lovely water view.”
Conversely, Dan Lobeck of Control Growth Now told the commissioners, “This is an opportunity for redemption for what happened at the Whole Foods site.”
Members of the public and environmental groups have criticized the board’s January 2016 approval of a proposal for a new commercial center with a Whole Foods store on University Parkway because the site contained about 4.5 acres of what county staff called a rare piece of wetlands. Staff testified that that wetlands also continued to be functional.
Charles Hines was the only commissioner on the board at that time to oppose the project.
On June 7, Chair Paul Caragiulo chastised Lobeck for making the Whole Foods remark during the public hearing. Lobeck responded that the board could have set a precedent then for preserving isolated wetlands. If the commissioners approved the Aviva proposal, Lobeck added, “no wetlands would be safe …”
Commissioner Alan Maio asked Mathes whether it would be possible to add a second floor to increase the number of units within the Aviva complex. Mathes replied that the only way the expansion could be accomplished without disrupting the existing residents was to build the 85 new units as proposed.
Furthermore, Mathes said, such independent-living units are in high demand in the community. The project team members, he added, have “gone through that very specific site-planning process,” and they “don’t believe that [expansion] can be achieved” without the use of the wetlands area on the property.
Hines later indicated disapproval of Mathes’ emphasis on Aviva’s being the only “for-rent, affordable senior living facility” in Sarasota County as Mathes’ tried to convince the board to allow the destruction of the wetlands.
Even if the housing is needed, Hines said, “I don’t know if [that] was relevant for this particular, narrow issue [about the functionality of the wetlands].”
In his questioning of Mathes, Caragiulo returned at one point to Planner Wilhelm’s statement: “The applicant has not provided sufficient evidence that demonstrates the project meets the criteria justifying the proposed wetland impacts.”
“Do you have something that was not included in the packet [of material provided to the board] that can get past that?” Caragiulo asked. “Our professionally trained staff is not over that burden.”
“Your staff is really taking a policy position,” Mathes told Caragiulo.
“They’re basically making a statement that you don’t see very often, to be honest,” Caragiulo said. “There are standards, and I’m just running into a wall, and I’m not hearing anything that’s getting me around that wall.”