Members of the public decry changes to county environmental policies in the revised Comprehensive Plan

Current and former litigants against the county among those who had pressed the County Commission to retain more proscriptive language

Mike Cosentino's truck publicizing his Reopen Beach Road initiative has become a common sight on Siesta Key. Rachel Hackney photo
Mike Cosentino’s sign publicizing his Reopen Beach Road initiative has become a common sight on Siesta Key. Rachel Hackney photo

Although traffic was the issue that garnered the most attention during the Sarasota County Commission’s final public hearing on the county’s revised Comprehensive Plan, changes to the document’s Environmental Systems chapter also were the focus of a number of public complaints.

One past and one present litigant against the county were among numerous speakers who accused the board — as Control Growth Now President Dan Lobeck phrased it — of eviscerating that part of the new 1,300-page guideline for future land-use planning in the county.

Commissioner Christine Robinson took exception with that characterization following the nearly four-and-half-hour public hearing on Oct. 25. Reading from the revised Environmental Systems chapter, she said, “There’s a whole lot of ‘shalls’ … that remain in this Comprehensive Plan.” She had been looking at them, she added, as people testified.

Linda Valley. Rachel Hackney photo
Linda Valley. Rachel Hackney photo

Robinson told her colleagues that she just wanted to set the record straight.

During his remarks, Siesta resident Michael Cosentino — who has addressed the commissioners during every set of meetings they have held for the past five months — chastised them again for agreeing to modified language in Parks Policy 1.1.13. The policy prior to the adoption of the new plan said, “The County shall not vacate road segments on waterfronts along any creek, river, lake, bay or Gulf access point and shall encourage right-of-way use of these areas for coastal beach and bay access.”

The version in the revised plan, Parks Policy 1.1.12, says, “The County should not vacate road segments or access points on waterfronts along any beach, bay, creek, river, or lake, and should encourage public right-of way use of these areas for public shoreline and water access.”

Cosentino told the commissioners they ought to replace the “should” with the original “shall not.”

The previous policy was the foundation for the lawsuit he filed against the county in June, after the commission voted 4-1 on May 11 to vacate a 357-foot segment of North Beach Road on Siesta Key that has been impassible to vehicular traffic since 1993, as a result of repetitive storm damage.

Mike Cosentino addresses the board on Oct. 25. Rachel Hackney photo
Mike Cosentino addresses the board on Oct. 25. Rachel Hackney photo

“My opinion is that we elect these commissioners to represent the public,” Cosentino said on Oct. 25. Yet, he continued, “I feel like I’m actually protecting the business people and the public from the County Commission.”

He then alluded to his efforts to put two Sarasota County Charter amendments on a future ballot, one of which would incorporate the language of the former parks policy into that document. (The other would call for rescinding the May 11 vote or to require the county to repurchase the right of way from the private property owners who petitioned for the road vacation.)

Cosentino added, “Over time, unfortunately, I think the only way that we can protect things … is just make the County Charter [as thick as] a phone book. It is what the people want.”

As of Oct. 27, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office Administrative Assistant Cathy Fowler reported, at the request of The Sarasota News Leader, Cosentino still had only eight valid signatures on petitions for the charter amendments. He needs 13,866, she told the News Leader in September.

Siesta resident Linda Valley — who has appeared before the County Commission on numerous occasions in support of Cosentino’s Reopen Beach Road movement — concurred with him again on Oct. 25. “There’s no justification to change the words ‘shall not’ … to ‘should not.’”

Valley added, “The Ten Commandments don’t say you ‘should not’ do this or that. ‘Shall not’ has some meaning behind it.”

Other concerns

Geraldine Swormstedt was among those speakers who used the word “evisceration” to describe changes regarding county protections for the environment.

Identifying herself as one of approximately 2,100 members of the Manatee-Sarasota chapter of the Sierra Club, Swormstedt told the board, “We were known as an area that was really well protected.”

A wood stork is visible in the background as construction equipment excavates the site of the new Whole Foods store on University Parkway. Image courtesy Margaret Kristjanson
A wood stork is visible in the background as construction equipment excavates the site of the new Whole Foods store on University Parkway. Image courtesy Margaret Kristjanson

Noting that she was the 18th person to make public comments during the hearing at that point on Oct. 25, she voiced frustration with the fact that 18 or 19 people can oppose something the commission is considering, while three or four support it, and the minority wins.

Swormstedt was among three individuals who joined the environmental group ManaSota-88 in opposing the County Commission’s decision in January to allow Whole Foods to build a second Sarasota County store on a site that county staff had called a rare type of hardwood wetlands in the area. Again, a chapter of the existing Comprehensive Plan was cited as the reason the board erred in its 4-1 vote approving the proposal for the new development called University Station.

During the months after the suit was filed in February, Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, the attorney for the plaintiffs, argued against demands of intervenors in the case — primarily owners of the property where the project will be built — to release the names of all the ManaSota-88 members. On Aug. 19 — the Friday before the trial was to begin on Monday, Aug. 22 — the parties settled the suit, with each covering its own attorney’s fees and costs. The agreement did not site any specific reasons for the settlement.

Margaret Kristganson. Rachel Hackney photo
Margaret Kristjanson. Rachel Hackney photo

Yet another speaker on Oct. 25 referenced the Whole Foods project in arguing against changes to environmental protections in the revised Comprehensive Plan.

Showing the board a series of slides she took at the University Parkway site where clearing has begun for the Whole Foods project, Margaret Kristjanson of Sarasota pointed to a wood stork in the background as a large piece of equipment dug into the ground. “These are wetlands in the process of being destroyed completely,” she said. “I think this is really sad.”

Asserting that she is not opposed to development, Kristjanson added, “I think we should do it in a thoughtful and very gentle way whenever possible.”

She talked of “shall” being replaced by “may” in numerous cases in the Comprehensive Plan revision. It is naïve, she continued, to believe developers “will operate out of their own good will. I think that they need to be regulated.” Otherwise, she told the board, all county residents will see their quality of life diminished.

Because of the pending litigation, no commissioner has replied to Cosentino’s statements during meetings. At the conclusion of all the public comments on Oct. 25, Robinson was the only one to make any remarks about the changes to policies in the Environmental Systems chapter. As revised, that section of the Comprehensive Plan also addresses county parks.