Mote Aquarium to stand in ‘Special Planning Area’ at Benderson Park, as outlined in proposed county Comprehensive Plan and zoning amendments

Analysis shows far less traffic to be associated with facility than would be expected if offices were built on site, as allowed under current zoning

A graphic shows the proposed Special Planning Area 1b for the Mote Science Education Aquarium at Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With no comment, the Sarasota County Commission has begun the process to create a special planning area for the Mote Marine Science Education Aquarium (SEA) at Nathan Benderson Park.

During their regular meeting on May 18, the board members voted unanimously — on a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Commissioner Ron Cutsinger — to transmit to state officials a proposed amendment to the Comprehensive Plan that would revise county Future Land Use Policy 4.2.1 and the related Future Land Use Map 7-6.

A May 18 staff memo pointed out, “The proposed Mote Aquarium is a unique facility and use and is not clearly anticipated in the Comprehensive Plan or [the county’s Unified Development Code, which contains all the zoning and land-use regulations].” Therefore, amendments had been proposed to “clearly identify the location and character of use of the Aquarium.”

Then the memo explained, “Special Planning areas are established ‘in coordination with subject landowners to further public policy for defined areas’ as provided in [Future Land Use] Objective 4.2.”

“The proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment,” the staff memo continued, “will follow the adoption requirements for a Large-Scale Comprehensive Plan as set forth in the Florida Statutes, as well as County processing procedures.” The memo said the county is seeking “Expedited State Review” of the amendment.

Staff members of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity have to approve such amendments before they can be implemented. Those staff members review the proposals to ensure lack of conflict with state law.

The resolution the commissioners approved on May 18, to send to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, points out that the Mote SEA would be located in the approximately 62-acre Special Planning Area 1b, which is “in the southwest quadrant of [Interstate 75] and University Parkway between Nathan Benderson Park and the North Cattlemen Road Regional Commercial Center (The Mall at University Town Center).”

This graphic shows close-up details about plans for the Aquarium at Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The resolution adds, “The aquarium use and development will serve as a link and provide multi-modal connections between the mixed use development of the Commercial Center and Nathan Benderson Park. Site design elements such as landscape and walkways will integrate the aquarium uses and development into both the Commercial Center and Nathan Benderson Park.”

On May 18, the commissioners also approved, on first reading, an ordinance amending the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC), in accord with the planned Comprehensive Plan changes. The second public hearing on that ordinance has been scheduled for Aug. 24. That day, the May 18 staff memo said, the board members also would conduct a public hearing on the Comprehensive Plan amendment.

The staff memo, which was provided to the commissioners in advance of their meeting, reminded them that, in January 2019, they entered into formal agreements with Mote Marine “that would allow the construction of the Aquarium on land at the north end of Nathan Benderson Park immediately south of the Mall at University Town Center.”

The memo also noted that the Aquarium, which is proposed to be 150,000 square feet, not only will be open to visitors but it also will host programs for students and the public, with the goal of educating people about the marine environment. Further, the memo said that the facility will “be integrated with Mote’s scientific research mission.”

The memo added, “The UDC [modification] will specifically define an aquarium, identify an aquarium as a permitted use in the [Government Use zoning] district and provide for accessory uses.”

One part of the proposed UDC amendment says, “Outdoor special events are permitted as accessory to an Aquarium for the full implementation of the use of the property as an Aquarium and continuance of outreach and educational activities. The special events shall be limited to the Aquarium’s property and shall not exceed 250 attendees.”

That UDC amendment would be added to Section 124-77(b)(1), which pertains to the county’s Government Use zoning district, according to a county staff report, which also was included in the May 18 agenda packet.

Additionally, a revision of UDC Section 124-305 would define an aquarium as “A building which houses living aquatic animal and plant specimens for public viewing, providing science-based outreach and education to the general public and often affiliated with oceanographic research institutions.”

Analyzing traffic associated with the Aquarium

This table, included in the county staff report, summarizes the traffic analysis’ findings. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The staff report in the agenda packet also explained that county staff “conducted a generalized level of service analysis” of the Mote Aquarium’s transportation impact.

Staff used 2019 traffic volumes that were adjusted to estimate 2025 conditions, taking into account “a calculated annual growth rate,” the report said.

Staff found that North Cattlemen Road from DeSoto Road to Richardson Road “will operate above the adopted level of service standard. DeSoto Road from Honore Avenue to North Cattlemen Road is anticipated to operate below its adopted level of service for background and total traffic conditions.”

“Level of service” references how a motorist perceives the flow of traffic on a road segment, with A being the best level and F the worst.

The existing designation of the land for Special Planning Area 1b is “Office,” the staff report noted. Daily traffic intensity associated with the potential 620,000 square feet of such space would be 4,759 trips, a chart shows. However, with the Aquarium on the site, the daily trips would be expected to fall to 666, the chart notes. Further, the afternoon peak trips would be expected to drop from 562 to 60, the chart says.

“DeSoto Road and North Cattlemen Road are currently built to their ultimate thoroughfare configuration,” the staff report pointed out.

“The North Cattlemen Road/Richardson Road intersection is operating below the adopted level of service standard in its existing configuration; however, [a] signalization or roundabout improvement will allow the intersection to operate above its adopted level of service standard for project [build-out] conditions,” the report said.

The Aquarium is anticipated to be completed in 2025, the report noted.

This is another view of the proposed Special Planning Area 1b. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The May 18 agenda item was listed as “Presentation Upon Request,” but no commissioner asked for staff remarks, and no member of the public was present to address the issue.

Progress on the project

Mote SEA signs are installed on fencing around the future construction area. Image courtesy Mote Marine

During the May 18 meeting, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis did allude to the work underway in preparation for construction of the Aquarium. The progress also was noted in a May 14 Mote email blast.

“Since our November 2020 groundbreaking ceremony at this Sarasota-Manatee nexus location,” the email blast said, “you might have seen an uptick in activity on site as we prepare for Mote Aquarium to be reborn in its new home.”

It noted, “We’ve set up a 2,000-linear-foot fence with Mote signs around the area we’re upgrading now: the parking lot that will serve Mote SEA. A lot of folks ask us whether the current fence surrounds the building site itself. Not yet! The parking lot and additional grounds work must be completed before the building can be constructed.

“Over the next few months,” the email continued, “you’ll see the parking lot work in full swing: heavy equipment clearing the grass lot, teams installing underground piping for lighting, paving the lot, landscaping, and ultimately installing new lights by July to August.

“The southern half of the parking lot will be completed this summer and will reopen for public use,” the email added, “while the northern half will serve as a staging area for continued site work, and ultimately, for the construction of Mote SEA nearby.”