Conservation easements approved on Quads in October 2020 include restrictions on height and footprint of any structure
Before the Sarasota County Commission voted in October 2020 to place conservation easements over three of its “Quads” parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields, Chair Alan Maio left open the prospect that another county structure could be authorized on the Northwest Quad.
In fact, the agenda packet for the Oct. 6, 2020 meeting included a graphic showing the Quads, with a note on the Northwest Quad saying, “4.1 [acres] developable.”
Because the Northeast Quad is dominated by a stormwater pond, insufficient land remains for any other use there, county staff has noted.
The Northwest Quad, however, already is home to Fire Station 8, which officially stands at 840 Apex Road in Sarasota.
Under the heading “Article V. Grantor’s Reserved Rights,” a portion of the Quads conservation easement approved in the fall of 2020 gives the county the right to construct “infrastructure and improvements” on 6 acres of the Southwest Quad. That section adds, “Permitted improvements and uses are limited to governmental, civic, recreational, conservation, and/or educational buildings along with associated infrastructure and parking.”
The document further explains that the “development envelope” would be “on the westerly portion of the Southwest Quad Parcel.” The height could not exceed 45 feet, the agreement adds, and the buildings could have a “combined footprint of no more than 40,000 square feet.”
Further, the easement says that the county “shall have the right to construct other improvements including but not limited to driveways, sidewalks, pavilions, and parking areas, whether they be pervious or impervious, of no more than 2.5 acres excluding landscaped areas.”
Leaders of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, based in Osprey, and the Sarasota Audubon Society had worked with the commissioners and staff to win approval of the easements in the fall of 2020.
Following a Nov. 16 public hearing during which no member of the public addressed the commission — and the board members themselves engaged in no discussion — the commissioners voted unanimously to appropriate $2.5 million in the current fiscal year budget for the design of a Planning and Development Services Department facility “at one of the quad sites at Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road …” The memo explains that the structure “will serve as a ‘One Stop’ Center” for all of the Planning and Development operations.
The facility will house all of the department staff members, who are divided between the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota, and the BOB Building in the eastern part of the county, close to Interstate 75.
The formal document in the Nov. 16 agenda packet that described the project, points out, “This separation [of employees] makes department operations inefficient and is a burden for citizens seeking Planning and Development services.”
That document further notes that space will be provided for Development Review Coordination (DRC) meetings and workshops.
The Development Review Coordination sessions entail discussions of “potential Site Development Projects and Planning Petitions,” the county website notes. The committee members represent all of the departments involved in determining whether preliminary applications and approved concept plans comply with county regulations and policies.
In reviewing preliminary applications submitted to Planning and Development staff, the DRC members routinely offer suggestions about the need for extra information on specific points.
“The Facility may also include components of development related functions of other County departments and Officers for customer convenience,” the county staff memo says.
Building permit fee revenue will pay for the design, according to the same document.
One of the sites under consideration, the memo points out, is the Southwest Quad.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Matt Osterhoudt, director of Planning and Development, explained in a Nov. 15 email, “This is the first time this topic is going to the Board. To clarify, the memo speaks to the quads, which could be the Southwest Quad or the Northwest Quad.”
The News Leader had been unable to find any mention of the new facility in county Capital Improvement Project lists provided to the commissioners during their budget workshops this year.
In advance of the regular commission meetings this week, the News Leader also contacted Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, to ask whether she had been notified of the Nov. 16 agenda item.
During a Nov. 12 telephone interview, Johnson said, “We are aware. We are in the conversation about this [facility].”
Because of the easements, she continued, county staff had to notify the Foundation. “This is why conservation easements are good,” she pointed out. “The landowner still gets to use the property, but with oversight of an organization like the Conservation Foundation.”
Johnson further noted the section in the conservation easement about the Southwest Quad, especially the height and footprint limitations.
The News Leader also contacted Jeanne Dubi, president of the Sarasota Audubon Society. Like Johnson, Dubi wrote in her email reply that the county staff will have to adhere to the construction guidelines in the conservation easements.
“We knew all along that they reserved [part of the Quads] for GU [Government Use zoning],” Dubi continued. She and other people had suggested that the County Commission pursue construction of a new History Center on the Quads, Dubi added, “but they made no commitment. They have not gone back on their word,” she emphasized, “since the history use was only a suggestion, and not a mandate on the County’s part.”
Dubi further clarified, “The history center going on the Quad was never discussed with the [commissioners], to my knowledge, only with staff, and of course it was a suggestion. The [commission] may not know of the suggestion.”
A short history of the Quads and the Celery Fields
In 1994, the county purchased 300 acres of private property that encompasses the Celery Fields and the Quads. The intent was to create a major stormwater project to prevent further flooding of residential property in the area, especially, County Commissioner Maio has explained. Since then, the Celery Fields has become the winter home to a multitude of migratory bird species, drawing visitors from around the world to spot creatures they never have seen before.
The property also is a popular with county residents and visitors who enjoy getting exercise by climbing the hill near the Sarasota Audubon Nature Center on the site.
In the fall of 2017, after the county commissioners refused to implement a 5% Public Service Tax on utilities to shore up the county’s finances, the board members worked with staff on ways to plug a gap of at least $5.4 million in the 2018 fiscal year budget without having to use their “rainy day” reserve. Selling surplus lands was seen as one potential source of much-needed revenue.
However, Commissioner Nancy Detert advocated for holding on to the Quads, with the potential of limited development on them that would be compatible with the Celery Fields.
In response to public pleas, the board members agreed to allow an organization called Fresh Start for the Celery Fields to conduct community brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas about possible uses of the Quads.
Ultimately, the commissioners failed to endorse any of the concepts the group presented to them, after months of work.
Subsequently, Johnson of the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and Dubi of Sarasota Audubon began talking with the commissioners and staff about the idea of the conservation easements.
The Nov. 16 decision
Formally, the commission vote this week added the Planning and Development Services facility project to the 2022-2026 Capital Improvement Program for the county. The next step, a staff memo noted, is for staff to issue Requests for Professional Services for an architectural team and a construction management firm to handle the project.
A chart included with the formal resolution the commission approved shows that staff expects to allocate $717,500 to the project in this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, and then $1,782,500 in the 2023 fiscal year.
No funds beyond the $2.5 million the board approved this week are noted in that chart through the 2026 fiscal year.
The public hearing on the facility was listed on the Nov. 16 agenda as “Presentation Upon Request,” a designation staff uses when an item is not expected to garner much public attention. No commissioner asked for a presentation.
Just before the 5-0 vote to approve the addition of the design phase of the Planning and Development project to the county’s Capital Improvement Program, Chair Maio pointed out that the county will be constructing eight new facilities. “They’re being organized,” he said. “It’s a process.”
Then Maio mentioned that the “wonderful, beautiful [county] buildings … enhance everyone’s life here.”