Company will get 6.8-acre ‘half-moon parcel’ at Benderson Park
Since the spring of 2021, the Sarasota County commissioners had been focused on construction of a new County Administration Center on county-owned property located at 1301 Cattlemen Road in Sarasota.
That changed this week, with the board members voting unanimously to approve a land swap with Benderson Development Co. In exchange for what staff calls a “half-moon parcel” at Nathan Benderson Park, which comprises about 6.8 acres, the county will accept a 9-acre parcel on Fruitville Road, near the Fruitville Public Library.
Officially, with their Feb. 23 vote, the commissioners directed staff to finalize a “term sheet” with Benderson Development for their formal approval at a later date. That document will encompass the terms of the deal.
At the outset of a Feb. 23 presentation, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho reminded the commissioners that when they began discussing the need for a new County Administration Center, they asked staff to survey options within a rectangular area between Fruitville Road and Laurel Road. The commissioners settled on the 1301 Cattlemen Road site, he noted, with its proximity to the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
He indicated that Benderson Development representatives recently approached staff with the idea of the land swap. The county would get a piece of the company’s property south of Fruitville Road in exchange for the county land near the Mall at University Town Center.
In August 2014, Benderson entered into a contract with the county to purchase 41.34 acres of county property in the Fruitville Initiative area for $3 million.
Then, on Oct. 28, 2015, the commissioners denied a zoning request from Benderson so it could construct a light industrial manufacturing and mixed-use project on the site. Numerous speakers during the public hearing that day pointed out that the plans did not conform to the vision of the Fruitville Initiative, which was to create a walkable community with mixed uses that would enhance the appearance of the eastern entrance to the county from I-75.
In subsequent years, Benderson affiliate Coburn Road LLC requested and won County Commission permission to delay construction on the property, as company staff adjusted its vision for a project. For example, a March 8, 2016 County Commission vote authorized Coburn Road to develop 300 multi-family units; 400,000 square feet of office space; 57,500 square feet of mixed-use retail space; 8,500 square feet of standalone retail space; and 50,000 square feet of industrial space on the site.
Then, in April 2018, the commissioners again gave Coburn Road another extension on the Fruitville Initiative project. That agreement called for the company to complete work on the light warehouse project by Aug. 30, 2019.
Finally, in December 2021, the commissioners unanimously approved a county Comprehensive Plan amendment that allowed an increase in the amount of free-standing commercial space in the Fruitville Initiative, and it agreed to the rezoning of part of the Coburn Road property to permit the extra free-standing developments.
Details of the location for the Administration Center
An aerial map that Deputy County Administrator Botelho presented to the commissioners on Feb. 23 showed only one structure in the immediate area of the site Benderson proposed for the Administration Center: an emergency room facility that is owned by Manatee Memorial Hospital LP, called ER at Fruitville. The facility website indicates that it is a branch of Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.
In October 2019, Manatee Memorial Hospital LP purchased the property for $4.7 million from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
A Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office map showing the location of the emergency room also makes it clear that no structures exist on the Benderson/Coburn Road property to the south.
Botelho also noted on Feb. 23 that, in 2005, the half-moon parcel at Benderson Park was “encumbered by the North Lake Easement and Agreement,” which conveyed to Benderson Development a perpetual easement for use of the property for stormwater retention, floodplain management, wetland creation and excavation of fill material.
If the board members agreed to the land swap, he continued, about 6 or 7 acres of the 9 acres south of Fruitville Road would be available for construction. Benderson already is responsible for constructing the roads in the area, as well as landscaping and maintaining them, he added. The county would have permanent access to those roads, Botelho said.
When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked Botelho what is planned for the vacant site to the west of the 9-acre parcel, he told her that a Publix grocery store has been proposed there. On the empty site just west of the emergency room, he indicated that Benderson staff had talked about the potential of a Starbuck’s or some other light retail project.
Further, Botelho pointed out that the Benderson land is approximately 1.7 miles from 1301 Cattlemen Road. It also is near the Northwest Quad, where a county fire station stands and where a new “One Stop” building for the county’s Planning and Development Services Department is to be constructed. (See the related article in this issue.)
If the land swap were approved, Botelho pointed out, the county would have the 1301 Cattlemen Road site for other future needs. Moreover, he said, no activity had been planned for the half-moon parcel.
The swap calls for no financial contributions, he added.
Chair Alan Maio reminded Botelho that, in November 2021, the board members approved the sale of the downtown Sarasota County Administration Center property — including two parking lots on Morrill Street — to Benderson Development for $25 million, with county operations to remain on the site until the new Administration Center has been completed. The deal calls for the county to pay $1 million a year for four years to lease the property.
“We’ve got four years less two months in this building,” was how Maio put it.
Maio then asked whether approving the land swap still would allow sufficient time for the new administration facility to be built, without the necessity of county staff seeking to extend the lease with Benderson.
Botelho replied, “We’d be proceeding very quickly” with the design of the new building.
“I think it’s incredibly thoughtful,” Commissioner Michael Moran said of the proposal for the swap. “Frankly, it appears to me to be a no-brainer,” especially considering the proximity to I-75. That would make it easy for the public to reach the new Administration Center, he pointed out.
Additionally, Moran said, whenever the county has property for which it has no plans — such as the half-moon parcel — commissioners have taken the view that that land needs to be declared surplus, so someone can buy it and it can go back on the tax rolls.
“I do agree that the land swap is a no-brainer,” Commissioner Detert added. “An even swap is to our benefit.”
Detert also told Botelho that she hoped the county and Benderson would be able to split the closing costs.
She concurred with Moran, too, about the fact that I-75 would be so close to the new site off Fruitville Road. “It’s a lot better than what I have to do now,” she continued, which is drive on I-75 from her Venice home and then exit onto Fruitville Road, deal with parents dropping off their children at Cardinal Mooney High School, and then having to navigate the rest of Fruitville to downtown Sarasota.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger agreed with her. An Englewood resident, he said, “It took me an hour and 20 minutes to get here this morning,” adding that he logged more than half of that time after he exited the interstate.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler also called the land swap a “no-brainer,” because the county would be getting a bigger piece of land and the site would be more easily accessible for the public.
As he has noted in the past, Ziegler added that he still would have preferred a new administration center farther south, especially in the area of the planned State Road 681 interchange with I-75. However, he acknowledged, work on that interchange is not progressing fast enough to satisfy the county deadline to relocate from the downtown Sarasota property.
Ziegler also talked of the fact that if residents read about the land swap without knowing that Benderson Development was involved, “I guarantee the citizens’d probably be 100% [in approval].”
Benderson has been the focus of controversy through the years, with members of the public alleging that county commissioners have accepted so many campaign contributions from Benderson family members and employees that the commissioners agree too readily to proposals that the company puts forth.
Chair Maio ended up making the motion that directed staff to proceed with the necessary steps to finalize the land swap. He also said he does not believe the commission should consider putting the 1301 Cattlemen Road site on the surplus lands list at this time.
Commissioner Moran seconded the motion, saying he looks forward to seeing the term sheet for the deal.
It took less than 18 minutes for the discussion and vote.