On unanimous vote, County Commission denies rezoning application for 55-unit residential community near UTC

Residents of surrounding area emphasize their existing problems with poor road conditions and increased flooding

This graphic shows the project site, outlined in yellow. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Almost immediately after Sarasota County Commission Chair Michael Moran closed the April 23 public hearing, Commissioner Mark Smith made a motion to deny an application to rezone nearly 15 acres located at an intersection near University Parkway, to permit the development of a 63-unit residential community.

With no second, that motion died.

It took close to 30 minutes before all of Smith’s colleagues finally agreed to support his second motion for denial.

The hearing and discussion altogether lasted slightly more than two hours.

Before the vote, Sarasota attorney William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm, who was an agent for the applicant, even stipulated that his client would reduce the number of single-family homes to 55 and increase the opacity of the planned vegetative buffers on the two bordering roads — Sacramento Street and Harold Avenue — to 60%, twice the county’s requirement of 30%. That would create what Merrill called a “solid wall of greenery” to maintain the “green feel that you have now.”

Merrill also reminded the commissioners that the project team’s earlier testimony noted that a wall or fence would be constructed behind those buffers, on the interior of the development.

However, the commissioners listened, as well, to County Attorney Joshua Moye, who reminded them that if the application failed to meet even one county criterion for approval, given the necessary findings of fact, “The board has to deny [the petition].”

The county staff report on the proposed development explained that the site is east of Honore Avenue and north of 47th Street. The maximum height of any dwelling unit would be 35 feet, the report continued.

Marty Black, the planner representing the applicant, also noted the residential density of developments in the surrounding area, along with maximum building heights in them. The latter range from 35 feet to 70 feet, he said.

Moreover, Black emphasized, “We are limiting ourselves … to no more than 63 dwelling units,” 15% less than the maximum allowed by the zoning the team was seeking.

The open space of the development would comprise 60% of the acreage, Black continued, which would be double the county requirement.

This was the Binding Development Concept Plan for the project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Another project team member, Philip DiMaria, a planner with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, pointed out that the minimum setback along Sacramento Street would be widened from the county requirement of 15 feet to 50 feet.

Further, DiMaria said, the closest existing home — which stands to the north of the site — would be 168 feet away.

Chair Moran called for a 5-minute break at one point, after board members acknowledged the difficulty they were having making a decision.

Before putting forth his first motion, Smith pointed to concerns that the county’s own staff report on the proposal made clear about the soil on the site: 81% of that soil is designated as poorly drained, while the remaining 19% is designated as very poorly drained.

The water table, Smith continued, runs from 6 inches to “a foot and a half below the surface of the ground … from June to October.”

The very first speaker during the hearing — Russ Williamson, who lives on 47th Street, just south of the proposed project site — explained that, from 1983 until 2013, his property flooded only once. However, he pointed out, especially since the County Commission in 2016 approved the application for the second Sarasota Whole Foods store, in close proximity to his neighborhood, and a Wawa was built near the grocery, “It floods almost every single year.”

This is a photo of flooding along 47th Street after Hurricane Ian swept near the county in September 2022. Russ Williamson showed it to the commissioners during the April 23 hearing. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Wawa, he stressed, was built on wetlands.

In fact, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, was a senior manager of that department when, in December 2015, he explained to the county’s Planning Commission that the site of the Whole Foods project “is a forested wetland system.” He added, “It is of high quality, and we have seen it persist through the years, given its position within the urban landscape.”

Then-Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy told the planning commissioners that the 12th Judicial Circuit Court ruled against a 1999 petition to build on the 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 during that 2015 hearing, Osterhoudt did acknowledge that the Comprehensive Plan language subsequently 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.”

On April 23, Commissioner Smith also referenced the testimony of many of the 19 speakers besides Williamson during the hearing — and photos they had shown the board. “Anything that’s built on this property is going to cause problems,” Smith pointed out.

A civil engineer working with the project team, Trenton Strackbein of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, stressed that county regulations stipulate that a developer cannot cause adverse impacts “on any adjacent property in a 100-year flood event.”

When Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked whether Strackbein was confident that the team could comply with that requirement, Strackbein said he was. Strackbein did note, though, that the site is “at the far east end of [the] Phillippi Creek [basin].”

This aerial map shows the proximity of the Whole Foods and Wawa to Harold Avenue. Image from Google Maps

Even though the Future Land Use classification of the property, as listed in the county’s Comprehensive Plan — which guides growth in the county — is Moderate Density Residential, Smith continued, “I just think this development may be ahead of its time …”

Moderate Density Residential allows from two to five dwelling units per acre, the county staff report said. The existing zoning is Open Use Estate 2, which permits one unit per 2 acres. The applicant’s original proposal would have put the density at 4.5 dwellings per acre. Reducing the number of homes to 55 would have lowered that to 3.7 units per acre, attorney Merrill emphasized.

Problems on Harold Avenue and Sacramento Street also cited

Smith also expressed concerns about Harold Avenue, which would border the west side of the project site. He noted that it has only a 30-foot right of way, with just 18 feet under pavement.

Many of the speakers talked of the road’s narrow width, as well as what they described as it instability.

Dave Goldman, who told the commissioners he lives directly across the road from the proposed development site, was among the speakers who presented photos depicting conditions on the road. He noted that it has a shell base that is “crumbing off the edges.”
“The road’s terribly dangerous,” he stressed, adding that he has lost seven mailboxes to accidents, a number of which he described as bad.

“I just think that this development is not compatible with the surroundings,” Smith told his colleagues.

Commissioner Neil Rainford said of Harold Avenue, with a chuckle, “I’ve also driven this road hundreds of times.” The photos shown to the board that afternoon depicted it well, Rainford added.

This is a photo showing the aftermath of one accident on Harold Avenue, documented by resident Dave Goldman. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Black, the certified planner  also was representing the applicant — Marlon Matza of JRA LLC, based in Garden City, N.Y. — emphasized that the project team had stipulated to improvements needed on both Harold Avenue and Sacramento Street, which borders the site to the north. County staff had requested that action, if the rezoning were approved, Black said.

(Matza’s LinkedIn account says he is the managing partner of Strategic Realty Advisors, which is located in Rockville Centre, N.Y. The county staff report said he planned to purchase the Sarasota County property if the rezoning were allowed.)

The staff report did include the following related stipulations, if the project were to be approved:

  • “Prior to or concurrent with the development of the subject parcel, the Owner shall improve Sacramento Street to County local road standards from Harold Avenue to the proposed access. Transition from the improved cross-section to the existing condition shall occur east of the proposed access. The improvements shall be included in the construction plans for the proposed development.
  • “Prior to or concurrent with the development of the subject parcel, the Owner shall improve Harold Avenue to County local road standards along the frontage of the subject parcel. Transition from the improved cross-section to the existing condition north and south of the parcel shall occur. The improvement shall be included in the construction plans for the proposed development.”

Further, Black emphasized, the traffic associated with the development itself, based on an analysis of transportation data, showed only 47 more trips in the morning and only 63 more during the peak afternoon drive time.

The county staff report pointed out that the project would have ingress/egress on both Harold Avenue and Sacramento Street.

‘Glaringly obvious’

“This area has been transitioning for decades,” Black told the commissioners. “Sarasota has effectively grown up around it …”

Project team members, speakers and commissioners did note that the Mall at University Town Center (UTC) is “right around the corner” from the project site, as Commissioner Smith put it.

After reviewing the Findings of Fact listed in the staff report, Chair Moran told his colleagues, “It’s just glaringly obvious to me” that the project would conflict with Future Land Use Objective 2.3 in the Comprehensive Plan, which says, “Maintain governing regulations for Residential land uses and protect the quality and integrity of established residential neighborhoods from adjacent incompatible development.”

William Higel was among the multiple speakers who stressed to the commissioners that the density of the development would be 10 times that of the southern section of the neighboring Sarasota Gardens subdivision.

Williamson, the first speaker during the hearing, pointed out, “Right now, this neighborhood is one house per 2 acres … Most homes have more than 2 acres.” He owns 6 acres, he added. “[The project] just doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood at all.”

During the board discussion, both Commissioner Joe Neunder — who ended up seconding Smith’s second motion to deny the application — and Commissioner Rainford referenced protections of property owners’ rights, as outlined in state law.

“We are growing up,” Neunder said of the county. Nonetheless, he also pointed out that he has spent most of his life in Sarasota County, and “I fully understand the environmental attachment to the place you grew up …”

A number of the speakers also stressed that they had been lifelong residents of the area around the project site.

These are details about Harold Avenue and Sacramento Street in the county staff report for the hearing. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yet, as Higel put it, “Our quality of life has declined due to the noise and traffic, and it will decline more, having light intrusion [as well, from the new homes, if they were approved].”

Dee Zulauf noted that she had lived near the project site for 47 years. “It’s very disheartening,” she said, “to see the residential areas of Sarasota County be regularly rezoned for excessively high-density structures and impact the beautiful neighborhoods so many of us care so deeply about.”

Robin Sutcliffe said that her family has lived on property bordering 47th Street for 55 years. They have kept a wide variety of animals, including horses, cows, chickens and ducks, she added.

“We also have an abundance of wildlife on our property,” Sutcliffe told the commissioners. Among the wildlife are bald eagles and gopher tortoises, she noted. For the project team members to imply that the development would be compatible with the area, she pointed out, “is just false.”

1 thought on “On unanimous vote, County Commission denies rezoning application for 55-unit residential community near UTC”

  1. Difficult to understand why it took the commissioners so long to deny a proposal to build a housing project in a swamp, and what about the credibility of a planner which supported such a proposal ?


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