Office of County Attorney directed to draft amendment to county regulations
On March 23, as he was opening the afternoon session of the Sarasota County Commission meeting, Chair Alan Maio referenced “a pretty significant [change]” to the agenda.
Item 31, a public hearing pertaining to the proposed development of new homes on Hi Hat Ranch in the eastern part of the county, would not be held that day after all, Maio said. “That is because of a technical situation.”
Maio added, “We have a rule that says [a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment] can’t [be heard] before the County Commission in less than 30 days [after the Planning Commission addressed it], nor can it appear at the County Commission in more than 60 days.
“Well,” he continued, “as luck would have it for the petitioner, today is Day 61.”
The previous day, at 4:41 p.m., Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, sent an email to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis.
“Today it was brought to staff’s attention that the Hi Hat Ranch Comprehensive Plan Amendment scheduled for public hearing tomorrow (March 23rd) does not meet the County Code for Board consideration and needs to be remanded back to the Planning Commission,” Osterhoudt wrote.
“Specifically,” he added, “Section 94-86 (b) states that a transmittal stage public hearing shall occur ‘no sooner than 30 days nor later than 60 days following the Local Planning Agency’s recommendation.’ [The] Planning Commission took action on this [Comprehensive Plan amendment] January 21, 2021, which means tomorrow’s public hearing date is outside the prescribed window by one day (61 days). As such, staff will be remanding the Hi Hat application back to the Planning Commission.”
Osterhoudt also noted, “Staff has discussed the issue with the Applicant. The Applicant understands the procedural issue and has agreed that the item should go back to the Planning Commission. Staff is now working with the Applicant to reschedule the item. Furthermore, staff will coordinate with [the county] Communications [Department] to inform the public of this change in venue and announce the remanding at the [March 23 County Commission] hearing.”
A transmittal hearing is the opportunity for the county commissioners to decide whether they want to pursue enactment of a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment. If they support the issue before them, then they formally authorize the transmission of the proposal to the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity for review, as necessitated by state law.
A March 22 email blast from Becky Ayech, leader of the Miakka Community Club in the eastern part of the county, explained that Sarasota attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm was responsible for bringing the technical error to the attention of county staff.
A copy of Ayech’s email was provided to The Sarasota News Leader.
The Comprehensive Plan amendment
The proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment — 2019-D, which originated as a privately initiated measure and subsequently was reclassified as a publicly initiated measure — seeks to change the Sarasota 2050 Plan designation for the property from Hamlet to Village and move what is known as the “Countryside Line” farther east, according to the county staff report provided to the Planning Commission for its regular meeting on Jan. 21.
Hi Hat Ranch encompasses approximately 9,960 acres east of the county’s Urban Service Area Boundary, which separates the portion of the county with utility services, for example, from the areas without such infrastructure.
The ranch is located between Fruitville Road and Clark Road, the staff report noted.
Proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA) 2019-D involves the Future Land Use map designation of about 1,258 acres of the ranch, which is located in the northeastern quadrant of the property, the staff report explains.
“The proposed quantities of residential units and non-residential uses [in Hi Hat Ranch] are based on the existing 2050 land use designations, and do not rely on the proposed designation change of the 1,258 acres from Hamlet to Village Land Use,” the staff report pointed out. However, it noted, “Rather than solely having the low residential development in the Hamlet area, the amendment will distribute the total [dwelling] units throughout the proposed larger Village area.”
The developed Hi Hat Ranch would have 13,081 residential units and 450,000 square feet of other space, according to the county staff report. The latter would serve as sites for schools, parks and additional “public/civic uses and services,” the staff report said.
Additionally, the staff report pointed out that the Sarasota County Charter requires a supermajority of the County Commission — four of the five members — to approve “any ordinance amending Sarasota County’s Comprehensive Plan which increases allowable land use density or intensity …” The report noted, with emphasis that it “is staff’s determination that CPA No. 2019-D would increase the allowable intensity on the 1,258 acres …”
The Planning Commission members voted 8-0 to recommend that the County Commission approve the amendment for transmittal to state officials.
A speedy path to a County Code change
On April 6 — when the County Commission held its first regular meeting after March 23 — Chair Maio made it clear that he wanted to ensure nothing like the Hi Hat situation arose again.
First, he told his colleagues, “I need an authorization to advertise. We just saw a petitioner go through a multi-year process,” he added, referring to the Hi Hat Ranch proposal. “I can imagine what they spent.”
(County documents say James Turner and Richard E. Turner are the “authorized partners in Hi-Hat Ranch, LLP.”)
“And we’re told that we have a … rule that, quite frankly, we couldn’t find anybody who knew it existed,” Maio continued. “But it was cleverly researched.”
Repeating the information he had announced on March 23 about the timeline for the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment hearing, Maio added, “I’m still searching my mind … who would benefit from that [60-day timeline].”
Maio also pointed out that occasions have risen in the past when “it has taken sometimes a little longer [than 60 days for a petition] to get here …”
Referring again to the Hi Hat Ranch applicants, Maio said, “Naturally, their misfortune occurred here on the 61st day. So they elected to just redo [the process].”
He presumed, he added, that the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment would remain the same by the time it again is placed on a County Commission agenda. “I hear it isn’t even going to get here till maybe June or July,” he noted. “So I’d like a motion for someone in support [of] the authorization for the Office of the County Attorney to advertise [a change in the County Code to eliminate the 60-day timeline].”
At that point, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht told Maio that the board first would need to direct his office to draft an amendment to the County Code. Then staff would have the draft ready for County Commission review at the next regular meeting. (The board is scheduled to conduct regular business on April 20.)
After the commissioners approve the draft, Elbrecht continued, they can vote to authorize its advertisement for a public hearing.
“OK,” Maio responded.
Commissioner Nancy Detert made a motion to that effect, and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded it.
The motion passed unanimously.
When Cutsinger asked County Administrator Lewis how long staff envisioned the new period should be, between the Planning Commission hearing and the County Commission hearing, Lewis replied, “I think we have multiple solutions we can work with,” including language calling for the applicant’s agreement to wait longer than 60 days.
Nonetheless, Lewis said, “We don’t want to be seen as dragging our feet,” taking six months, for example, to bring such a matter to the County Commission after the Planning Commission has addressed it.
The Office of the County Attorney will work with the Planning and Development Services Department, Lewis added, to come back with “what I think will be very, very few words [of] adjustment [in the County Code].”