Lawsuit filed in February to stop the development on a wetlands site is settled four days before it was to go to trial
Just four days after a lawsuit was settled with Sarasota County and intervening defendants over the planned new Whole Foods project on University Parkway, the County Commission unanimously approved a mitigation agreement involving wetlands on the site.
The board also unanimously voted on a permanent new access road to the property from Honore Avenue.
The commission decisions were part of its approval of its Aug. 23 Consent Agenda, which generally includes routine business items.
The settlement of the legal complaint, filed on Aug. 19 in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota, called for each of the parties to cover its own attorneys’ fees and costs. On Feb. 25, an environmental group, ManaSota-88, and three individuals filed a complaint arguing that the County Commission had violated the county’s Comprehensive Plan in voting 4-1 on Jan. 26 to allow the proposed University Station project to be built on a site that encompasses about 4.5 acres of what county staff has called a rare hardwood wetlands. The Aug. 19 dismissal of the case was “with prejudice,” meaning that ManaSota-88 and the other plaintiffs cannot revive the issue at a later date.
No other terms were provided in the court filing, which came just before a two-day trial of the case was scheduled to begin on Aug. 22.
County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh made no mention of the matter during his report to the County Commission during its regular meetings this week.
On July 20, 12th Circuit Court Judge Rochelle Curley had issued an order calling for ManaSota-88 ‘s attorney, Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, to disclose the names of all the members of the organization to Sarasota County and the attorneys for the firms that own the University Parkway property slated for the Whole Foods project. Brookes had fought the efforts of those “Intervenors” to obtain the names, arguing that the disclosure could lead to harassment of the individuals. Finally, on June 21, Magistrate Deborah Bailey ordered him to provide the list to the attorneys, writing in her decision that the information “be used solely for the purposes of litigating this matter.”
Brookes has not returned messages the News Leader has left him, requesting comment.
“We are pleased that the challenge against the county regarding development of University Station has been dismissed and we are excited to move forward,” Candice McElyea, president of THREE SIX OH Public Relations in Sarasota, told the News Leader on behalf of SJ Collins Enterprises of Fairburn, Ga., the developer for this project and a number of other Whole Foods stores.
Briana Madrid, associate marketing coordinator for Whole Foods Markets, added in a statement emailed to the News Leader, “We are glad that development can resume on the University Station site now that the challenge is dismissed. This is the outcome we expected, and are thrilled to have a clear path forward to serving more Sarasotans.”
The original plan for the Whole Foods project — which includes a Wawa and possibly a Zoes Kitchen — called for opening the new store in the summer of 2017. McElyea said she had no information this week about the updated timeline.
A necessary step
The mitigation interlocal agreement with Manatee County the Sarasota County Commission approved on Aug. 23 is designed to be compensation for the destruction of the University Parkway wetlands. The project location is at the southwest corner of University Parkway and Honore Avenue, county staff noted in an Aug. 23 memo to the board. The 8.24-acre site consists of multiple parcels owned by JDL Development II LLC and BW University Honore LLC, the memo adds. Both were defendant Intervenors in the lawsuit.
“The combined properties consist of pine flatwoods and shady hammock surrounding a 4.49-acre wetland swamp and head,” the memo points out. “The development of University Station proposes to impact 100% of the wetlands and native habitats on the combined properties,” the memo continues. In seeking the rezoning of the site for the development, SJ Collins Enterprises proposed off-site mitigation within the same watershed, but in Manatee County, the memo explains. The plan called for the purchase of approximately 40 acres surrounded by the Rye Preserve. That property was purchased by JDL Development — another of the defendant Intervenors — on July 31, 2015 and then transferred to JDL Development II on Dec. 16, 2015, the memo continues. JDL Development II retains ownership of the property, the memo notes.
The actual mitigation area will be about 34.5 acres, the memo points out, because of the property’s inclusion of sovereign submerged lands of the Manatee River.
The memo also notes that Manatee County rejected an earlier version of the interlocal agreement, which the Sarasota County Commission approved on May 24 as part of its Consent Agenda. “The Office of the County Attorney coordinated with the Manatee County Attorney’s Office to revise the Interlocal Agreement into a form and format acceptable to Manatee County,” the memo adds.
David Fairey, chief financial officer of JDL Property Holdings, signed the conservation easement on June 29 on behalf of JDL Development II. Vanessa Baugh, chair of the Manatee County Commission, signed the interlocal agreement on July 26.
The easement agreement states that it “extinguishes any mitigation rights that otherwise would exist on the property [in Manatee County], or any claim that its use, encumbrance, or conveyance would constitute mitigation for wetland or other habitat disturbance on any other site [other than the University Station property].”
The new road access
The related action the County Commission approved on Aug. 23 is an amendment to the county’s University Parkway interlocal agreement with Manatee County.
No closer than 440 feet west of Honore Avenue’s intersection with University Parkway, a permanent right-in/right-out access will be constructed from Honore to allow traffic to reach the University Station site, a Sarasota County staff memo says. This access point also will be no closer than 510 feet east of Center Ring Road, the memo says.
Staff members of Manatee and Sarasota counties raised concerns that such an access would lead to “traffic weaving to enter turn lanes at the intersection of University Parkway and Honore Avenue,” the memo points out. Therefore, if the road’s creation results in more vehicle crashes than other right-in/right-out access points on University Parkway, the memo adds, the owner/developer of the property will have to pay to remove the right-out portion of the driveway, leaving just the right-in access.
“The primary intent of the access management portion of the Interlocal Agreement for University Parkway between [the two counties] is to provide a roadway where traffic can maintain a relatively high travel speed while minimizing adverse impact of access points,” the memo explains. Therefore, the agreement has specified right-in/right-out and full median openings as access points, the memo notes.