County Commissioner Detert suggested groups with conflicting views on growth in East County could work out a compromise
After a Sept. 11 public hearing that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes, the possibility arose that the Sarasota County Commission would reverse its 3-2 vote in just a couple of months.
That could happen, county Planner William Spaeth explained, when the board took up an issue scheduled to come before the county’s Planning Commission on Sept. 19.
However, the agent representing the applicant in the Planning Commission hearing announced that evening that his client was requesting a continuance. The agent, Don Neu of Neumorris LLC in Sarasota, then alluded to that Sept. 11 County Commission vote.
“With the turn of events about the property out there the last couple of weeks,” Neu said, “we want to work on [the request] some more and bring it to you at a later date.”
“Out there” was a reference to property in the eastern part of the county, including the Old Miakka community.
The Planning Commission members voted unanimously to approve the continuance, with no new hearing date set.
On Sept. 11, the County Commission’s split vote came on a motion made by Commissioner Nancy Detert. That called for county staff to proceed with a full analysis of a publicly initiated Comprehensive Plan amendment that would limit the residential density of new developments on about 6,000 acres in the northwest corner of the intersection of Fruitville and Verna roads.
On Sept. 19, the Planning Commission was scheduled to consider a privately initiated Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow double the density on about 3,300 of the 6,000 acres at the heart of the Sept. 11 hearing.
The Planning Commission was to focus on areas designated for Hamlets under the aegis of the Sarasota 2050 Plan. Instead of one dwelling unit per acre, the developer could build two, as long as the property owners agreed to a plan to extend county utilities to the site.
Long-time county resident and developer Rod Krebs represents the property owners in that application. Among them are Myakka Ranch Holdings LLC, John Cannon Homes Eastmoor LLC, Indian Creek Development LLC, and Glenn and Dena Peachey, whose address is 4710 Verna Road in Myakka City. Altogether, the group owns approximately 3,280 acres, according to the county staff report prepared for the Sept. 19 Planning Commission hearing.
On Sept. 11, Becky Ayech stood before the County Commission on behalf of members of the Miakka Community Club. They wanted to ensure the land at the focus of the Krebs’ amendment could have density no higher than one dwelling unit per 5 acres.
Instead of being designated Village Open Space, with the option of Hamlet development under the 2050 Plan, the 6,000 acres at the heart of the Miakka Community Club petition would be designated Rural Heritage/Estate.
A memo provided to the County Commission in advance of the hearing explained, “The assertion is that this would be a more appropriate designation that maintains the rural character of the land uses in the Miakka Community area.”
When he stood at the podium, Krebs urged the commissioners to deny Ayech’s group’s request. “This is a true taking of our land,” he said. “It’s not appropriate to be done.”
In explaining her decision to make the Sept. 11 motion in support of the Miakka Community Club, Commissioner Detert pointed out, “I believe that you don’t have a say on property that you don’t own, but I have tried consistently to vote for [the philosophy of] ‘What you bought, that’s what you got.’”
“I say there’s a deal to be made here in the middle,” she continued.
Although she did not know Krebs before her election to the commission in November 2016, Detert added, she had met one-on-one with him numerous times since them. “I find him to be a sensible, long-time resident. He’s invested his family and life here.”
Calling the Miakka Community Club members “salt of the earth people” and further characterizing Krebs as “a fair, upright guy,” Detert said, “I would just like the staff to begin their analysis just to give us more information.”
Referring to the Comprehensive Plan amendment Krebs’ group has sought, Detert pointed out, “This is a massive, life-changing development …”
“The difference here is should someone else’s development affect your lifestyle that’s been your lifestyle generation after generation,” Detert continued. She was referring to approximately 16 Old Miakka-area residents who testified on Sept. 11 about their desire to maintain the rural character of their community.
Among those speakers, Doug Fradley talked about the joys of living in just such an area. His neighbors on one side are miniature horses, he said; on the other, goats. Children play outside, he pointed out. “Let’s not lose the land.”
“We love our lifestyle out there,” M. Paige Farr told the commissioners. Not one person she has talked with — in or out of Sarasota County, she added — has disagreed with her when she says, “Growth is out of control.”
“We want our kids to be able to play outside, not worry about traffic,” Matthew Kepler said. “We want our kids to see wildlife; we want them to see the stars.”
Former County Commissioner Paul Mercier encouraged the commissioners to “have a vision.”
As he recalls only too well from his time on the board, Mercier continued, commissioners often are so focused on whatever issue is immediately before them that “[they] don’t have a vision of where [they] want to take people.” The Old Miakka residents “have always known where they want to go.”
Planner Spaeth estimated it would take staff from nine months to a year to complete the analysis of the proposed amendment. Because of Krebs’ proposed amendment, Spaeth noted, staff already had begun to investigate some of the issues that would be associated with the Miakka Community Club proposal.
Support, but with reservations
Commissioner Michael Moran, who seconded Detert’s motion, said he did so to generate debate. What he found “very, very concerning,” he said, was the potential for one group to affect the property rights of another.
Still, Moran added, “I will always err on the side of communication and public input.”
Commissioner Christian Ziegler also cited concerns about “affecting someone’s property rights.” Yet, he continued, “I always typically try to side with the public …”
Commissioners Alan Maio and Charles Hines said they could not support the motion.
Maio pointed to the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment process already underway at the behest of Krebs and Krebs’ fellow landowners in the eastern part of the county.
Hines added, “We have such a crisscross of what’s being proposed today,” given the portent for changes to the 2050 Plan, plus the private property rights concerns. The 2050 Plan, he stressed, “is just now getting going because of the economy. … To me, this [request by the Miakka Community Club] begins to take 2050 and throw it out. … I’m not willing to do that yet, because it was a compromise.”
Perhaps the County Commission should have moved the Urban Service Boundary (USB), Hines continued, even though that action would necessitate a 5-0 vote. Keeping the USB where it long has been established, he added, was one of the compromises in the creation of the 2050 Plan. “No property owner has the courage to ask us to move the USB, even when it makes more sense.”
The USB is the figurative line east of which limited county infrastructure — such as central water and sewer lines and roads — exists to serve new residential communities.
People who bought property out east had done so with the expectation that they would be able to develop it under the 2050 guidelines, Hines stressed. If people are opposed to the development plans, he said, then those people “should buy out those development rights.”
Ziegler also pointed out, “People are going to continue to move here. … At that point, you have to find a place for people to live. … We can’t put up a wall on [Interstate] 75 and block people from coming into the county.”
Residents who live west of I-75 say they do not want to see tall towers constructed, Ziegler continued. Moreover, he pointed out, not much property is left west of the interstate for infill developments. Thus, he added, “People are going to move out east. I hate to say it.”
Moran and Ziegler did join Detert in the 3-2 majority on the Sept. 11 vote.
Debating the process itself
Regardless of their support for Detert’s motion, Moran and Ziegler talked of the need for an in-depth discussion of the county regulations that allowed Ayech and her Old Miakka neighbors to initiate the Comprehensive Plan amendment process.
As he explained to the Planning Commission on June 20, county Planner Spaeth pointed out to the County Commission on Sept. 11 that the guidelines in Section 94-87 of the County Code enable a minimum of 20 registered voters to request such an amendment “at any time …”
That section of the County Code says the signatures on a petition must come from people who reside or own real property or those who own or operate a business “within the unincorporated area of Sarasota County.”
In fact, Spaeth noted, county staff verified with the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office that 47 of the 60 signatures on the Miakka Community Club petitions were those of registered voters.
(Ayech and one other speaker on Sept. 11 submitted even more signatures into the record. Ayech told the commissioners that more than 500 registered voters had signed on to support the initiative.)
During the Planning Commission meeting, member Laura Benson expressed astonishment that the county regulations allow as few as 20 people to start a Comprehensive Plan amendment procedure.
“This opens up a Pandora’s box of more requests from anybody with 20 friends who want to start a process,” Benson said. “I think that’s a very bad precedent to set.”
Ayech told both the Planning and County commissions that her group had been prepared to pay what they understood would be a $5,000 fee for submitting their request. Then they learned the fee did not apply.
Planner Spaeth noted that required advertisements of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendments prior to the public hearings conducted on them cost about $5,000. The County Code requires a person or members of a group who privately initiate an amendment to pay for those advertisements.
After offering a second to Detert’s motion, Moran suggested that if the motion carried, the commissioners should ask staff to set aside time for them to address the section of the County Code to which Ayech and Spaeth had referred.
“I do have concerns with people kind of hijacking this [Comprehensive Plan amendment] process,” Ziegler added, likening the Miakka Community Club initiative to “some of the constitutional amendments at the state level.” He did not want to say county residents do not live in a democracy, he continued, but “We live in a republic.”
Ziegler is vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida.
Yet, one of the 23 speakers on Sept. 11, Michael P. Hutchinson of the Bern Creek community out east, told the commissioners that he has been a volunteer with the Republican Party of Sarasota for about 10 years. He and his wife had gathered signatures of members of that organization in support of the Miakka amendment, he added. “This is an issue that resonates with the Republican Party.”