Hi Hat Ranch development proposal wins full County Commission support, in spite of residents’ objections

Final public hearing on redesignation of one section from Hamlet to Village set for Sept. 8

A graphic shows the areas reserved for open space and greenways as Hi Hat Ranch is developed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Twenty members of the public took their turns in offering a wide variety of reasons to oppose the request. One received a rebuke from Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert, who told the speaker the information was out of date.

Outside of the applicant team members and county staff, no person who walked up to the podium in the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota on June 9 voiced support for the proposal.

Yet, with only one question for staff or the project team from a board member — Detert again — the commissioners voted unanimously to support the request.

Right after Chair Alan Maio asked for a motion on June 9, Commissioner Michael Moran made one, and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded it.

That motion formally called for adopting a resolution involving a county Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow the owners of the approximately 9,960-acre Hi Hat Ranch to change the designation of the type of development planned for the northeastern quadrant of the land. The draft will go to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which, under the guidelines of state law, will offer comments on it before the commission can vote to give it final approval. The formal adoption of the amendment is scheduled for a Sept. 8 public hearing, a county staff memo said.

The motion also called for approval of what staff calls a “Master Development Order” for the transformation of all of Hi Hat Ranch into residential communities under the guidelines of the county’s 2050 Plan. The latter governs development east of Interstate 75.

After making his motion, Moran said, “I feel a master-planned concept with incremental development over time — decades in this case — is just thoughtful, especially in a land mass of this size.”

A graphic shows the location of Hi Hat Ranch in the eastern portion of the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moran also offered kudos to staff members of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department for their efforts in working with the owners of the ranch — James and Richard E. Turner of Sarasota are the principal partners, county documents indicate — to craft the formal process for the development.

Cutsinger likened the plans for Hi Hat Ranch to those of large communities to be built in South County, including Wellen Park, which formerly was called West Villages.

“It’s a 55-year development plan,” Cutsinger noted of the Hi Hat Ranch proposal. “It’s planning as it should be. … We’re looking at this as a big picture.”
Such a process, he added, is what the commissioners always have seen as desirable alternative to patchwork initiatives to create new neighborhoods.

Cutsinger also extended his appreciation to county staff.

Detert said she was surprised that Hi Hat Ranch had remained undeveloped for so long. “The build-out is from now until 2056,” she pointed out. She probably would not be alive, Detert said, when the final project has been completed on the property.

After the 5-0 vote approving the motion, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, who was representing the Saddle Creek Owners Association in opposing the plans, addressed the commissioners during the final Open to the Public comment period of the day.

“I rise, frankly, to reproach you for uncontrolled, irresponsible urban sprawl,” he said.

“The Turners are a notable family — and I share that sentiment,” Lobeck added. Still, he told the commissioners, the Turners “got what they want.”

This is a 2019 aerial view of the ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lobeck stressed that the plans should be of concern not just to residents in the eastern part of the county. Instead, he said, given how the Master Development Order has been structured, all county property owners will be responsible for paying for the growth. “These public hearings have become shams,” he pointed out.

During the hearing, Becky Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club, told the commissioners, “There is no reason for [the Turners] to be allowed to make this [Comprehensive Plan] change.”

Becky Ayech addresses the commissioners on June 9. News Leader image

They also want to follow market trends in the development of the new neighborhoods, she continued, which would set a precedent.

“Every single person that owns land in this county is going to come forward and say, ‘I don’t need to give you facts. I don’t need to give you data. I have market trends that tell me this is what I should be able to do with my land.’ And, really, folks, if that’s the way that we want to do things … then let’s just get rid of the Comprehensive Plan and make it easy for everybody.”

During a telephone interview this week with The Sarasota News Leader, Ayech stressed the fact that what the board members agreed to on June 9 “flies in the face of any planning concepts that we’ve ever had. … This should be something that everybody [who lives in the county] should be upset about.”

While this issue affects her neighborhood, she continued, “Tomorrow, it will be in your neighborhood. … We cannot, as a county, accept that. We have to rise up in arms and say, ‘No!’”

The proposal

As Todd Dary, manager of the county’s Planning Division explained it on June 9, Hi Hat Ranch lies between Fruitville Road and Clark Road, east of I-75. The Comprehensive Plan amendment the Turners are seeking, he noted, calls for the designation of approximately 1,258 acres in the northeastern section of the ranch to be changed from Hamlet to Village. Hamlets have fewer homes per acre, he pointed out.

The County Code says a Hamlet is entitled to a base residential density of 0.29 dwelling units per acre, with a maximum density of one dwelling unit per acre. In contrast, the “Required Minimum Density” for a Village within a developed area is three dwelling units per gross developable acre. The “Target Density” for a Village, the code adds, is six units per “Net Residential Acre.”

The formal application for the Hi Hat Ranch change said that the modification will provide “flexibility to respond to market demands and the needs of tenants, and residents … and thoroughly enable consistent residential access to Village services across the ranch.”

The northeastern quadrant of the property, Dary noted, is a mix of what he called minor wetlands and fields used for agricultural purposes. Changing the designation for the acreage, he indicated, would allow for the type of master planning seen on Palmer Ranch.

The dwelling units would be more spread out, he continued.

This graphic offers more details about the ranch and the planned development of it. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moreover, Dary said, staff has worked with the Turners to incorporate plans for a 100-acre regional sports complex, a school with students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and a high school on 75 acres. Those schools, he said, would be constructed instead of four or five elementary schools divided among the individual Villages.

Dary added that Sarasota County School District leaders believe the high school will be needed first.

“We only have one K-8 school,” Commissioner Detert pointed out; that is in the Laurel-Nokomis area. “Have you checked with the School Board?”

Yes, staff had done so, Dary replied. Sarasota County School District leaders came up with the K-8 school idea, he added. They said they could expand or reduce the design, as needed at the time it would be built, he said.

“OK” Detert told him. “I’m surprised.”

Her first elected position was on the School Board.

(Ayech of the Miakka Community Club also told the News Leader on June 16 that she could not believe that that was the only question any of the commissioners had for staff or the Turners. “How can you not have a question on something that guts the way you’ve been planning since the Comp Plan was adopted?” Ayech asked. “That’s crazy.”)

This graphic shows the proposal for relocating the Countryside Line. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, Dary explained during the hearing, the county’s Countryside Line would be relocated farther east. That line, he noted, is the official divider between areas with more homes and services and those with fewer dwelling units per acre. It essentially separates the urban part of the county from the rural portions.

The maximum number of residential units planned for Hi Hat Ranch will not change, Dary stressed. That number is 13,081, and they would be divvied up among two to five Villages, according to the staff report provided to the commissioners for the June 9 meeting.

Dary also explained that the Master Development Order calls for the master developer — the Turners — to be responsible for funding and implementing the infrastructure in the common areas. That will include the transportation network, Dary said. A lengthened Bee Ridge Road Extension and a proposed new north-south roadway would serve the dwellings on the property, he added.

(The application submitted to county staff points to plans for the widening of Clark Road from six to eight lanes from Gantt Road to I-75 and the widening of Bee Ridge Road from four to six lanes from Maxfield Drive to Cattlemen Road and from six to eight lanes from Cattlemen Road to I-75.)

A biennial traffic-monitoring program will be required to show the cumulative impacts of the ranch’s development on the road network, Dary said.

This graphic offers more details about the plans for the ranch. ‘CPA’ refers to the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Applicants will come to the county with individual rezoning requests for the specific Villages, he pointed out.

The county’s 2050 Resource Management Plan, Dary continued, calls for maintaining the wetlands, mesic hammock and pine flatwoods on the property, along with other native habitats, as each Village is developed.

During his remarks to the board, Jim Turner, an attorney with the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota, pointed out of the northeastern quadrant, “It’s the most environmentally benign area of the ranch. It’s in row crops. It’s not pretty. I wish it was.”
He cited the growing of tomato plants as an example of how that part of the property is being used.

As he concluded his remarks, Turner added, “This plan is going to enable us to preserve environmental systems … better preserve and protect existing neighborhoods and avoid urban sprawl.”

He then noted that the development of the residential Villages is likely to take from 30 to 50 years.

Different perspectives

Early on during the hearing, Chair Maio noted that Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club, had asked that the speaker cards be kept in order. Maio assured her that he had done so.

The speakers addressed specific aspects of the Turners’ proposal.

The very first person at the podium was David Guest, attorney for the Miakka Community Club.

“The Hamlet idea,” he pointed out, “is a transitional idea between Villages and the rural area. … You’re really taking something big away [if you approve the Comprehensive Plan amendment].”

The county’s Comprehensive Plan calls for preserving and strengthening communities, Guest continued. “The folks in Miakka are pretty upset.”

This graphic offers details about the road segments that will serve the neighborhoods on the ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Instead of supporting the rural character of the community near Hi Hat Ranch, he stressed to the commissioners, the proposed change in designation for the northeastern quadrant “annihilates it.”

Like Ayech, Sara C. Lewis, a Myakka Road resident, told the board members that the change in the plans “will open the door” for more Comprehensive Plan amendments based not on facts but on development trends.

Attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm, who noted that she used to work in the Office of the County Attorney, reminded the board members that county staff already had determined that the county would have more dwelling units than needed over the next decade. That analysis, dating to October 2020, she said, does not even include the Villages planned on Hi Hat Ranch, the further expansion of Palmer Ranch and other developments the commission has approved.

The report, presented to the board on Feb. 9, said the potential capacity is 46,068 dwelling units, but the projected number that would be needed was 15,408. Thus, the capacity was 299% more than the anticipated demand.

This is part of the graphic that attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm showed the commissioners. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Schoettle-Gumm was the person Commissioner Detert rebuked. Detert stressed that the data Schoettle-Gumm used was outdated. Anyone who follows real estate knows that, Detert told Schoettle-Gumm. “We do not have an oversupply of houses. … There’s no house to buy at almost any price. We have an undersupply for the first time in my memory.”

During a May 21 presentation to the commission, Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Forecasting, noted that the median number of days a single-family home in Sarasota was on the market in March was 11, compared to 40 in March 2020. The supply in March was sufficient for 0.8 months, he added, compared to the 3.6-month figure in March 2020.

For condominiums, he said, the median days on the market this March was 20, compared to 46 in March 2020. The monthly inventory level was down 78.3% month-over-month, he added of condominiums.

Jane Grandbouche addresses the commission on June 9. News Leader image

Another person who addressed the board during the June 9 hearing, Jane Grandbouche, said that the character of the rural area of the county “includes row crops, hayfields, sod farms and grazing livestock.” Grandbouche added, “If you drive out Fruitville Road, that’s what you’ll see.”

The Turners’ request for the new Village designation, she pointed out, will reduce the amount of agricultural and rural land retained on the ranch by 16%. “In 1983,” she said, “260,000 acres was classified as rangeland or woodland [in the county].” In 1991, she added, almost all of the land east of I-75 was used for cattle grazing.

Alluding to Jim Turner’s remarks about people not wanting to look at tomato plants, Grandbouche told the board, “Yes, we do.”

Adults and children both need to be educated, she added, “that vegetables don’t just come from Publix.”

Bonnie Wiedeman of Myakka City stressed that the Hi Hat Ranch acreage slated for redesignation, along with another 6,000-acre tract in the same general area, are all that remain of the open spaces in the northeastern part of the county.

Glenna Blomquist talked about transportation issues, pointing out that the Turners want to use the main entrance to the ranch from Fruitville Road as the primary access to the new Villages. “This would add additional congestion to an already overtaxed, constrained and scenic road,” she said. “The first Village should be on the western boundary of the ranch.”

Jim Paulman (left) of the Stantec consulting firm joins Jim Turner at the podium. News Leader image

During his 5 minutes of rebuttal, Turner stressed, “[County] Transportation [Planning Division] staff worked us over really hard.” Along with undertaking the biennial traffic reviews, he continued, “We have to pay for impacts on all 16 impacted road segments.”

He also talked of the uniqueness of Hi Hat Ranch, as the entire property is in common ownership.

The Comprehensive Plan, amendment, Turner added, is “not going to be precedential.”