New County Commissioner Smith casts lone vote against development with 94 townhomes planned in Longwood Run in Sarasota

Smith cites density of project, though attorney representing developer stresses overall density of Longwood Run would remain under required threshold

Following a Dec. 14 public hearing, one of the Sarasota County Commission’s newest members sided with opponents of a 94-unit townhome development proposed on the site of an athletic club within the Longwood Run communities in The Meadows.

In fact, after Commissioner Mark Smith first questioned the density of the proposed development, Chair Ron Cutsinger chastised audience members who clapped and cheered in response to Smith’s remarks.

Yet, Smith was the only member of the commission who voted against the proposal. His concern not only was the density issue, he explained, but also what he cited as the incompatibility of the townhome community in Longwood Run. “Quite frankly,” Smith said, “the urban character of this design … I don’t think is appropriate for this heavily wooded, suburban development [of Longwood Run] that was purposely designed to be more of one with nature.”

Smith explained that he believed that the developer, D.R. Horton Inc., was taking advantage of the lower density of other communities within Longwood Run. D.R. Horton, he continued, was touting the fact that the townhomes’ construction still would leave the density of the entire Longwood Run community below the restriction in place that limited it to 2.5 units per acre.

The county staff report on the townhome project noted that the 94 dwellings would stand on 10.14 acres. Therefore, Smith said, that development’s density would be approximately 9.4 units per acre.

Attorney Charles D. Bailey III of the Sarasota firm Williams Parker had stressed during his remarks that, with the 94 new dwellings in place, the overall density of Longwood Run would be 2.36 units per acre.

Further, Bailey emphasized that two developments to the south of the proposed D.R. Horton project have high density. Magnolia Place, he said, comprised 11.6 units per acre, while the Riviera Club’s dwellings accounted for 7.75 units per acre.

John Yoder, a member of the Longwood Run Community Association board, pointed out that the Magnolia Place units comprised less than 1,000 square feet each, and only two dwellings make up each building. Thus, those structures have smaller footprints than the Longwood Run townhomes would have, and they are surrounded by much greenspace.

The Riviera Club, Yoder continued, comprises one-story units with double garages “and generous greenspace.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Michael Moran, who made the motion to approve the rezoning necessary for the project, pointed out — as Bailey had — that it is infill development, with county services, such as water, sewer and roads, already available for the site.

“Infill is a priority,” Moran stressed, calling it much preferred to what he characterized as “leapfrogging developments.”

Further, noting that some of the opponents had voiced concerns about the potential for greater flooding in the area if the townhomes became reality, Moran also emphasized that county stormwater regulations require “no adverse impact on neighboring properties” from new construction.

Additionally, he referenced Bailey’s remarks that 42% of the townhome project would be open space, and that buffers would be provided between adjacent sections of Longwood Run, even though — as Bailey had noted — county regulations do not make them mandatory.

Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded the motion, but she declined to offer any comments, indicating that the testimony during the hearing and earlier discussion sufficed.

Cutsinger and the second new commissioner, Joe Neunder of Nokomis, joined Moran and Detert in voting “Yes.”

The county’s Planning Commission members endorsed the project on a 5-3 vote in early October.

Details and detractors

Formally, the petition that attorney Bailey was handling for D.R. Horton sought the rezoning of the Longwood Run community with amended stipulations.

The 94 townhomes are planned on a site that originally was intended as a small commercial center in the development, county Planner Kirk Crane and Bailey explained. Ultimately, Bailey noted, that property became home to the Longwood Run Athletic Club.

“It’s not a community amenity,” he told the commissioners. As he understood the situation, he continued, only three homeowners in Longwood Run are members of the club. He added that the facility has a gym, 18 tennis courts and a swimming pool.

Bailey further indicated that D.R. Horton had contracted to purchase the site if the commissioners approved the townhome proposal.

The last speaker during the public hearing was Travis Eckert, who explained that he and his wife had owned the property since June 2007; before that, his father-in-law was the owner.

“We thought it would be a great idea [to own a tennis club],” Eckert told the commissioners.

Yet, the county’s Longwood Park, which is to the north of the site, has tennis and basketball courts and even a pickleball court, Eckert pointed out, where people can play for free.

“We went into this [deal] with the developer,” he continued, “because we just don’t know how much longer we can afford to keep the [athletic club] open.”

Moreover, Eckert said he did not believe the townhome development would have a negative effect on the existing homeowners.

Yet, residents of several of the other communities within Longwood Run stressed the fact that the original developer, Piero Rivolta, rode on horseback through the property to get a sense of how he wanted to lay out the residential areas so as to preserve as much of the natural surroundings as possible.

Jan Dyke, president of the Longwood Run Community Association and one of the original residents, said Rivolta designed the community “around 15 natural and manmade lakes and ponds, with preserved areas and natural buffers.”

Some speakers also showed the commissioners photos of the D.R. Horton community Bay Landing, which company representatives had told them was the model for the Longwood Run Townhomes.

Former Florida House member Ray Pilon, who lives in the Calista neighborhood to the north of the project site, said his pickup truck would not even fit on the driveway of one of the townhomes in Bay Landing.

Dyke further stressed that the two-story townhomes, amid mostly single-story homes and villas, would have “concrete front yards … more appropriate in an urban setting.”

Bob Townshend added, “Everywhere you look [in Bay Landing], you’ve got cars. … This is not compatible with our neighborhood.”

A number of the speakers showed the commissioners photos of single-family houses in Longwood Run, with an abundance of trees and wide yards.

Sarasota attorney Robert Lincoln, who was representing the Longwood Run Community Association, pointed out that he is also a planner who has taught planning at the university level. “Infill is hard,” he acknowledged. “Redevelopment is hard.”

Redevelopment in a Planned Unit Development, such as Longwood Run, is especially difficult, if a company wants “to do it right,” he added. “This doesn’t do it right.”

The townhomes, he continued, would be nine units wide with grass strips either 10 feet or 20 feet wide as the open space. “There’s almost no room for any landscaping in front of the buildings,” Lincoln pointed out. “[The design] creates an unbroken amount of development along the street; a very urban streetscape.”

However, attorney Bailey indicated no structure would contain more than eight townhomes, with a maximum length of 160 feet. Seven-unit buildings would be 140 feet long, he said.

Yet, Lincoln told the commissioners, if D.R. Horton were willing to reduce the buildings to the size that would accommodate no more than six units, enough room would be available on the site for 75 to 80 townhomes, and much more of the area could be greenspace.

Other considerations

During his presentation to the commissioners, Bailey pointed to six stipulations that had been imposed on the rezoning proposal. One of them, he noted, called for the townhome community to become part of the “master association” for Longwood Run. While D.R. Horton would like to see the development join that organization, Bailey said, discussions that had begun with representatives of the association broke off without those representatives agreeing to that stipulation.

When Commissioner Moran asked for clarification that “this parcel of land is completely and totally separate [from the community association],” Bailey replied, “Yes, sir.”

Yet, the stipulation, Moran continued, would force D.R. Horton to be part of the association?

Bailey explained that that stipulation, he believed, was a facet of a prior rezoning of the Athletic Club property — in 2006 — when the County Commission approved about 40 units on the site.

“I get it,” Moran responded. Nonetheless, Moran said, “I’m just stunned by that.”

During her remarks, Dyke, the association president, explained that she had testified during the Oct. 6 Planning Commission hearing that the association would allow the Longwood Run Townhomes community to join the association, and that position had not changed.

When Moran asked her why discussions about the stipulation stopped before a formal agreement was concluded with D.R. Horton, Dyke explained that after members of the association saw the plans for the townhomes, they were “not happy.” Attorney Lincoln has been working with the project team to forge the way for the development to join the association, she added.

Moran also asked several speakers whether the association had tried to purchase the athletic club site.

When he posed that question to Dyke, she told him, “There was light discussion, but we had no idea how much it was being sold for.”

No figure was cited.

The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office website says the market value of the property this year is $2,078,100. The formal owner, LAC Development LLC, purchased the parcel for $2.5 million in August 2005, the Property Appraiser’s Office notes. (The Florida Division of Corporations says the registered agent of LAC Development is Ronald Kochman of West Palm Beach. Laurence Wald of Woodbury, N.Y., is the only other person listed on that state record. The company’s annual report for 2022 names him as the manager.)

Pilon, the former state legislator, indicated to Moran that he wished the association had “at least explored” purchasing the athletic club property. “I would love to see something nice [on that land].”

Referring to the D.R. Horton plans, Pilon added, “It’s not a matter of what you could do but what you should do.”