On Jan. 26, County Commission public hearing expected on new Whole Foods site plan, which will affect what staff has called a rare type of wetlands

In spite of environmental concerns, Planning Commission gives unanimous support to the project planned at University Parkway and Honore Avenue

An aerial map shows the site proposed for the new Whole Foods and a Wawa. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An aerial map shows the site proposed for the new Whole Foods and a Wawa. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Jan. 26, the Sarasota County Commission is expected to decide whether plans for a new Whole Foods and a Wawa at the intersection of University Parkway and Honore Avenue can go forward in spite of a county staff member’s assertion that the project will damage a rare type of wetlands.

Language in the county’s Comprehensive Plan regarding such environmentally sensitive sites led to a 12th Judicial Circuit decision about 15 years ago that derailed an earlier attempt to develop the property, a county planner explained to the Sarasota County Planning Commission during its Dec. 17 regular meeting in Sarasota.

However, a subsequent modification of that section of the Comprehensive Plan should enable the Whole Foods/Wawa project to proceed without fear of a similar judicial halt, members of the development team told the Planning Commission.

Moreover, the Whole Foods group has labored to put in place a mitigation plan in neighboring Manatee County, focusing on an approximately 34.5-acre parcel that is surrounded by conservation lands in the Manatee River Basin, Dana West, senior vice president of Environmental & Technological Consulting (ETC) of Sarasota, said on Dec. 17.

Prior to the Planning Commission’s unanimous votes in support of a Small Area Comprehensive Plan amendment and rezoning petition critical to the project, Planning Commissioner Robert Morris said he opposed the petitioners’ application when he began reading it. “I wanted to make sure I felt comfortable that destroying this wetland was worth it,” he told his colleagues. “I am a big fan of Whole Foods,” he continued. “We shop there. … [And] I like Wawa.” While he added that he does not like the idea of the project’s impact on the wetlands, “I think it comes down to a decision: Do you want another Whole Foods in Sarasota County or don’t you, and I do.”

The County Commission tentatively is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposal during its afternoon session on Jan. 26, Leigh Sprimont, commission services manager for the county, told The Sarasota News Leader this week.

An engineering drawing shows the Whole Foods/Wawa site plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An engineering drawing shows the Whole Foods/Wawa site plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The staff report for the Planning Commission explained that Whole Foods is requesting an amendment to the county’s Future Land Use Plan to allow the company to go beyond the commercial square footage limitation of 150,000 square feet in half of a Village I Commercial Center at the intersection of Honore Avenue and University Parkway. Whole Foods proposes an extra 54,055 square feet to encompass a grocery story of 40,116 square feet; 11,811 square feet for a restaurant and neighborhood retail shops; and the 6,128-square-foot Wawa, for a total of 189,957 square feet, the staff report added.

Further, Whole Foods has proposed three shared access points for the project, including right turns into and out of the site on University Parkway; right turns in and out on Honore Avenue; and a traffic signal on Honore, the report continues.

A map shows the area in Manatee County where the environmental mitigation is planned. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A map shows the area in Manatee County where the environmental mitigation is planned. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Whole Foods also is petitioning the county for a rezoning of the 8.24-acre forested wetland to the southwest of the University Parkway/Honore Avenue intersection, the report noted. “These wetlands have a high degree of environmental importance for water filtration, assimilation of nutrients, floodwater storage and as refuge and habitat for a wide variety of species that rely on this urban environment,” the report said, adding, “Such isolated habitats within the urban environment are becoming increasingly more important to both local and migratory species.”

Because the development of the site “will result in 100% impacts” to the wetlands, the report continued, “[and] on-site mitigation is not feasible,” Whole Foods plans to purchase acreage adjacent to the Manatee River that is surrounded on all sides by Manatee County’s Rye Preserve. That area is more than 6 miles from the University Parkway/Honore location, the report noted. Though it is in the Manatee River watershed, the report added, “it does not provide any substantial connectivity with protected native habitats or wildlife corridors within Sarasota County.”

During his presentation to the Planning Commission, county Planner Jack Wilhelm pointed out that Whole Foods justified the project by stating in its application “that it is more appropriate to allow for more commercial development in the commercial center to better serve the consumers’ needs due to the lack of available retail and commercial services in the immediate area around the commercial center.”

Dana West. News Leader photo
Dana West. News Leader photo

West, a consultant to the Whole Foods team, told the Planning Commission that while the Mall at University Town Center and a Super Target shopping center are in that area, no “community services” are available on the Sarasota County side of University Parkway. He added, for example that a person driving eastbound from the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport to Interstate 75 has no place to stop for gas on the Sarasota County side of University Parkway between U.S. 301 and the interstate.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for you guys,” Morris told the Whole Foods team members, “but I don’t think we need to ignore that there is a Fresh Market directly across the street from the site,” as well as a nearby Publix. “There is not a lack of commercial and retail in this area,” Morris continued. “I don’t think you could find a higher concentration of retail and commercial in this area,” even if those businesses are on the Manatee County side. “Don’t insult our intelligence,” Morris added.

However, Robert “Bo” Medred, president of Genesis Planning and Development of Sarasota and the agent for Whole Foods in this project, pointed out that having the new store at the University Parkway location “absolutely reduces the number of trips on Honore Avenue …”

Jeff Garrison. News Leader photo
Jeff Garrison. News Leader photo

Jeff Garrison of SJ Collins Enterprises of Fairburn, GA, another member of the development team, added that Whole Foods has data showing the number of residents in the University Parkway/Honore area who shop at its downtown Sarasota store. “People are driving past Fresh Market, going to Whole Foods,” Garrison added. “It is a different shop.”

No retail facilities exist on the Sarasota County side to serve the weekly needs of residents, Medred noted.

“I tend to agree with that,” Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper responded.

The store plans

During his presentation to the commission, Medred noted, “It’s unprecedented for a community of our size to have two Whole Foods.”

Garrison told the board that he and his staff have been working in the community for the past year and a half, dealing with federal, state, local and regional environmental issues, to help Whole Foods determine the best location for its second store. In response to a question, Garrison said his firm works with the grocery chain on projects with significant environmental concerns.

He and his team, he added, had narrowed the list from 12 locations at one time to the solitary site under discussion. “This is the only site in Sarasota County that will work,” Garrison said. “They will bring 140 jobs that will pay an average salary of $40,000 a year.”

Focus on the wetlands

As part of the staff presentation, Matt Osterhoudt, senior manager for the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained details about the environmental concerns regarding the site. “This is a forested wetland system,” Osterhoudt told the Planning Commission. “It is of high quality, and we have seen it persist through the years, given its position within the urban landscape.”

He added that it provides “unique islands of respite for migratory birds and other animals and critters in our community.”

Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy told the board that the 12th Judicial Circuit ruled against a 1999 petition to build on that site because of the quality of the habitat. According to the language in the Comprehensive Plan at the time, Roddy continued, the judge ruled, “Don’t bother [the wetlands]; leave it alone.”

Later, Osterhoudt pointed out, the Comprehensive Plan language was modified to say that “in cases where no other reasonable alternative exists other than disrupting a wetland, as determined by the County, some alterations may be allowed.”

A slide shows the wetlands and offers details about language in the Comprehensive Plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A slide shows the wetlands and offers details about the environmental aspects of the project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With that change, West of ETC told the commissioners, “any relevance to that prior court case disappeared …”

Additionally, West said, less than 2 percent of the Manatee River watershed lies within Sarasota County. “We are forced to go far afield,” he added, noting that state and federal permits the Whole Foods team must attain for the project “require that we go find the best opportunity within the watershed.”

Referring to the Manatee County site, West noted, “This is a parcel that the feds and the state have wholeheartedly embraced.”

Additionally, during the public hearing, Alice Womble, a Center Ring Road resident whose property is near the University Parkway site, told the commissioners she supports the development, adding that the Whole Foods team had worked with her and her husband about their concerns.

Moreover, she said, “The wetland has been chopped up so many times. … There’s not much left to it.”

When asked whether Womble would benefit financially for her support of the project, Charlie Bailey of the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota — another member of the Whole Foods team — said Whole Foods had agreed to build a wall on the Wombles’ western property line as a buffer, and it plans a new water line that will enable the Wombles and their neighbors to cease using wells for their water.

“These 4 acres [for the Whole Foods/Wawa project] are located at one of the busiest corners — only going to get busier — in Sarasota County,” Chairman John Ask pointed out of the site plan.

“Nothing that crawls, slithers or walks has the opportunity to move from this parcel to other native habitat without crossing University [Parkway] or Honore [Avenue] or other major roadway systems,” West told the commissioners.

In response to a question, Kwamena Sankah, a technical specialist for Sarasota County’s Transportation Department, acknowledged that the affected section of Honore Avenue already is overtaxed. However, Sankah said, the County Commission has not authorized any funding to widen it in the next five years. Under current state transportation planning rules, he added, Whole Foods would pay a proportional share of the cost for improving the road to meet the extra demand the new development would be expected to create.

Commissioners’ comments

Robert Morris. News Leader photo
Robert Morris. News Leader photo

Following the presentations and public comments, Planning Commissioner Jack Bispham said, “I find it a little ironic that Whole Foods, being known for their organic style of foods … [wants] to, for lack of better terms, destroy wetlands. That doesn’t seem to fit their model.”

He added that he felt the company could find another Sarasota County location for a second store. Still, he told his colleagues, he favored the mitigation plan, and “I think some wording change in our [Comprehensive] Plan has allowed this [project] to occur.”

“Mrs. Womble kind of put the frosting on the cake for me when she talked about the [wetland] and how much different it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Ask said.

“I hope that this moves forward without being contested by some environmental people,” Bispham added.