Fresh Start has begun a petition drive on change.org to urge the board to work with community residents and business owners on shaping the future of the area around the park
They fought successfully to prevent a construction and yard waste recycling facility from being constructed near the Celery Fields in the eastern part of Sarasota County. Now, in a new collaboration, they are petitioning the County Commission to remove a group of properties county staff refers to as the “Quads” from the county’s surplus lands list.
In this latest undertaking, advocates for the Celery Fields have created the group Fresh Start. Late last week, they sent a letter to the County Commission, asking that the board “work with the community to achieve a shared, broad-based vision for public lands near the Celery Fields bird sanctuary [emphasis in the message on change.org].”
They also started a petition drive on change.org, with the heading Make a Fresh Start for the Celery Fields.
Fresh Start consists of 46 neighborhood and business organizations, all located near the Celery Fields, the petition says.
However, the initiative comes amid a renewed County Commission emphasis on generating revenue to shore up the county’s finances.
Because the board members did not raise the millage rate for the current fiscal year, and they also voted not to implement a 5% Public Service Tax on utilities, they are seeking at least $5.4 million in revenue to plug a gap in the current fiscal year budget without having to use more of their “rainy day” reserve funds. That $5.4 million represents the estimated revenue from the first six months the excise tax would have been in effect this fiscal year.
The commissioners have directed staff to work with all departments under their purview and to explore every other possible means of making up the $10.8 million the Public Service Tax would have been expected to generate annually.
Selling surplus lands was touted as one primary source of revenue as the board began a series of budget discussions on Oct. 10. (See the related stories in this issue.)
The formal letter from Fresh Start to the commission points out that on Aug. 23, the majority of the commissioners “listened to hundreds of residents and visitors who deeply care about the Celery Fields. Some call this area the Siesta Beach of East Sarasota County. Viewed in its larger context, the Celery Fields offers the prospect of becoming a unique gateway to Sarasota.”
The letter adds, “Thanks to the Commission for protecting this potential — we now want to work with you to actualize it.”
The property at the heart of the petition drive
The Quads are four distinct parcels located in the quadrants at the intersection of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard, a county fact sheet explained in advance of the Aug. 23 public hearing. They were among 300 acres the county purchased from a private landowner in 1994, the fact sheet noted. “The acquisition was made as part of the development of the Celery Fields, although the quads were never intended to be a part of the regional stormwater facility the county constructed there.”
In 1997, the fact sheet said, the County Commission declared the parcels to be surplus.
In 2015, the fact sheet continued, the commission “instructed county staff to perform a review of all properties in the surplus lands program and identify those with the highest potential value as a new revenue source. As a result, the sites were put out to bid.”
TST Ventures, owned by James Gambert, had an option on the 10.3-acre Southwest Quad; it planned to use the property for the construction and demolition waste/yard waste recycling facility. After a day-long public hearing on his the firm’s request for the necessary board action — including a rezoning of part of the site — to enable the project to go forward, the commissioners voted 3-2 to deny the petitions. Chair Paul Caragiulo joined Commissioners Charles Hines and Nancy Detert in the majority, with Commissioners Alan Maio and Michael Moran voting “No.”
On Sept. 11, TST Ventures formally notified staff that it no longer wanted to exercise its option on the property, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader.
The county fact sheet distributed in August noted that the Southeast Quad and the Northwest Quad were not on the market at that time. A potential buyer for the latter parcel, which is about 6.9 acres, withdrew its option in March, after deciding not to go forward with a rezoning request so it could build a restaurant supply warehouse there.
The Northeast Quad also is not on the market, the fact sheet said, because it is the site of a stormwater retention pond.
The Fresh Start letter points out that the Quads “are situated at a key intersection that connects five distinct but related communities”:
- Palmer Boulevard neighborhoods and schools.
- Industrial parks.
- The Packinghouse District.
- The Celery Fields Preserve, which includes an educational center the county constructed in coordination with Sarasota Audubon.
- The Fruitville Initiative.
Fresh Start says county residents “deserve a voice in shaping the future [of the Quads]. To that end, we invite the County to develop with us a community-based consensus for the district. We propose an open workshop that would allow ideas and goals to be shared, analyzed, and refined,” the letter adds.
Together, the letter continues, the public and county leaders can “[e]nhance the great ecological and recreational value already latent in this area”; as well as serve the needs of residents, schoolchildren and local businesses. The undertaking also would allow the evolution of a “multi-faceted hub” that would be useful and attractive, thanks to intelligent design.
“We’ll soon be scheduling meetings with each of you to discuss this initiative,” the letter concludes.
Among the signatories on the Fresh Start petition are representatives of the Palmer East Group, whose neighborhoods include the Enclaves, Laurel Oak, Palmer Lake and the Sarasota Golf Club Colony; communities that are members of the nonprofit Fruitville 2010, including Cedar Hammock, Deer Hollow, Fox Creek, Greystone, The Meadows, Palm Oaks and San Palermo; Save Richardson Road East; the Lake Sarasota Community Group; Bent Tree; Sarasota Audubon; David G. Johnson of CeleryFields.org, one of the leaders of the fight against the TST Ventures proposal; and another group instrumental in winning the County Commission’s vote against the TST Ventures project, Citizens for Sarasota County.