Miakka Community Club effort to prevent increased residential density on 6,000 acres in eastern Sarasota County voted down by County Commission

Led by Nancy Detert, board members affirm facets of 2050 Plan for development east of I-75

A graphic shows the are of the 6,000 acres — in lavender — with the area of the Miakka Community Club to the south of it. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Sept. 11, 2019, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert made a motion authorizing staff to process a publicly initiated amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan that would ensure lower residential density in a 6,000-acre tract north of Fruitville Road.

Designated CPA 2019-C by the county planning staff, it was submitted by the Miakka Community Club, which represents residents in the rural, easternmost part of the county.

Two of her colleagues — Commissioners Michael Moran and Christian Ziegler — supported it, so the motion carried on a 3-2 vote.

On Sept. 23, exactly one year and 12 days later, Detert pulled the figurative plug on that proposed amendment, making a motion to officially withdraw it from any further consideration.

Commissioner Charles Hines seconded her motion, and it passed unanimously. Chair Michael Moran was absent because of a family emergency, Vice Chair Alan Maio noted.

The board action followed a public hearing that lasted approximately three-and-a-half hours. Maio said he had nearly 40 speakers signed up at the outset; the vast majority of them spoke in favor of what CPA 2019-C. (The Sarasota News Leader counted a total of 34 speakers, with eight opposed to the amendment.)

This graphic shows the identification numbers representing ownership of the parcels in the 6,000-acre area. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Planner Vivian Drawneek explained that adoption of the amendment would affect future development of the property at the farthest end of Fruitville Road, where Fruitville intersects with Verna Road. Instead of developers being able to build 0.4 dwelling units per acre, as provided for under the county’s 2050 Plan for new communities east of Interstate 75, the Miakka Community Club applicants were seeking density no greater than 1 unit per 5 acres.

The expectation in the 2050 Plan was that the 6,000 acres would be rezoned to Hamlet use, Drawneek noted. The Miakka group wanted it to be preserved under the Rural Heritage/Estate classification.

The 2050 Plan, Drawneek pointed out, was created as an incentive-based policy for managing projected residential growth in the county out to the year 2050; it also was designed to protect environmental systems and wildlife corridors. Sarasota 2050 was adopted in 2001, she said.

Hamlets must have 60% “permanent open space,” she told the commissioners. The Rural Heritage designation, she added, limits lot coverage by buildings to 20%, leaving the remainder as open space. However, she stressed, nothing in that zoning calls for the greenspace to be protected on a permanent basis.

Old Miakka, Drawneek said, typically has Open Use Estate zoning, which allows 5- and 10-acre lots.

This graphic provides details of the staff analysis of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The first question Detert asked on Sept. 23 was which would offer the most protection to open space — the 2050 Plan or the Miakka amendment?

Drawneek’s answer was the Hamlet designation, through the 2050 Plan.

Yet, Becky Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club, emphasized to the commissioners that her group’s Comprehensive Plan amendment “would mandate 80% open space.” Moreover, she said, “You would preserve [the] 170-year-old, historic, rural Old Miakka Community.”

After making her motion, Detert pointed out that anyone watching the public hearing that afternoon “would think that … some developer came to us with a plan for thousands of homes on his property, and all of these people were here to object.”
She added that she knew seventh- and eighth-generation Floridians who live in the county who participated in the crafting of the 2050 Plan. They “worked with the valuable rural community to preserve that the best way they could,” Detert said.

“As county commissioners,” she continued, “we have … over 400,000 residents … and what is attractive about our county and the state of Florida is we have so many different lifestyles here, and we try to protect ’em all.”

Detert added, “As long as we stick to our own rulebook and quit making too many rezonings and variances, I think that’s the best thing to do for our ever-increasing population.”

Commissioner Hines called the processing of CPA 2019-C “a worthwhile exercise,” noting that he believed everyone involved “learned a lot.” One speaker, he pointed out, had described Drawneek’s presentation as the best explanation ever provided about the 2050 Plan.

This graphic compares the development facets of the Miakka Community Club proposal to those of the 2050 Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

If the provisions for the Hamlet form of development are creating problems, Hines added, then the commissioners need to address those by addressing the applicable section of the 2050 Plan.

“I’m offended,” Commissioner Maio said, that people would accuse the board members of ignoring environmental concerns. “One-third of this county is in public ownership or protected,” he added.

From the start

Planner Vivian Drawneek used this graphic to show how wildlife corridors and connectivity of environmental systems would be protected under the Hamlet designation (right) in the 2050 Plan. The 6,000 acres are shaded in lavender, while the Old Miakka area is in yellow, to the south of the red border. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Miakka Community Club initiative was a response to an earlier proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment submitted to county staff, CPA 2018-C. Privately initiated by owners of the 6,000 acres, it called for a doubling of the residential density within Hamlets.

Staff had hoped that the County Commission would be able to listen to both proposals in one public hearing, Planner Drawneek said on Sept. 23. However, the owners of the 6,000 acres had sold the property, so the development proposed for that site, she added, “is now on hold.”

Drawneek further noted that the Old Miakka area is “outside the boundaries” of the 6,000 acres.

One of the speakers during the hearing, Paula Benshoff, told the commissioners she believes the applicants behind CPA 2018-C were just waiting for the Miakka group to fail. “They did not withdraw this application,” she emphasized of those owners. “They simply put it on hold.”

When Commissioner Hines asked whether any of the owners of the property comprising the 6,000 acres had joined with the Miakka Community Club members in the application for CPA 2019-C, Drawneek said none had, to her knowledge.

This graphic compares an area designated for a Hamlet to one zoned Rural Heritage Estate. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm of Sarasota did point out that, following the Sept. 11, 2019 discussion of the club’s amendment, she talked with Rod Krebs, then the owner of part of the 6,000 acres. Her goal was to try to achieve a compromise, she indicated, but she heard no more from him.

Hines also asked a couple of the speakers that day who were opposed to the club’s proposal whether any of the Miakka residents had sought to work with them on a compromise. They had not been approached for such a purpose, they told Hines.

During two county Planning Commission hearings over the past 15 months, and the Sept. 23 County Commission meeting, resident after resident of Old Miakka talked of affection for rural living, pointing to frequent sightings of wildlife, the quietude of open spaces, and the ability to see the stars at night.

People who live in the city, Jane Grandbouche said, do not understand light pollution.

In making her motion late that afternoon, Commissioner Detert remarked that the 2050 Plan protects the air, the water, wildlife and what she called “a new, valuable commodity, which is darkness.”

This is a sunset in Old Miakka, as shown to the commission by Paula Benshoff. Image courtesy Sarasota County

However, Benshoff said that the proposal for increased residential density on the 6,000 acres “is what you call leapfrogging” from Interstate 75 “all the way out here.”

Old Miakka and the surrounding area, Grandbouche continued, “is the only [rural] place that’s left! It’s it!”

Benshoff pointed out that the 6,000 acres are mostly improved pasture for cattle and horses, a situation that dates approximately to the 1940s.

Moreover, she said she had an analysis undertaken of the soil on the property, which showed that 76% of it was considered poorly drained, while another 16% was shown to be “very poorly drained …”

“You’re going to have to bring in a lot of fill, and you’re going to make huge changes in hydrology,” Benshoff added, to construct homes on the 6,000 acres.

Another speaker, Gary Dahl, told the commissioners that the 2050 Plan talks about “protecting the character and integrity of rural Sarasota.” Yet, he continued, “Little by little, all the zoning is being stripped away.” The resulting urban sprawl, Dahl added, benefits the developers, who — he pointed out — have contributed heavily to county commissioners’ campaigns for office, “in an effort to sway your votes.”

The property rights issue

On the other side of the issue, homebuilder John Cannon, who talked of having participated in the creation of the 2050 Plan, pointed out that his company owns about 300 of the 6,000 acres. CPA 2019-C, he said, “would strip me of my property rights.” Yet, he continued, the purpose of the amendment was to protect the property rights of the Miakka Community Club members.

“I wouldn’t challenge their right to their lifestyle,” Cannon continued. However, he added, “I just don’t want to raise animals and have gardens.” He said he hoped to have “the opportunity to build some beautiful homes” on his company’s land.

A graphic shows the timeline and the mechanism in the County Code that the Miakka Community Club used to pursue the Comprehensive Plan amendment. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend the County Commission deny the club proposal. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Any property owner, Cannon pointed out, would be upset if some of his neighbors tried to take away his rights. “I’m outraged with these neighbors.”

Both William Merrill III and Matthew Brockway, attorneys with the Sarasota firm of Icard Merrill, told the commissioners that they represent owners of about 5,000 of the 6,000 acres. Pointing to the Bert Harris Act in the Florida Statutes, Brockway emphasized that if the commission approved CPA 2019-C, that would constitute a “taking of private property rights, resulting in millions of dollars of liability exposure for the county.”

Brockway read part of the Harris Act, noting that it protects “such reasonably foreseeable, nonspeculative land uses which are suitable for the subject real property and compatible with adjacent land uses and which have created an existing fair market value in the property greater than the fair market value of the actual, present use or activity on the real property.”

This is a section of the Bert Harris Act. Image courtesy Florida Senate

However, David Guest, counsel for the Miakka Community Club, said that after an in-depth review of the Harris Act — and discussions with its drafters — he disagreed with the potential for county liability if CPA 2019-C were approved. The test for a “taking” of private property rights, he explained, is whether the landowner would still have “reasonable use” of the property. Even with approval of the amendment, Guest added, the landowners would have such use.

Nonetheless, Commissioner Christian Ziegler explained that his vote against the amendment was based on its effect on private property rights.

Both Brockway and Cannon further noted previous efforts to develop part of the 6,000 acres as 5-acre ranchettes. They also both testified that county staff’s advice was to wait, because staff was working on the Hamlet designation in the 2050 Plan.

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