Neal turned down on request to eliminate affordable housing and off-site land conservation for new development

Planning Commission members unanimous in denying proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendment for Grand Lakes project

Pat Neal, chairman of the executive committee of Neal Communities (right), talks with Control Growth Now President Dan Lobeck. File photo
Pat Neal, chairman of the executive committee of Neal Communities (right), talks with Control Growth Now President Dan Lobeck. File photo

Planning Commission members applauded Pat Neal’s developments in Sarasota County during their Sept. 15 regular meeting. But regardless of their respect for him, they said, they could not approve his request for a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would allow him to proceed with his Grand Lakes project east of Interstate 75.

As county Planner Vivian Roe had explained to the board, the application called for the elimination of two of the major tenets of Sarasota 2050 Plan requirements for construction in the eastern part of the county: the use of transfers of development rights (TDRs) to increase density of dwelling units by forever preserving open space in other areas; and the inclusion of affordable housing.

The Planning Commission was unanimous in its denial of Neal’s request. Two of the members — Jack Bispham and Robert Morris — recused themselves from the hearing. Therefore, the vote was 7-0, Chair John Ask noted for the record.

“One of the central tenets of 2050 was affordable housing,” Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper pointed out. To eliminate that from the Grand Lakes plan, he said, is to remove “something I believe this community is asking for and really is ready to fall on the sword for.”

Commissioner Laura Benson noted, too, that county staff began working with the public 18 months ago to complete the first update of the Comprehensive Plan since 2006. Adding an amendment at this point, she said, “without a greater dialogue, I truly believe, is a shortcoming.”

She also concurred with Cooper about the affordable housing element of 2050 developments. “I think we’ve got to stop using the [term] ‘affordable housing.’ I think it sets off a connotation that’s confusing and making it more difficult for neighbors to understand what that means.” She added, “‘Attainable housing’ is a term that the National Association of Realtors is using now because ‘affordable housing’ just makes people freak.”

A graphic shows the proposed site of Grand Lakes adjacent to the Clark Road Properties development area. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows the proposed site of Grand Lakes adjacent to the Clark Road Properties development area. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Roe had pointed out during the approximately 90-minute public hearing that 2050 Plan policy calls for 15% of the total number of homes in a Village development to be affordable. Ten percent of them must be provided for families making 80% of the annual median income of the region, and the other 5% should be for families with 100% of the annual median income (AMI).

The 100% AMI figure, Roe pointed out, is about $62,000 a year. By the time the expense of a down payment reflecting 10% of the price was added in, she said, a family of four with income at 100% of the AMI would pay about $268,000.

However, Neal explained that the buffer required for the Grand Lakes plan under 2050 tenets would take up about 44.44% of the Grand Lakes property. Given the constraints of the site, he said, it would be impossible for the development to succeed financially if it provided affordable housing and he had to purchase TDRs off-site, since the County Commission has set the price of those rights at a minimum of $23,000 apiece.

The County Commission tentatively is scheduled to address the Grand Lakes proposal on the afternoon of its Oct. 25 regular meeting in Sarasota.

The staff report

An aerial map shows the Grand Lakes parcel in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An aerial map shows the Grand Lakes parcel in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During her presentation, Roe explained that the Comprehensive Plan amendment Neal and his development team were proposing would be limited to Grand Lakes. The 522-acre parcel is east of Interstate 75, west of Ibis Street and about 2 miles south of Clark Road. It is adjacent to the Clark Road Properties development, she noted. No commercial component of the project was planned, the county application pointed out, because of Grand Lakes’ proximity to other proposed communities with such uses.

Kelley Kepler of the Kimley-Horn and Associates consulting firm, which has worked with Neal on the project, explained that the land has been used for a sod farm.

The Comprehensive Plan amendment would allow for the creation of a “Village Enclave” in an existing 2050 Village, Roe said. The proposed amendment says the county “shall support the alternative development form of a Village Enclave

planned development zoning district … within those lands which are unsuitable for conventional Village development, as established in this policy.”

Among the locational criteria that would have to be met for property to qualify for a Village Enclave development, Roe noted, are that that it contain a boundary wholly or partly adjacent to, or within one-quarter-mile of, the county’s Urban Service Boundary and the I-75 corridor; that, at the time of development, it will have adequate public facilities and services, including central water and wastewater facilities; and that only negligible native habitats remain on it.

“Staff is of the opinion that the applicant’s justification for why a property is not suitable for Village development does not provide adequate support for the departure from the 2050 framework,” Roe told the commission. “This area has already been determined to be highly suitable for Village development as Village Open Space,” she added of the Grand Lakes site, referring to a particular 2050 designation.

A chart shows detail about annual median income for the Sarasota region. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A chart shows details about annual median income for the Sarasota region and affordable housing pricing. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Furthermore, Roe explained, development of the property under the 2050 Plan guidelines is optional. However, the 2050 policy would provide for more density than allowed in areas zoned Rural and Semi-Rural, she noted.

Neal has proposed 788 residences, she continued, although the 2050 Plan would allow him to build a maximum of 1,044 dwelling units. Nonetheless, he does not want to transfer development rights from off-site to achieve the allowable density of two dwelling units per acre, she continued. Yet, the 2050 Plan allows for that higher density only through the use of TDRs, Roe pointed out.

“The purchasing of TDRs is an option,” she stressed. If a developer chooses to buy them, she noted, they can be obtained from the county’s “bank,” which includes TDRs from its own lands, or from a private property owner.

A developer can reduce the number of necessary TDRs, she pointed out, by creating more open space within a project or by providing more affordable housing.

The Neal team’s viewpoint

In opening remarks for the development team, attorney Dan Bailey of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota pointed out that the Planning Commission and the County Commission both approved the adjacent Clark Properties project without TDRs from an off-site source.

Furthermore, he described the Grand Lakes parcel as “sort of left behind” in terms of 2050 Plan guidelines, adding that it is “bumping up against the interstate highway that runs all the way from Miami to Detroit …”

And while the team had envisioned otherwise, he continued, “we wound up being the only parcel” to which the Village Enclave designation would apply.

Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper. News Leader photo
Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper. News Leader photo

As for the affordable housing element: Bailey told the board, “We have issues with that because the neighbors don’t seem to want it.”

Neal pointed out that his firm is “the only developer of a 2050 property ever in the 15 years that 2050 has existed,” referring to his Grand Palm project in Venice. After the latter was approved in 2011, he said, the company nearly stopped it in 2012. To comply with 2050 policy, the firm had to build about three market-rate houses for every affordable dwelling, he added, and that made it almost impossible for the project to be financially successful.

Today, he said, Grand Palm offers some homes for $179,900, and it has been the county’s fastest or second-fastest selling community.

Public testimony and discussion

Among the seven members of the public who opposed the Comprehensive Plan amendment was Jono Miller, the retired director of New College of Florida’s Environmental Studies Program. He pointed out that he had attended about 70% of the Planning Commission’s public hearings as it worked through revisions of the Comprehensive Plan this year. (The County Commission is scheduled to adopt the final draft in October, after appropriate state agency review of the changes.) Yet, this amendment has come up, Miller continued. “I don’t really think we can call it ‘comprehensive planning’ if it applies to only one parcel, and if it does apply to more, you should understand which ones.”

He also opposed the elimination of the affordable housing requirement in the new Neal project.

In his rebuttal, allowed under the public hearing guidelines, Neal told the board that his firm is the largest area builder of affordable homes. “We think we’re experts.”

He then reiterated his earlier point that it would not be possible to devote 44.4 acres to buffers and build enough homes, plus those considered “affordable,” on 522 acres under the terms of the 2050 Plan and achieve a profitable development.

“Affordable housing” just means different types of housing at different price points, Benson noted. “To me, that’s always been the goal of 2050 — a different blend and mix of housing styles for different members of the community to take advantage of.”

Laura Benson. Image from the Michael Saunders & Co. website
Laura Benson. Image from the Michael Saunders & Co. website

“Mr. Neal, you are without a doubt the most well respected developer in this community,” Benson told him, “and I’m really sorry that when people talk about your projects, [they call you] a bad guy.”

If the property cannot be developed under the 2050 Plan guidelines, she added, perhaps it should be the site of another sort of project.

“I have to concur with you completely,” Ask said to Benson. Ask also reminded Neal that even though the county’s price for a TDR is $23,000, “I’m hearing on the market they can be bought for less than that.”

Saying he agreed with Benson and Ask, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger made the motion to deny the request for the amendment.

Commissioner Philip Kellogg seconded the motion. Referencing the axiom about “thinking outside the box,” Kellogg said that the box in this case is 2050 policy. “This is not the forum to change that box.”