Development restrictions for Quads win full County Commission support, as Conservation Foundation of Gulf Coast and Sarasota Audubon work on management plans for parcels

Rezoning of county property to Government Use also approved unanimously on June 9, with second hearing set for July 14

This is a photo of the Quads by Karen Willey for the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast. Image from the Foundation website

One down; one to go.

It took less than 10 minutes on June 9 for the Sarasota County Commission to vote unanimously to approve the rezoning of three of the county’s “Quads” parcels next to the Celery Fields from Open Use Rural to Government Use and to establish conditions that will prohibit development of the land “except for civic, recreation, conservation and/or education purposes,” as a county staff memo put it.

The second and final public hearing on the rezoning will be conducted on July 14, Chair Alan Maio pointed out.

On Oct. 6, 2020, the commissioners granted a conservation easement to the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which is based in Osprey, on the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Quads. That also resulted from a unanimous vote.

About nine months prior to that action, the board members requested that staff analyze the Interstate 75/Fruitville Road Major Employment Center Critical Area Plan (CAP), in which the Quads are located. An amendment to that plan — which included the conditions for Quads development that the commission approved this week — came out of that staff review.

The study “identified the Quads parcels as a gateway to the Celery Fields,” the resulting report noted. “The Gateway area includes the four Quads parcels and the adjacent Palmer Boulevard and Apex Roads,” the report added.

The June 9 agenda item was listed as a “Presentation Upon Request,” and no commissioner sought a staff report.

However, Jeanne Dubi, president of the Sarasota Audubon Society, had signed up to address the item, Chair Maio noted.

Referring to the Conservation Foundation and Sarasota Audubon, Dubi told the commissioners, “I want to thank you for trusting us both to protect and manage the three Quad parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields. We’re thrilled with that.”

This graphic shows the Quads within the I-75/Fruitville Road MEC Critical Area Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

She indicated that she and Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation, had been working with county staff and the Kimley-Horn consulting firm on a plan for wildlife habitat on the three pieces of county property. The design is expected to be completed this summer, Dubi continued, with both nonprofits planning to “go into full fundraising mode” in the fall. (The Conservation Foundation already has a “Donate” button on its Quads project page on its website, so the public can contribute to the nonprofits’ expenses.)

Further, Dubi suggested on June 9 that the commissioners consider relocating the county History Center or the offices of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department to the Southwest Quad, half of which county staff has reserved for a government use.

If the History Center were placed there, she explained, “This will help keep alive the agricultural contributions to Sarasota County.” Moreover, Dubi noted, the Sarasota Audubon Nature Center at the Celery Fields has “a wonderful collection” of fossils of ancient animals that were found on the Celery Fields when county staff was renovating the land to serve as a major stormwater project. “They were donated to us for safekeeping,” she added of the fossils.

If the History Center could be relocated to the Southwest Quad, Dubi told the board members, then Sarasota Audubon could collaborate with center staff in sharing exhibits and helping the residents of the county “understand the history of that area.”

In regard to the Northwest Quad, where Fire Station 8 stands: Dubi said, “We hope that this CAP amendment … will ensure an appropriate use of that location, in keeping with the Celery Fields at large.”

One idea that she has heard, she continued, is that part of the Northwest Quad be designated a drop-off and pick-up area for children who ride buses to school. Perhaps a parking lot could be created for parents who wait for their children, Dubi said.

At present, she explained, parents drop off their youngsters at the Celery Fields parking lot on Palmer Boulevard, which leads to traffic back-ups in the morning and afternoon. “So there’s a real need,” she said, to resolve the vehicle congestion issue.

Perhaps the opportunity also exists, she noted, for coordination of services for the children as they wait for the bus. “Maybe some sort of recreation area that they can use. … Lots of things to consider.”

Another graphic shows the three Quads parcels next to the Celery Fields in the eastern part of the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Chair Maio thanked Dubi for her remarks and reminded her that commissioners had talked with her and Johnson of the Conservation Foundation about the possibility of a track or some other type of walking path around the stormwater pond that makes up most of the Northeast Quad.

Finally, Dubi told Commissioner Michael Moran that she hopes that, in October, Sarasota Audubon finally could accommodate his request for a tour of the Celery Fields with an expert birder. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she indicated, such a tour was not possible during the migratory bird season within the past year.

The official votes

This graphic shows details about the setbacks for construction on the Quads. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After Maio officially closed the public hearing, Moran made a motion to approve the CAP amendment, which provides the conditions for development of the three Quads, and for the rezoning of the property. Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded it. With no further discussion, the motion passed 5-0.

In early May, the county Planning Commission members recommended approval of the CAP amendment. During that public hearing, county Planner Steve Kirk explained the facets of the development stipulations for the Quads. Among those are a base building line; setbacks, height and architectural features of new structures; view shed considerations; and landscape buffers.

On June 6, advocates for the Celery Fields and preservation of the Quads sent out an email blast to interested residents, noting that the public hearing would be on the June 9 County Commission agenda.

This graphic provides information about the architectural features for construction on the Quads. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The email added of the CAP amendment, “It’s a careful, well thought-out vision and set of rules that deserves Board approval.”

Although the July 14 second hearing on the rezoning originally was scheduled to begin after 5 p.m., in accord with county regulations for certain types of board action, the motion the commissioners approved this week waived that timing.

No information was available about the time of day of the July 14 hearing will be held.