Past Planning Commission Chair John Ask also critical of Maio’s close association with James Gabbert, whom Maio supported in Gabbert’s failed bid to build construction recycling facility next to Celery Fields
On Dec. 13, 2016, three people representing Nokomis businesses and residents appeared before the Sarasota County Commission during a public hearing. All three were opposed to the proposal before the board that afternoon to rezone about 52.8 acres of county property at 2101 Laurel Road for the site of a new Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility.
Among them, Bill Cantrell, then president of the Nokomis Area Civic Association (NACA), pointed out that his organization represents 39 homeowner associations “with 13,000 rooftops.” He had given county staff petitions with 134 signatures of people opposed to the rezoning, he added, and staff also had received 86 pages of negative comments from residents about the project location.
Both Cantrell and Mariah Wozniak implored the commissioners to consider, instead, the siting of the Fleet Maintenance Facility on county-owned property near the intersection of Knights Trail Road and Rustic Road. The Laurel Road land, they stressed, could be used to enhance or add value to Nokomis. They suggested the board members consider selling it and perhaps using the proceeds to find an alternative location for the Sheriff’s Office fleet.
The correspondence staff provided to the commissioners in advance of that December 2016 meeting included more than 50 emails from people protesting the Laurel Road site. One woman wrote, “This is a waste of [taxpayer] money & it will create a huge eyesore to Nokomis & Osprey areas.”
One person referenced Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s plans for a new medical complex across the road from the property. Because of that, the writer noted, “a medical support building would [be] a good fit.” (On July 9, Sarasota Memorial Health Care System received approval from the state to move ahead with the new 90-bed hospital on Laurel Road near Interstate 75.)
Another man pointed out of the Laurel Road site, “This is a major entrance into Nokomis and many communities and would not create a good first impression off this exit. This is prime land and deserves a better occupant.”
During the Dec. 13, 2016 public hearing, Brad Gaubatz, the county staff member in charge of the effort as part of his responsibilities in the Public Works Department’s Capital Projects division, talked of the advantages of the location because it is adjacent to I-75 and other major roads, with easy north-south and east-west access. However, he conceded of the site, “It is limited by wetlands, and it is very low,” right at floodplain elevation.
Ultimately, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the rezoning and proceed with staff planning for the facility on the Laurel Road property. Before that vote, however, then-board Chair Alan Maio — a Nokomis resident himself — acknowledged that a number of his very good friends in the audience were opposed to the project. “I think we have to trust in the staff,” he added.
As Maio faces a Republican primary opponent on Aug. 28 — and a Democratic challenger on Nov. 6, if he wins the primary — the Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility has increasingly become a point of contention for Nokomis residents, especially NACA members.
On June 4, former county Planning Commission Chair John Ask underscored community displeasure with Maio’s actions in regard to that project and other issues in a letter to Maio, a copy of which The Sarasota News Leader has obtained.
“This personal communication is a long time coming,” Ask noted, “and is written in the spirit of great disappointment, both in you and local government leaders; it’s written with stunning disbelief that individuals that I’ve known well, trusted, and believed in, can be so willing to put themselves ahead of others, and more importantly, ahead of what is in the best interest of the community and Sarasota County at large.”
He was writing Maio, Ask continued, “with the firm belief that [Maio’s] decision to construct the Sheriff’s Vehicle Maintenance Facility in our Nokomis/Venice I-75 Gateway Entrance will haunt you, Sheriff Knight, and our community long past our lifetimes.”
The NACA website homepage says the siting of the project on that county parcel is “Thinly Disguised As For Safety, But It’s About Commissioner Maio Getting His Name on His ‘Legacy Project’ in Nokomis.”
In his letter, Ask also pointed out that Maio had told him Maio wanted the facility to be his “legacy project (your exact words to me).”
Ask added that NACA “has been perhaps the strongest neighborhood, grass roots supporter of Sarasota County leaders in the county.” As Maio is a former NACA board member, Ask continued, Maio knows “of our sincerity in striving for positive outcomes for our community and county.”
Nonetheless, Ask wrote, “[D]uring your first two years in office you managed to break the tight bond between Sarasota County leaders and NACA; this is something most of us, especially me, would have said is impossible to do! … Becoming a commissioner and politician has transformed you into a different person that is difficult for me to recognize.”
The Siesta setback issue
Ask also alluded to Siesta Key residents’ dismay this spring as three commissioners — including Maio — voted to approve a change in the zoning regulations for the barrier island that could allow a new commercial structure taller than 35 feet to stand much closer to the street than the 25-foot minimum that had been in effect. The request for the change came as a result of Dr. Gary Kompothecras’ efforts to build a boutique hotel on property he owns on Old Stickney Point Road. (Kompothecras is known for his 1-800-ASK-GARY advertising for his legal and medical referral service.)
Like Nokomis, Siesta Key is part of Maio’s District 4 territory.
Only four of the 33 speakers during the hearing agreed with the proposed zoning text amendment. All of them represented business interests on the island.
Ask pointed out in his June 4 letter, “Looking to Siesta Key and nearby neighborhoods, the level of trust and faith that you ‘have the backs of ordinary constituents’ is maybe at an all time low for county commissioners. The belief is that you are aligned to, and in the debt and control of the entrenched establishment, the rich and the powerful.”
Ask added, “Knowing what I know, having been behind the scenes with you, I agree with this view. Before you were elected I would never have believed that this transformation would take place.”
Ask served on the county’s Planning Commission from January 2013 to January 2017; he was chair in 2016. The Planning Commission is considered the county’s most influential advisory board.
Ask also is a retired school principal, according to the biography he included on the website of the Florida Home Team LLC real estate firm he and his wife established in 2005. The bio adds that he is a former high school and NCAA sports official in baseball, basketball and football. Furthermore, it says he was a Big Ten Conference football official and a baseball umpire.
Ask declined an inquiry from the News Leader to offer any further comments on the issues he has addressed in correspondence to Maio.
Maio did not respond to the News Leader’s request for response to the June 4 letter. However, when the News Leader left a message for Maio with his assistant at the County Administration Center in Sarasota, the assistant made it clear to the News Leader that she was familiar with the letter.
The Gabbert connection
Along with expressing his disappointment about Maio’s conduct regarding the Fleet Maintenance Facility location, Ask noted in his letter, “It’s well known in the community of your tight relationship with Jim Gabbert; and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that as you are entitled to have close friends and advisors.”
Referring to Gabbert, Ask pointed out to Maio, “The fact that you hold your re-election strategy meetings in his office is legal, and by itself, should not pose a problem.” Yet, Ask continued, “The relationship becomes problematic when it’s apparent to the community that you’re taking his side against strong public opposition as was the case in the petition involving buying public land for his recycling facility adjacent to the Celery Fields.”
Gabbert was the applicant whose request for the rezoning of property adjacent to the Celery Fields was denied during a day-long County Commission public hearing in August 2017. Gabbert proposed building a recycling facility for construction and demolition materials, as well as yard waste, on the 10-acre site that had been marketed as county surplus property. Gabbert had made an offer to purchase the land, contingent upon success with his rezoning petition. Maio and Commissioner Michael Moran were in the minority on a vote to deny the rezoning.
In 2015, Gabbert won board approval for a waste transfer station to be built on an adjoining parcel; altogether, he planned for his operations to encompass about 16 acres.
Shortly after losing out on the recycling facility rezoning request, Gabbert backed away from his offer to purchase the property.
During the July 19 Tiger Bay Club meeting in Sarasota — which featured all four candidates for the District 4 County Commission seat — Alexandra Coe, a candidate herself for the District 2 seat, asked Maio about his vote on Gabbert’s recycling plant petition. “It’s a very non-partisan issue,” she said, noting that many people were concerned about the siting of such a business next to the Celery Fields. Although the latter is a stormwater facility, Coe said, it nonetheless has become a major bird-watching area, which Audubon representatives have promoted internationally.
More than 5,000 people signed petitions opposing Gabbert’s plans, Coe said. Why did Maio support them?
“A perfect setup to try to put me on the spot,” Maio initially responded, prompting a chorus of murmurs among the packed ballroom at Michael’s on East.
“I disagree,” Coe told him.
“You’ve had your time,” Maio interrupted her. “Now I’m going to answer.
“I don’t think it’s a setup,” Coe said.
Then Maio talked of how opponents had referred to Gabbert’s proposed business as “an industrial dump.” Maio continued, “It’s been clear: no medical waste; no household garbage. None of that was going there. It was a transfer station for construction debris and trees and limbs and that sort of thing. Nothing buried there.”
Maio pointed out that the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota — from which he retired before he ran for County Commission in 2014 — created the design for the Celery Fields stormwater project. “I don’t need lectures. Excuse me, but I know the Celery Fields.”
He further pointed out that the county property where Gabbert had proposed the recycling facility is contiguous to “11 acres with 50,000 square feet of metal industrial buildings. … Nobody was trying to put a transfer station on an island in the middle of the Celery Fields.”
Early during the Aug. 23, 2017 public hearing on Gabbert’s rezoning petition, Maio said to Gabbert, “Jim, I’m going to ask you a direct question, and I expect you to look me in the eye. I buried my mother, who died of complications of asthma. I have had it my entire life. People have heard me choking up here.”
Maio added that his three children have had asthma, and the two in their 40s still are dealing with problems; all four of his grandchildren have had asthma. “Are you doing anything that’s going to hurt my family when we visit the Celery Fields?” Maio asked.
“No, sir,” Gabbert responded, prompting laughter among the audience members.
In his June 4 letter to Maio, Ask referred to Gabbert as “a major [fundraiser], bundler, and contributor to [Maio’s] election campaign … [The relationship] reinforced the belief that your indebtedness to him exceeded your willingness, and ability, to represent the will of the public majority.”
In Maio’s re-election campaign finance report filed with the state in early February — recording all the contributions he had received through the month of January — the News Leader counted a total of $1,800 from a variety of entities for which James Gabbert is listed as a registered agent, as shown in records maintained by the Florida Division of Corporations. The companies ranged from TST Ventures — the entity through which Gabbert petitioned for the rezoning of the property for his construction recycling facility venture — to Flying Fox Leasing LLC to DeSoto Recycling & Disposal to M&G Investment Properties. All had the same address, 1250 Hidden Harbor Way in Sarasota.
A ‘no show’
On July 30, John Ask sent Maio an email, a copy of which the News Leader was able to obtain. The subject line said: “Perspectives; Missed You At NACA Candidate Forum.”
Ask was referring to the forum NACA hosted on July 24 for candidates for a variety of offices, not just County Commission seats.
Ask pointed out that, as a former NACA board member, Maio knows the organization “always seeks to be fair by providing the questions in advance, and not allowing questions outside of the prescribed format. Hence, any excuse that you would not have been treated fairly, and with respect, is nonsense, as you well know.”
Ask continued, “Having background knowledge of the thinking of you and your ‘handlers’ I believe that you did not attend as you wish to avoid, as much as possible, facing your community on a close up, personal basis. You certainly wish to avoid any questions or comments, regardless of being truthful, that might end up in print that addresses your voting record, or personal gains from being an elected official.”
However, Ask pointed out, “I do not perceive that you’re having any sense of guilt knowing that you’ve become what you said you’d never become, a shill and prostitute for those behind the scenes with money and possessing real power and influence. It was the local ‘machine’ that elected you initially, and you hope that it can be repeated one more time.”
Ask added, “To my memory, this is the first time an incumbent county commissioner has avoided attending a NACA Candidate Forum. What makes this even more noteworthy is NACA is in your district, and you are a former Board Member. It’s a sorry state of affairs when you’ve become so toxic to your community that you aren’t comfortable showing your face in public.”