Commissioners say precedents already had been set for one facet of plan that developer used to generate extra residential density
Sarasota County Planning and Development Services Department staff made it clear in a report to the county commissioners that a proposed new development in the eastern part of the county did not comply with all the applicable policies.
Residents stressed that fact, as well, in comments during a Jan. 26 public hearing.
Nonetheless, four of the five commissioners sided with the attorney representing the project team. Among those who cast the majority votes, Chair Alan Maio and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger took time to point out that the commissioners last year rebuffed a county staff effort that would have made it more difficult for the commissioners to approve the project.
In his opening presentation for the County Commission, Planning Division Manager Todd Dary explained the county criteria that the proposal for The Palms needed to meet to win approval.
The developer, DR Horton of Tampa, proposed rezoning 23.26 acres from a combination of Open Use Estate-1, which allows one residential dwelling per 5 acres, and Open Use Residential, which allows one unit per 10 acres, to Residential Estate with Conservation Subdivision, as allowed in the county’s 2050 Plan for developments east of Interstate 75. The zoning designation DR Horton sought allows for one unit per 2 acres.
The proposal called for using a Sarasota 2050 Plan feature called Transfer of Development Rights — TDRs — to double the allowed residential density while ensuring the preservation of environmentally sensitive land.
However, Dary pointed out that the relevant Sarasota 2050 policy allows a developer to apply for the maximum density of 2 units per acre provided that the property is unplatted land west of what is designated the “Countryside Line; the property is completely within 1 mile of the Urban Service Boundary; and the property is served by county services, including water and wastewater.
The Urban Service Boundary lies along Palmer Boulevard, Dary showed the board members. It essentially is the line between the urban part of the county and the rural part of the county.
One major issue in this situation, as Dary noted, is that the owners of the property slated for The Palms “un-platted” the 23 acres, which originally were part of the Palmer Farms subdivision. The applicable plat was vacated in July 2018 so the project could qualify for additional density, Dary added.
In response to questions from Chair Maio, Michele Norton, manager of the county’s Planning and Zoning Division, reminded the commissioners that, during the second cycle of amendments to the county’s Unified Development Code — which contains all the county zoning and land-development regulations — staff proposed a change to the 2050 guidelines that would make it necessary for the policy Dary had cited to exclude lands that had been platted in the past.
At that time, she continued, the commissioners told staff to “leave [the language] as is,” which made it possible for un-platted property to be considered for the density bonus.
Maio told her that the staff report on the proposed rezoning for The Palms should have reflected the commission’s direction.
Commissioner Cutsinger pointed out that the County Commission has approved the un-platting of lands in the past. “If you’ve allowed others to do this,” he continued, “and we deny [The Palms petition] … that seems like a potential lawsuit there.”
“That is my understanding, as well,” Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye told Cutsinger.
Addressing Norton, too, Commissioner Detert said, “Frankly, I don’t remember voting against your suggestion, but now that we see the reality of your suggestion, I think that it’s certainly important to me to know as much as I can about planning and zoning.”
“This project looks like a great project,” Detert continued, “but my concern is that they maybe crawled through a flaw in our law.”
Detert cast the “No” vote on the rezoning.
One of the speakers during the public hearing that afternoon, Susan Schoettle-Gumm of Sarasota, offered a comment similar to Detert’s: “I think the applicants are trying to cram a square peg into a round hole.”
Conservation Subdivisions in the 2050 Plan, Schoettle-Gumm added, “are optional overlay districts that are supposed to generate additional benefits to the community … This proposal does not do any of those.” The project team, she continued, is trying to place an urban development on land that the county’s Future Land Use maps say is supposed to be rural.
Another speaker, Kay Rosaire of Big Cat Habitat — which is in close proximity to the development site — told the commissioners their Planning and Development staff members are “not swayed by developers — or progress, as [homebuilders] call it. … Putting so many houses in such a tiny little area is just negative in every way.”
Rosaire urged the commissioners to trust the county staff, as she trusts her staff. “I only have qualified people,” and she believes the county does, as well, she added.
The connectivity question
Other staff concerns about the project that Planner Dary cited involved the connectivity to open spaces required in 2050 developments. For example, he said, a proposed nature trail would connect to the Celery Fields, a county stormwater site that has become an internationally known bird-watching area. However, Dary explained, the connection would be along an existing county right of way and a sidewalk that county regulations require for the development.
One slide Dary showed the board depicted the project location along with the parcel’s the ecological areas. The latter, he said, “have not been deemed ecological resources, greenway or regional open space by the county and [do] not create or add to interconnected area …”
In fact, Dary pointed out, people would have to cross streets to get to other ecological resources. For examples, Dary noted, Tatum Ridge Elementary School is immediately east of the project site, while a private residence stands to the north.
As Dary put it: “Staff is of the opinion that this application fails to meet [county criteria necessitating a connection] to an ecological resource through wildlife linkages and trails, as [staff] did not consider the sidewalk or the road right of way a wildlife corridor or trail.”
“Do you see a remedy for that?” Detert asked. “Is there a different way they could do it, which would make them conform?”
“Staff does not feel they can,” Dary replied.
Charles D. Bailey III, the project team’s attorney — and a partner with the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota — disagreed with the staff assertion. Putting up a copy of the county policy Dary had referenced, regarding “External Connectedness,” Bailey read, “Where conservation Subdivision Open Space would further support critical linkages of either an existing or proposed local or regional recreational trail, such connection shall be made accessible to the public for such purpose. The configuration of the open space shall be determined on a case-by-case basis to promote long term conservation of native habitats which are connected to other areas of compatible land use with assurance of appropriate management in perpetuity. Nothing herein shall be construed to require a property owner to purchase or otherwise secure connections on lands outside of the boundaries of the Conservation Subdivision.”
Bailey added that it seemed to him that county staff stopped reading before it reached the last part of the policy.
“We are protecting a significant forested wetland in our northeast corer, which enables us to utilize [that policy],” Bailey told the commissioners.
Referring to the 23.26-acre site, he continued, “It’s a speck compared to some of the larger 2050 projects.” Yet, he said, “You want to quilt [these smaller areas] together so, as they come in, you can accommodate connections or make connections. … We all know that land is unique.”
Bailey also pointed out, “We’ve got roads on three sides that have been there for decades.” The team has sought to make the types of connections county policy requires, he continued. “We obviously are very limited and landlocked …”
The Palms will be only about half-a-mile from the Celery Fields, he noted. The project teams is looking forward to the residents being able to enjoy “that significant amenity …”
Taking umbrage at criticism of the Planning Commission
Additionally, as they were concluding the hearing, Commissioner Cutsinger and Commissioner Michael Moran alluded to criticism one speaker had voiced about the county’s Planning Commission. That body had voted unanimously to recommend that the County Commission approve the petition at the heart of the Jan. 26 hearing.
Jacquelyn J. Kuhens said of the planning commissioners, “There isn’t hardly anything that comes before them that they don’t say ‘Yes’ to. It doesn’t matter whether it fits with anything. [They will] figure a way around the rules.”
A former member of the Planning Commission, Moran expressed support for the members of that advisory board and noted the unanimous vote on the proposal for the 46-home development DR Horton plans.
Moran made the motion to approve the application before the County Commission, and Cutsinger — another former planning commissioner — seconded it.
“I put significant weight on staff’s comments,” Cutsinger said. Therefore, he continued, he watched a video of the Planning Commission hearing on the proposal before the County Commission that day. The planning commissioners, he said, “did a great job.”
However, Commissioner Detert pointed out that the planning commissioners had a number of questions regarding one of the points the county commissioners had discussed earlier. “They concluded that this was above their pay grade, and they’re right,” she added.
“We’re the policy setters,” Detert continued, “and I have had in my political career what I call the ‘7-Eleven Rule.’ If I can’t stand in the middle of a 7-Eleven and explain why I voted the way I voted, then I’m probably doing something wrong. So I take complete ownership of things I’m responsible for.”
Detert also pointed out, “We do have a wonderful staff. They’re the full-time experts in their category …”