Planning commissioners also discuss Palmer Boulevard traffic constraints
A number of the members of Sarasota County’s Planning Commission made it clear on May 6 that they have objections to the preservation of three of the county’s “Quads” parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields.
However, as Commissioners Laura Benson of Venice and Kevin Cooper of Sarasota observed, the County Commission already made the decision to place those Quads under conservation easements in collaboration with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey, and leaders of the Sarasota Aubudon Society.
The issue before the Planning Commission that evening was a proposed amendment to the Interstate 75/Fruitville Road Major Employment Center (MEC) Critical Area Plan (CAP), along with the rezoning of the three parcels from Open Use, Rural, 1 unit per 10 acres, to Government Use.
As county Planner Steve Kirk pointed out, staff has worked with the Foundation, the Audubon Society and other interested parties — including residents — on stipulations that would be applied to limited development of the Quads in keeping with the conservation easements.
His presentation focused on those stipulations, including a base building line; setbacks, height and architectural features of new structures; view shed considerations; and landscape buffers.
Benson pointed out that the planning commissioners simply were going through the formal process of supporting the County Commission’s decisions of the past couple of years in regard to the future of the three Quads.
“The county owns this [land],” she stressed of the parcels east of Interstate 75, “and the county wants to do this …”
Nonetheless, she joined her colleagues in voicing frustration over the lost potential of commercial development of the land.
“This is an industrial area for which there’s jobs opportunities, and [the county commissioners are] taking all that off the market in order to, perhaps, from a great distance, expand a lovely environmental area,” Benson pointed out. With the latter part of the comment, she was referring to the Celery Fields.
“Let’s think about what’s been in this area,” Vice Chair Teresa Mast said. “I can remember when the Celery Fields was really celery fields, not an Audubon gathering spot, which I think is lovely. I have no problem with what’s there now,” she added. Yet, she continued, “This was farming land forever, and I mean forever.” It was used as “the staging area for a lot of infrastructure,” Mast added. “Then it became an ecotourism spot, which is fabulous.”
Mast said she did not believe the Northwest and Southwest Quads, which are west of Apex Road, should be included in the rezoning process.
With the Southeast and Northeast Quads east of that road, she continued, “I can all day long straight-face it.” (A stormwater pond dominates the Northeast Quad, a fact that, the County Commission and staff long have acknowledged, pre-empts any development on that site.)
“What I really struggle with, and try to say it delicately,” Mast continued, is that the Northwest and Southwest Quads should be allowed to develop differently. The properties adjoining them, she noted, are zoned Industrial Light Warehousing (ILW). “That has been an industrial park area for a long time.”
“That was a lot of what I’m getting at, too, especially on the Northwest [Quad],” Planning Commissioner Neil Rainford of Sarasota said.
The Northwest Quad already is home to a county fire station, he emphasized, “with sirens and fire trucks, and many construction businesses and trucks and everything [to the northwest of that parcel].”
The lone speaker during the May 6 public hearing was attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm, who was on staff in the Office of the County Attorney, she noted, when the Quads parcels and the land that became the Celery Fields stormwater project were purchased by the county. She pointed out to the planning commissioners that the County Commission’s unanimous vote on Oct. 6, 2020 to place the conservation easement over the three Quads was “something, in recent years, [that] has been very unusual in Sarasota County.” It reflected “the concerns, desires and interests of the residents …”
Calling the Celery Fields a “serendipitous jewel,” Schoettle-Gumm noted that it “developed completely unexpectedly” as a bird refuge. “It’s been a prime birding site, renowned internationally,” she added.
Moreover, she pointed out, county staff “has done an incredible job” of working with residents and public interest groups to create a vision for potential uses on the Quads while “still protecting and preserving this unique attribute of Sarasota County.”
The road constraints issue
The planning commissioners also discussed a 2017 proposal for a construction, demolition and yard-waste recycling center on the Southwest Quad. The Planning Commission members seated at that time unanimously recommended denial of Sarasota businessman James Gabbert’s petition to rezone the parcel for that use. They cited the road constraints in that area as the basis for their decision. (The County Commission voted 3-2 to deny the petition, as well, with then-Chair Paul Caragiulo also voicing concerns about the extra traffic the facility would put on the roads in the area, including Palmer Boulevard.)
As he understood it, Chair Colin Pember of Sarasota said on May 6, Palmer Boulevard is “built to its max configuration.”
Palmer is classified as a two-lane arterial, Planner Kirk told Pember. (The Florida Department of Transportation defines an arterial road as a divided or undivided roadway that provides a continuous route that serves through traffic and high-traffic volumes, as well as motorists with long average trip lengths.)
Palmer Boulevard “was operating at an F,” Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper, who was on the board in 2017, pointed out. (The Florida Department of Transportation classifies the Level of Service on roads from A to F, with those letter grades corresponding to school grades: On an A-rated road, a motorist perceives that the traffic flows well, without congestion.)
Because Palmer Boulevard is part of the I-75/Fruitville MEC, Cooper explained, the Planning Commission could consider the road issues as a reason to deny Gabbert’s rezoning petition. With rezoning applications in general, he noted, state law prohibits local governments from using road congestion as a reason for denial.
During the ensuing discussion, Pember said, “My whole opinion on those [Quads] would change significantly if [Palmer] was four lanes.” In that case, he added, he would call for construction of a facility similar to what Gabbert envisioned. “I would be OK with an intense use if this road was four lanes.”
Could the conservation easements be removed from the Quads, Pember asked.
Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye responded that the County Commission could revoke the easements, but it would have to have the approval of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and other groups to do so.
Nonetheless, Moye continued, he believed that the “physical barrier” of I-75 would make it difficult to widen Palmer to four lanes. “I’ve heard that in the past.”
“You’d have to condemn a lot of property,” Planning Commissioner Benson pointed out.
“It looks like to me it would take major infrastructure improvements to widen [Palmer Boulevard] to four lanes,” Planning Commissioner Rainford said.
Then Pember noted that he had looked up the area on Google Maps. “So widening anywhere west of this is never going to happen in our lifetime,” he told his colleagues. “That does kind of change some of my thinking here.”
Following their discussion, the planning commissioners finally voted unanimously on a motion by Benson to recommend that the County Commission proceed with the amendment and the rezoning, with the stipulations for development of the three Quads as staff has proposed.
Nonetheless, Planning Commissioner Cooper, who seconded the motion, said, “I think there’s a little bit of disingenuous nature” in regard to county residents’ opposition to the Gabbert proposal but their support of other types of development on the Quads under the conservation easements. If people want a park, he added, “Make it a park.”
Planner Kirk emphasized earlier, “The reality of this” is that the uses that would be allowed on the three Quads would be highly restricted. “The potential traffic generation has been wiped away to a great extent,” Kirk said, except for the Northwest Quad.
Cooper did acknowledge that he is a fan of the Celery Fields.
According to a document the county’s Planning and Development Services staff produces each week, which shows the status of project applications, no date has been set yet for the County Commission public hearing on the rezoning of the Quads and the amendment to the I-75/Fruitville MEC CAP.