Grand Park the latest approved Sarasota 2050 development to be allowed to eliminate affordable housing units

State law changes in 2019 and 2020 made adjustment possible

A number of times — especially during the last couple of years before his term ended in November 2022 — Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio stressed that thousands of affordable housing units would be constructed as part of Sarasota 2050 Plan projects that he and his colleagues and earlier boards had approved.

For example, during a meeting in early July 2021, the commissioners discussed a report produced by the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. That document said that the commissioners had approved seven developments with affordable housing units, in accord with the guidelines of the  2050 Plan.

Sarasota 2050 governs projects that will stand east of Interstate 75.

At that time, the committee report noted that the project with the largest number of affordable units would be Waterside at Lakewood Ranch — 2,037 out of a total of 5,144 dwellings. The new community with the second highest number of affordable units would be Skye Ranch, with 517 out of a total of 3,450, a county chart showed.

Grand Park, which previously was known as Grand Lakes, would have 165 out of 1,097 homes.

Windward at Lakewood Ranch would have 135 affordable units out of a total of 900.

However, thanks to a change in state law, several of the developers of those projects have been eliminating their affordable housing plans.

On July 11, Neal Communities sought such a modification — its second over the past year. The petition won unanimous support during the July 11 County Commission meeting.

In November 2022, the County Commission also agreed on a 5-0 vote to allow the company to eliminate affordable housing from its Windward development, which is located within the northwest quadrant of Fruitville Road and Lorraine Road, east of Interstate 75.

The July 11 item was listed on the agenda as a Presentation Upon Request, and Commissioner Mark Smith — who was just elected in November 2022 — asked for a presentation from the county planner who had handled the petition. It involved the Grand Park development, which will be east of Interstate 75, south of Clark Road and west of Ibis Street. The Serenoa community, approved in 1988 as a 193-unit subdivision with a golf course, is north of the Grand Park site, the county staff report for the agenda item pointed out.

In July 2018, the County Commission seated at the time approved up to 1,097 housing units on 533 acres for Grand Lakes.

In 2019 and 2020, the memo continued, the Florida Legislature amended a state statute dealing with the development of affordable housing. The changes make it necessary for a local government “to provide incentives to fully offset all costs to the developer of its affordable housing contribution or linkage fee.” As a result, the memo added, the County Commissioner adopted ordinances in 2020, amending county regulations to state that the inclusion of affordable housing units in 2050 Village projects no longer was mandatory.

Prior to that, the plans for Grand Park entitled Neal Communities to 274 bonus incentive units, the July 11 county staff report noted. As a result, the developer was planning to use the transfer of development rights (TDRs) to construct extra units in lieu of the affordable dwellings.

A county Planning Division webpage explains, “In Sarasota County, a TDR is the right to transfer the [building] of a single dwelling unit from one property to another. The purpose is to conserve environmentally sensitive lands by directing development off environmentally sensitive lands (the ‘sending’ property) onto lands that are more suitable for development (the ‘receiving’ property).”

The July 11 staff report further pointed out that, in Grand Park, “the number of residential units and non-residential square feet is not changing.”

A new stipulation was written for the County Commission to approve in lieu of the affordable housing stipulation in the 2018 development order. The new one explained that the minimum density for the developed area of a Village community in the Sarasota 2050 regulations is three dwelling units per acre. That would mean a total of 798 units for Grand Park, the stipulation added. However, it said, “The maximum number of units available from within the subject property is 169.”

Therefore, the stipulation continued, Neal Communities would be “required to obtain a minimum of 629 [TDRs] from an off-site source … This will meet the minimum density requirements of 3 dwelling units per acre of Developed Area (266 acres) …”

When an agent for Neal Communities appeared at the May 18 Planning Commission hearing on the Grand Park development, the memo said, commissioners asked how many affordable units already had been constructed in Grand Park. The agent responded that none had been built.

At the conclusion of that hearing, the July 11 staff memo said, the Planning Commission recommended that the County Commission approve the Neal Communities petition for Grand Park.

Questions for staff and the applicant

On July 11, Commissioner Smith had questions for county Planner Anna Messina, who was handling the Grand Park application.

Messina explained that Neal Communities would have gained the housing density bonus in exchange for constructing affordable dwellings. Yet, given the change in state law, the company no longer wanted to build such units.

(In the past, former state Sen. Pat Neal, who leads Neal Communities, has complained to county commissioners about the extensive work necessary to confirm that a potential buyer is eligible by income for an affordable housing unit. He indicated that that was just one aspect of the Sarasota 2050 process that had led to long delays before construction of such developments could begin.)

When Smith asked Messina whether she knew the site from which Neal Communities planned to purchase the TDRs, she replied that she did not.

Then Smith asked about the fact that a prior commission had agreed that Neal Communities did not need to construct a 50,000-square-foot Village Center in Grand Park. Such a center is supposed to contain commercial properties to serve the residents of a 2050 development, so they do not need to drive in search of those services.

His understanding, Smith said, is that Grand Park residents will be using a Village Center in another nearby 2050 community.

Messina confirmed that. If an applicant can demonstrate that an existing or planned neighborhood Village Center in another community can serve the residents of the new development, then the applicant can be allowed to proceed without such a commercial facility in the new community.

The county staff report for the July 11 agenda item explained that multiple Villages will be located near Grand Park. To the south, for example, the 426-acre Strazerra community will be constructed, with up to 1,021 dwellings. Additionally, Skye Ranch, which is east of Grand Park, was approved in 2016 with “a maximum of 3,450 units and a maximum of 300,000 square feet of non-residential uses.”

Following Smith’s exchange with Messina, Chair Ron Cutsinger allowed 5 minutes to Kelley Klepper, vice president and senior planner of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm, who was present to represent Neal Communities, for any rebuttal.

Klepper told the county commissioners that about 200 TDRs had been acquired from the county’s “bank,” while the rest would come from private property. As required, he continued, the project team would provide county staff copies of the certificates showing the TDR transactions.

Following Klepper’s remarks, no commissioner had any questions, so Cutsinger closed the hearing.

Commissioner Neil Rainford made the motion to approve the Neal Communities petition, and Smith seconded it. It then passed 5-0.