On 4-1 vote, County Commission agrees to Future Land Use change for 107.4-acre parcel in Nokomis

County administrator explains 2018 ‘deep vetting’ of county parcels that resulted in plans to retain property for potential site of construction to serve South County residents

This graphic shows the property for which the Future Land Use designation has been planned. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With five people having shown up at the May 7 Sarasota County Commission meeting to protest the proposal, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis took an unusual step during the public hearing on a Future Land Use map change for approximately 107.4 acres in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of Knights Trail Road and Rustic Road in Nokomis.

The speakers had urged the board members to maintain the Future Land Use designation of Public Conservation/Preservation, instead of making it Major Government Uses, even though the land belongs to the county and — as commissioners noted — South County, especially, is growing significantly, requiring more county services.

“Going back to 2018,” Lewis explained, “the county [staff] did a very deep dive” on every parcel the county owns, “to make sure we were keeping it for a purpose.”

His direction from the commissioners at the time was to recommend to them any property that could be declared surplus and sold, to bolster the county’s financial situation.

Lewis emphasized the “deep vetting” during that process.

In the same general timeframe, Lewis continued, the commissioners also started talking about planning for county facilities that would be necessary to meet public needs.

The property that was the focus of the May 7 hearing, Lewis said, already was zoned Government Use (GU). It was not as though staff members were recommending that land set aside for environmental conservation was under consideration for development, he pointed out.

As Brad Gaubatz, a project manager in the county’s Capital Projects Department, explained to the board members on May 7, the goal of the Future Land Use change merely was to align the land use with the zoning.

The County Commission vote was 4-1 in favor of the proposal, with Commissioner Neil Rainford in the minority.

Rainford is a candidate to retain his seat in the County Commission elections this year. He will face former Sheriff Tom Knight during the Aug. 20 Republican Primary for District 3.

A 2018 look-ahead to the need for county services

This map shows the location of the property — shaded blue — in South County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During his remarks, Lewis also noted that the Nokomis site under discussion that day was identified for potential use for county construction. As it turns out, part of it will be dedicated to a county “white fleet” facility and possibly a Public Works Department structure, as staff’s application explained. (A former county Communications staff member told The Sarasota News Leader years ago that “white fleet” refers to county-owned vehicles other than those used by the Sheriff’s Office, which have green markings. The white fleet “includes our general purpose cars/vans/SUVs, specialized equipment services trucks and emergency services vehicles,” Jason Bartolone added.)

The county staff report on the Future Land Use change noted that “no specific timeline” has been established for the fleet facility project.

That report further explained that the property is part of an approximately 320-acre county site that contains Knight Trail Park, which includes the public Pistol and Rifle Range, along with a Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office training facility. Those uses “are all located outside of the proposed amendment boundary area,” the report added.

Years ago, county staff discussed with the commissioners seated at that time the prospect of a new fleet operation that would serve both the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and the county. During a board meeting on Oct. 25, 2016, Jeff Lowdermilk, then director of the county’s General Services Department, pointed out that the county had expanded its fleet inventory by 10% — 145 vehicles — since the 2013 fiscal year. Yet, the South County Fleet Service Repair Facility had only four service bays to handle more than 2,000 work orders on an annual basis. “Often, assets are left outside due to facility constraints,” he said.

Budgeting concerns at that time led the commissioners ultimately to proceed only with the Sheriff’s Office project, which is located near the intersection of Laurel Road and Interstate 75.

Tom Harmer then was the county administrator.

‘Tantamount to developing Central Park’

Venice City Council member Joan Farrell. Image courtesy City of Venice

During the May 7 public hearing, which was held in Venice, Venice City Council member Joan Farrell was among the speakers who criticized the county for the proposed change in the Future Land Use designation. A policy in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth, calls for the preservation of property such as that site “in perpetuity,” she maintained. “ ‘Perpetuity,’ ” she emphasized, “means forever.”

One of her constituents, Farrell added, had approached her to tell her that the county’s proposed Future Land Use change “is tantamount to developing Central Park. … It’s imperative that we prioritize the long-term stability of our ecosystems,” Farrell added.

Reminding the commissioners that the next General Election, in November, “is only six months away,” Farrell said, “Voters are on high alert.”

Then Shari Thornton of Venice, an unaffiliated candidate for the District 3 County Commission seat, to which Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Republican Neil Rainford of Sarasota in June 2023, showed the commissioners photos of the property from the road. “This land has been set aside for preservation,” Thornton pointed out. “We need the biodiversity. We need the balance in our ecosystem to maintain what we have.”

Thornton added, “Many people in Sarasota County would believe that [keeping the Conservation/Preservation designation] would be the correct thing to do.”

“It seems like the county is chipping away at the land,” Thornton said.

This graphic, which Shari Thornton showed the commissioners on May 7, includes a view of part of the land from the road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Earlier that day, Anya Dennison of Sarasota, who said she was unable to stay for the hearing, addressed the issue during the board’s Open to the Public comment period. “Why do you need to develop over our protected native habitat?” Dennison asked. “We should preserve more.”

During the board’s discussion in conjunction with the hearing, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood emphasized, “I do not know of a county in the state of Florida that does more to acquire and maintain [environmentally sensitive] lands than Sarasota County.”

He was referring to the county’s voter-approved program that taxes every property owner 0.25 mills each year, with the revenue set aside to purchase such property for conservation, or preservation as neighborhood parkland.

Moreover, Cutsinger explained, during planning for structures on the Nokomis site, county staff will work to protect as much habitat as possible. “They’ll have to use best practices.”

Chair Michael Moran, who is in his eighth and final year on the commission, as a result of term limits, thanked Cutsinger for his remarks. Moran noted that approximately one-third of all the land in the county has been preserved through the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Land Protection Program (ESLPP) and the Neighborhood Parkland Program.

Further, Commissioner Joe Neunder, who noted that he has served on other local government boards in South County, talked of being “very familiar with the amount of growth happening, especially in my section of the area,” in the vicinity of Laurel Road and Interstate 75.

“I have a very big passion for the environment,” Neunder continued.

Yet, he said, “I don’t have any heartburn here on this [proposal].”

A warning about traffic problems

One of the public hearing speakers did raise concerns, as well, in regard to the extra traffic that the proposed uses of the property would be expected to produce.

Kris Belligan of Nokomis noted that the county landfill is in the same general area as the property proposed for the Future Land Use change, and a new residential development is planned in the vicinity.

“There’s no way you’re going to be able to widen Knights Trail to accommodate all the traffic,” he told the commissioners. “People are going to die left and right. It’s going to be insane out there.”

The county staff report did note, “According to the short-range [conditions], Knights Trail Road is expected to operate above its adopted level of service standard with the addition of development traffic. Knights Trail Road is currently a two-lane roadway. The long-range transportation analysis indicates that the roadway segment of Knights Trail Road from Rustic Road to Laurel Road is expected to operate above the adopted level of service standard with the widening of the roadway to its ultimate four-lane Future Thoroughfare configuration.”

These charts are included in the county staff report on the proposed land use change. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, the staff report said, “Lorraine Road/Knights Trail Road from Clark Road to Laurel Road is a designated four-lane minor arterial in the Future Thoroughfare Plan. Lorraine Road from Clark Road to Knights Trail Road as a four-lane facility is currently under design as part of an interlocal agreement. Currently, there is no funding for the construction improvements.”

FDOT classifies arterials as “[d]ivided or undivided roadways that provide continuous routes which 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.”

‘A big oops’

During the board discussion, Commissioner Mark Smith pointed out, “I think what’s confusing for me is the fact that [the land] is currently zoned … Government Use,” though the county’s Future Land Use designation in the Comprehensive Plan is Public Conservation/Preservation.

“Somebody dropped the ball there somewhere,” Smith added, “and that’s unfortunate. … It just gives the wrong message. … I just think this is a big oops on staff’s part years ago, and we’re suffering through it now.”
Nonetheless, Smith, too, concurred with the need for the land to be home to county facilities to serve the growing population in South County.

As County Attorney Joshua Moye explained, four votes were necessary in favor of the Future Land Use change for staff to be able to transmit the proposed Comprehensive Plan map amendment to the Florida Department of Commerce for review. Provided that the staff of that state agency finds no reasons to oppose the plan, the County Commission will be required to take a second vote that actually will amend the Future Land Use designation for the property.

That action will occur following another public hearing.

It typically takes a few months for the Department of Commerce staff to complete its review of a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment.

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