On Jan. 18, County Commission to address proposed changes to Fruitville Initiative street grid to accommodate Administration Center on Fruitville Road

Residents in the past have fought to maintain the walkability of developments in that area near Interstate 75

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, the Sarasota County Commission will address a proposal by its own staff to eliminate a key tenet of the Fruitville Initiative to facilitate the construction of the new County Administration Center on land that Benderson Development Co. swapped to the county last year.

As the county staff memo for that meeting explains the situation, the proposal calls for eliminating portions of the planned local street network in two areas of the Fruitville Initiative. Staff also is seeking the modification of the Master Development Plan for the property identified as Sub-Areas E and F in regard to “block sizes, lot types and landscape requirements,” the memo points out.

During the Nov. 17, 2022 county Planning Commission hearing on the staff application, concerns arose about how the proposal would affect the designation of a main street on the site. County staff indicated that “some flexibility can be exercised to determine the final location of the main street,” prior to the construction of the new Administration Center, the memo for the Jan. 18 County Commission meeting points out.

The county staff member advocating for the changes is Brad Gaubatz, who is a project manager with the county’s Capital Projects Department.

County residents participated in a years-long process to create what they characterized as a signature look for the Fruitville Initiative area, which they considered a gateway to Sarasota County from Interstate 75. One primary factor that came out of those discussions was the need for a walkable community.

In the summer of 2014, Benderson purchased the 42-acre county site adjacent to the Fruitville Public Library for $3 million — a price then-Commissioners Nora Patterson and Charles Hines objected to, citing the value of the property.

The majority of the board at that time, however, voiced support for Benderson’s plans to fill a void in the county’s lack of manufacturing space by creating light industrial Class A space. Liveabout.com explains, “the highest-quality office spaces on the market are considered Class A. Generally speaking, these spaces are newly constructed and have been outfitted with top-of-the-line fixtures, amenities, and HVAC [heating, air conditioning and ventilation] and technological systems. Class A buildings are aesthetically pleasing and have a notable presence in high-visibility locations, such as a city’s central business district, notes the Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA).”

During the 2014 discussions, then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta pointed to the scarcity of such space in the county.

Yet, following a public hearing conducted on Oct. 28, 2015, the commissioners seated at that time voted unanimously to deny a rezoning petition for the property, which the company sought so it could reduce the number of public secondary streets, decrease the number of blocks from seven to two — thereby increasing the block size — and provide for a deeper setback of a mixed-use building that would front Fruitville Road.

Early on during that hearing, then-Commissioner Paul Caragiulo asked county Planner Steve Kirk how Kirk could square the proposed changes with the principles of New Urbanism, which focuses on walkable communities.

“Well, I don’t,” Kirk replied, referencing the material he had provided to the board in advance of the meeting. “[The Benderson proposal] is a departure from those standards. … The traditional town center design envisions a main street that has a mix of uses,” Kirk said, with primarily retail businesses on the ground floor and upper-story offices and residences on the main street.

During the hearing, Gary Heffner, chair of an organization called the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance, told the board members that when Benderson purchased the property from the county, it promised “to work in harmony with [the] guiding principles” of the Fruitville Initiative. If the commissioners approved the petition for the zoning changes, he added, the Fruitville Initiative “will begin to fall apart, parcel by parcel.”

As the years went on, Benderson sought further changes to the plans for the property, which also is close to the Celery Fields stormwater project, known internationally as a prime bird-watching area.

Last year, with the commissioners having discussing plans for a new County Administration Center in North County to replace the building standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota, Benderson proposed deeding over to the county a portion of that site in the Fruitville Initiative. The commissioners ended up accepting the offer.

In exchange, the county gave Benderson property the company wanted near its Mall at University Town Center and the related shopping district just south of University Parkway.

The public hearing on the modification of the plans to accommodate the new County Administration Center is scheduled as Presentation Upon Request on the Jan. 18 agenda. That means a commissioner may call for staff or applicant comments, but staff has determined that the matter is non-controversial.

Nonetheless, public comments are allowed, even if no presentation takes place.

The County Commission meeting will begin at 9 a.m. on Jan. 18 at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center located at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice. The board no longer distinguishes between morning and afternoon sessions of its meetings. Therefore, this reporter has found that it can be difficult to judge when the commissioners will address a specific agenda item.