Neal wins County Commission approval for off-site signage directing drivers to communities with at least 2,000 homes

County staff had found proposed amendment to county zoning and land-use regulations to be inconsistent with a county policy

This Lakewood Ranch sign is what inspired him to seek the UDC amendment, Pat Neal told the commissioners on Nov. 15. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County staff found that a privately proposed amendment to county zoning regulations regarding signage for communities with at least 2,000 homes posed the potential of “sign pollution.”

It is inconsistent with a policy in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson told the County Commission during its regular meeting on Nov. 15.

This is the county policy cited by staff in finding the UDC amendment inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A report from the Planning Division, provided in the Nov. 15 agenda packet, explains that the language in the proposed amendment “would loosen controls that currently help ‘to prevent and remediate sign clutter and improve roadway viewsheds.’ In addition, the expanded definition of a community sign would increase sign clutter and negatively impact roadway viewshed on Clark Road specifically, as this is the area [where] the applicant is interested in constructing the signage.”

The amendment was being sought by former state Sen. Pat Neal, founder of Neal Communities, who was present in the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota on the morning of Nov. 15, along with his attorney, Dan Bailey of the Williams Parker firm.

Nonetheless, citing the fact that the amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) would affect communities such large communities, and the signs would have to comply with a list of other criteria, the commissioners disagreed with staff.

As a result, they first voted unanimously to find the amendment consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, and then they voted unanimously to approve the ordinance that would amend the UDC.

The Unified Development Code contains all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations.

This is a summary of the proposed UDC amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Sometimes when we get into these kind of sticky situations  — ‘disagreement’ might be too strong of a word  — I fall to the intent,” Commissioner Michael Moran said after making the motion finding that the amendment is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. “This isn’t a commercial venture, like a convenience store that’s going to put out beer specials,” he continued. “This is not a subdivision entrance. … It’s a community with thousands of houses.”

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, who seconded the motion, said he concurred with Moran. “I see this as a very minimal effect across the county. We’re not putting signs all over the place.”

Moreover, Cutsinger stressed, “These signs are going to be the face of the development, so they’re going to be very well done, very beautifully positioned.”

During his and Neal’s presentation, attorney Bailey pointed out that, following Zoning Administrator Thompson’s report on staff concerns about the amendment during her remarks to the Planning Commission, the proposal had been strengthened.

Even without those changes, the minutes of that Sept. 16 Planning Commission meeting show, the five board members who attended the hearing voted unanimously to recommend that the County Commission approve the amendment.

Neal explained to the county commissioners on Nov. 15 that the amendment would allow for a sign to be erected at the intersection of Clark Road and Ibis Street to enable people to find their way to his Grand Park community and a neighboring development.

Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson presented this slide, showing signs already in place for other developments in the same area as Grand Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“The inspiration for this,” Neal continued, is a sign that marks the southern entrance to Lakewood Ranch. The sign stands about 1.25 miles south of the southern boundary of the Lakewood Ranch Stewardship District, “as the crow flies,” according to a slide Neal showed the commissioners.

That sign, he added, was erected on his property, about a mile-and-a-half from the Lakewood Ranch property. “It’s exactly the kind of sign we’re talking about today.”

Thompson later explained that the UDC allowed the Lakewood Ranch sign because the development contains commercial uses as well as homes.

Although Thompson had talked about the potential of sign pollution, Neal continued, if his proposed amendment were approved, “It’ll keep people from stopping on Clark Road and backing up.” After Clark Road has been widened to six lanes in the affected area, he added, backing up to turn around would be even more of a problem.

This is the intersection of Ibis Street and Clark Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County staff has been at work on plans to widen Clark Road to six lanes form Interstate 75 to Ibis Street.

Yet, during her presentation, Thompson pointed to another staff concern: that multiple signs for large communities, placed at intersections 2 miles from the actual entrances to those properties, might create more confusion than they would resolve.

Other facets of the proposal

This is the existing entrance to Grand Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The type of sign he is proposing, Neal continued, would be on private property or on land owned by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

Among the criteria for erection of such a sign, as detailed in the UDC amendment, are the following, Neal noted:

  • The sign would have to be off-site from the community whose name it would bear.
  • It cannot create a traffic hazard, so it will have to meet FDOT visibility standards.
  • The sign cannot include any commercial message.
  • It would be a maximum of 100 square feet in area and 8 feet in height.

Bailey then noted the revisions made after the Planning Commission hearing. Those provide that such signs could be used only for communities developed under the guidelines of the county’s 2050 Plan, which governs new neighborhoods east of Interstate 75; the community could not have close access to an arterial road; only one sign would be allowed per aggregated community; and the sign could be shared with other subdivisions to promote safe traffic flow and/or assist with wayfinding.

FDOT defines an arterial road as a divided or undivided roadway that provides continuous routes that serve through traffic, high-traffic volumes, and long average trip lengths. “Arterials include expressways without full control of access, US numbered highways and principal state roads that connect cities and towns,” FDOT’s glossary of terms explains.

During his remarks, Bailey stressed that the signage provided for in the amendment would “not be allowed for just any subdivision. … It has to be 2,000 dwelling units.”

Pat Neal (left) addresses the commissioners as Dan Bailey listens. News Leader image

Although Grand Park is not slated to be that large, he continued, the community to the south of it would be aggregated with it, which would result in more than 2,000 homes.

When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked whether Neal owns that other community, Neal stepped back to the podium to tell her, with a laugh, that Michael Neal owns it, “and he’s selling it to me at a very high price.”

Michael Neal is Pat Neal’s son, the Neal Communities website notes.

“You may have some influence over him,” Detert responded. “So would both of those properties’ [names] be on the sign?” she asked.

Bailey told her that only one name would be on the sign.

“It’s going to say, ‘Grand Park,’” Neal noted. The second community will be part of Grand Park, he said.

During his remarks, Bailey emphasized the fact that the amendment would be applicable just to 2050 Plan communities.

He pointed out that “2050 Villages are out a ways,” potentially quite a distance from the closest arterial road. “That would magnify the need, really, for this kind of community sign.”

This May 2020 graphic shows large developments planned in the vicinity of the realigned Lorraine Road, to which Ibis Street will connect. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When the Planning Commission conducted its hearing on the proposal, he continued, its members recognized wayfinding needs for 2050 Plan communities.

As for staff’s concerns about consistency with the Comprehensive Plan, Bailey told the commissioners that he “would argue that what we’re proposing would not be in conflict with that.”

Otherwise, he added, any proposed amendment that loosens county policies or regulations in a way that would be beneficial to property owners “would be in violation” of the Comprehensive Plan.

The future of Ibis Street and potential for other developments

Bailey also noted that while Ibis Street is a local road, it will be brought up to arterial road standards in the future.

Neal added, “As you know, we’re rebuilding Ibis [Street],” including eliminating the “dog leg” in it.

In 2017, Ibis Road Investors LLC proposed a privately initiated amendment to the Comprehensive Plan that called for the incorporation of Ibis Street into the county’s Future Thoroughfare Plan maps and tables. A study undertaken by the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, on behalf of the company, explained in a report that the affected segment would extend from Clark Road to a new north-south roadway. (Later plans, which the commissioners approved in May 2020, made the extension of Lorraine Road that north-south connector.)

The manager of Ibis Road Investors is James R. Schier, who is the senior vice president of finance for Neal Communities.
The Kimley-Horn document described Ibis in 2017 as “a two-lane local road from State Road 72/Clark Road to Hawkins Road and from Hawkins road to just south of the Serenoa Golf Club and Serenoa Lakes communities.”

In April 2018, the commissioners approved the Ibis Street Comprehensive Plan amendment.

Additionally, Neal pointed out during the Nov. 15 hearing, FDOT plans a roundabout at the intersection of Clark Road and Ibis Street, though the project schedule has been delayed. “They’ll have a temporary stoplight [there] for the next year.”

Thompson noted that that intersection “is quite busily traveled right now.”

This slide, which Pat Neal showed the commissioners on Nov. 15, provides more details about the UDC amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The current right of way extends farther south than FDOT needs, Neal continued, “so they’ll actually have a surplus of land … that they bought … They’ve made it clear it will be available.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked what would happen if another community on Ibis Street met the criteria and wanted to put up a sign. “How do you handle that?”

“We’ve reached an agreement with the Culverhouse interests,” and with the owners of another piece of property where a development is expected, Neal replied.

The Culverhouse family owns the property that comprises Palmer Ranch.

If other developments with enough residences were built in the immediate area, Neal said, options are available. Among those, Neal added, is finding a name that would be suitable to represent all of the affected communities on one sign. “My preference would be to call the whole neighborhood Palmer Park.”