One speaker stresses that proposed amendment would not be ‘a minor tweak’
In spite of public pleas for Sarasota County staff first to conduct multiple community workshops on the proposal, the County Commission voted unanimously on March 29 to authorize the processing of a privately initiated Comprehensive Plan amendment that would facilitate the expansion of Lakewood Ranch into Sarasota County.
As part of their undertaking, county staff members would be charged with conducting only one Neighborhood Workshop, as stipulated in county regulations governing land-use applications.
The usual county Neighborhood Workshop, attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm pointed out to the commissioners, is “pretty pro forma, [with a] minimal input process.”
During the Open to the Public comment period on the morning of March 29, she asked the board members to “discuss and consider ways to increase public participation in the processing of that Comprehensive Plan amendment.”
“This is not a minor tweak,” she continued. “It is a large structural change to the tenets and the premises on which 2050 is based.”
The 2050 Plan was implemented about 20 years ago to guide the development of new communities east of Interstate 75; it includes measures to protect open space and provide connections for wildlife — and people — between the communities.
On Feb. 8, the commissioners heard a presentation by Rex Jensen of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, and former state Sen. Pat Neal of Neal Communities. The two men pointed to the need for an alternative Sarasota 2050 Plan form of community that would allow for less residential density than the Village development, but more than a Hamlet.
Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has about 4,000 acres for the developments in Sarasota County, Jensen pointed out.
A March 8 letter from Katie M. LaBarr, project manager for planning with the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota, to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, said that the expansion of Lakewood Ranch would be “located in the northern portion of Sarasota County, just east of the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South/Waterside …”
If he used the Hamlet option for that expansion, Jensen told the commissioners on Feb. 8, that would not make it financially feasible to run water and sewer lines to, and through, the new communities he plans. Not enough dwellings would be created to justify the service, he indicated.
Acting under the provisions of a May 2007 County Commission resolution, Jensen and Neal were able to seek the approval of the board members for the crafting of a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would enable Jensen to achieve his vision for the future communities.
The amendment Jensen is seeking, a March 29 county staff memo pointed out, would “create a new ‘Village Transition Zone’ land use” in a county policy in the Comprehensive Plan. Ultimately, if the amendment wins final approval, it would lead to changes in county maps showing the designations of property for future 2050 developments.
The March 29 County Commission vote came in the form of approval of the Consent Agenda of routine business matters. Unless a board member pulls one of the Consent Agenda items for discussion, the commissioners typically do not discuss them. None of the commissioners offered comments this week on the Lakewood Ranch issue.
Two other speakers during the Open to the Public comment period that morning joined Schoettle-Gum in urging the commissioners to consider more public involvement in the process.
Mike Hutchinson, a resident of the Bern Creek community in the eastern part of the county, also stressed that this “is a major change to 2050.” If the amendment becomes part of the plan, he added, it would apply not just to the specific area designated for the new part of Lakewood Ranch, it also could be used for developments in the Venice area and even farther out east. Workshops should be held in advance of staff’s starting work, he continued — in mid-county and South County.
Further, he asked the commissioners to undertake a full discussion, during one of their upcoming regular meetings, of the ramifications of the amendment.
The third speaker, Ken Castro — who, like Hutchinson, lives in the Ranches at Bern Creek — said he has been a county resident since 1972. He retired from the Sarasota Police Department in 2016, after a 34-year career, he added.
“You hear all the stories regarding the commission’s being ‘on the take,’” Castro said. “I don’t want to believe that.” Yet, he continued, he wanted to remind the board members, “Police yourselves accordingly.”
Noting the growth of residential communities, Castro pointed out that, as a resident of the eastern portion of the county, he has been seeing “the quality of life being depleted.”
He asked the commissioners to “really reconsider the way you approve all these high-density issues that are continuing to affect us out east.”
The reason for the March 29 vote
Because Jensen of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch wanted county Planning and Development Services Department staff to process the amendment outside the regular cycle for such undertakings, the commissioners had to vote formally to allow the staff work.
A March 29 staff memo explained that Section 94-84 of the Sarasota County Code of Ordinances “requires a petitioner, seeking to initiate a proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan outside of the annual amendment cycle, to submit a written request to the Director of Planning and Development Services. Such a request for a Comprehensive Plan Amendment may be considered by the [commission] at any time. The Director of Planning and Development Services shall then report to the [commission] with a recommendation as to whether the request can be reasonably accommodated at the time requested or whether the amendment more appropriately should be processed as part of the annual cycle. As part of the review of this request, the Planning and Development Services Director has determined that staff can reasonably accommodate the request to process the amendment out-of-cycle,” the memo added.