Maio calls for the agenda item, indicating his expectation that a board majority will agree on the need to change the County Code
On the morning of March 9, the Sarasota County Commission will conduct a discussion about potentially eliminating a county policy that members of the Miakka Community Club utilized last year in an effort to reduce the allowable residential density on 6,000 acres near the intersection of Fruitville Road and Verna Road.
Section 94-85 of the County Code of Ordinances says that “no fewer than 20 registered voters, each of whom resides, owns real property, or owns or operates a business within the unincorporated area of Sarasota County, may request the County to initiate a Comprehensive Plan amendment at any time for processing as a County-initiated amendment …”
Following a three-and-a-half-hour public hearing on Sept. 23, 2020, the commissioners voted unanimously to withdraw the club’s amendment from any further consideration.
County Planner Vivian Drawneek had explained to the board members that adoption of that amendment would affect future development of the property at the farthest end of Fruitville road. Instead of developers being able to build 0.4 dwelling units per acre, as provided for under the county’s 2050 Plan for new communities east of Interstate 75, the Miakka Community Club applicants were seeking density no greater than 1 unit per 5 acres.
The expectation in the 2050 Plan was that the 6,000 acres would be rezoned to Hamlet use, Drawneek noted. The Miakka group wanted it to be preserved under the Rural Heritage/Estate classification.
Even before that hearing, the county’s Planning Commission members voted 8-0 on Aug. 20, 2020 — after their own hearing on the Comprehensive Plan amendment — to send a letter to then-County Commission Chair Mike Moran about the County Code issue.
“[T]he Planning Commission recommends that the County conduct a review of the criteria contained in Section 94-85(a) and reconsider/revisit this criteria with an analysis comparing what other jurisdictions have in place for the number of required signatures for publicly initiated Comprehensive Plan Amendments for both public and private property,” the letter said.
Then-Planning Commission Chair Laura Benson signed it.
On Feb. 24, County Commission Chair Alan Maio brought up the letter, expressing his interest in addressing the issue, especially in response to the Planning Commission’s request.
The discussion on March 9, he said, would be conducted immediately after the board addresses its Consent Agenda of routine business items that morning. Therefore, any interested persons could appear during the Open to the Public period at the beginning of that meeting, if they wanted to offer comments on the county ordinance.
Then, he indicated, they could stay for the discussion.
Maio added that he expected he and his colleagues would be engaging with County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht and/or Deputy County Attorney Joshua B. Moye, who has expertise in land-use matters, along with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and/or Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department. Planning and Development staff members process Comprehensive Plan amendments.
Maio added that he and Lewis have “had long talks” about Section 94-85 of the County Code.
Maio made a formal motion calling for the March 9 discussion, and Commissioner Michael Moran seconded it.
Elbrecht did point out that the agenda item would be a discussion only. If the commissioners want to change the county policy, Elbrecht added, they will have to advertise a public hearing on the proposal.
Maio acknowledged that, noting that he anticipates the commissioners will make a motion that day to direct Elbrecht and the staff of the Office of the County Attorney to work on an amendment to delete from Section 94-85 the ability of such a small number of residents to initiate a public Comprehensive Plan process.
Some clarifications sought
Referring to the fact that Maio had just distributed copies of the Planning Commission letter to all his board colleagues, Commissioner Nancy Detert said she had not had an opportunity to read it. However, she asked whether the March 9 discussion would focus, too, on Comprehensive Plan amendments that developers propose. She did note that she remembered the Miakka Community Club hearing.
The discussion would involve only the issue about “whether it’s appropriate for 20 people” to be able to start a Comprehensive Plan amendment process that county staff would handle as a public effort, Maio told her. “Then it’s up to the board whether they want to pursue this.”
If the majority does, he continued, Elbrecht and his staff will take the formal steps toward drafting an appropriate amendment.
“I will have a lot to say [on March 9] about the merits, or not, of leaving this in our code,” Maio added.
“You’re going to open up a Pandora’s box,” Detert responded. At the time of the September 2020 hearing on the Miakka Community Club proposal, she said, she had concerns about the ability of 20 people to pursue such a process.
However, she asked Maio, “How is this different from one developer doing the same thing? … And will we be here for four hours, hearing all about it?”
“There are things in our code that perhaps the majority of us do not feel are appropriate,” Maio replied. “This [county policy] is distinctly different from what [other local governments] do. This is 20 residents who may only be here six months [each year, but they can register to vote].”
Further, they may not be owners of property contiguous to parcels whose future development they would be seeking to affect, Maio pointed out. Yet, he continued, “They decide to lower, in some circumstances, the [residential density for a certain area, based on] the existing Comprehensive Plan entitlements.”
When he underwent training to become a licensed planner — before his election to the commission — he was taught that “no one changes the zoning on your property, not even the government, without due process,” Maio said. Yet, the County Code “allows people to do that, and [the people] could be from anywhere.
“Property they don’t own?” Detert asked.
“Yes,” Maio responded. “Twenty people trying to make a decision on property they don’t own versus a developer” who owns or contractually controls that property.
Maio’s motion for the March 9 agenda item passed unanimously after the 7-minute discussion.