County Commission debates sales of surplus lands to raise new revenue in effort to preserve money in its ‘rainy day’ reserve fund
In response to advocacy by a new group concerned about the future of the land around the Celery Fields, the Sarasota County Commission this week voted unanimously not to sell one of its “Quads” parcels adjacent to the internationally known bird-watching area.
Additionally, the board voted 4-1 to direct staff to work with representatives of Fresh Start for the Celery Fields on suggestions for the use of a second piece of property the county owns at the intersection of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard, before the county puts it on the market. However, as Commissioner Charles Hines stipulated in his motion, if representatives of Fresh Start for the Celery Fields fail to offer “some realistic options” within six months, staff may go ahead and put the land up for sale.
Commissioner Nancy Detert opposed that motion.
As for the third Quads parcel: The commissioners voted unanimously on Nov. 28 to hire a consultant to work on rezoning the land to a district they indicated should be compatible with adjoining property that already has been developed and the Celery Fields. Then that parcel will be offered for sale, as well.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comments on the board action, Tom Matrullo, one of the leaders of Fresh Start, wrote in a Nov. 29 email that the group’s mission has been two-fold: to seek commission agreement to “suspend action on the surplus lands temporarily [and to gain its willingness to] look at the whole Celery Fields area with an eye toward a unified, sensibly useful and compatible plan. Integrating various stranded assets into a viable whole would create something greater than the sum of its parts. And [the Celery Fields has] got a built-in observation mound from which to be seen. Powerful image material!”
Matrullo added, “Just in the past day I’ve seen two ideas for the use of these lands — so people are engaged, and thinking how to use them. Public spaces can galvanize and transform the area around them, while adding the value of whatever amenity they themselves possess. Think of Washington Square in New York City — both its manifold uses and how it enhances the neighborhoods around it. The value of public spaces is something we as a community should seriously take to heart.
“We still have an opportunity for the community and County to work in concert to produce something both can be proud of,” Matrullo continued: “[a]n integrated plan that would serve as a catalyst, enhance this critical meeting of West and East Counties, and complement the activities enjoyed by people who regularly go to the Celery Fields, but then have to get back in their cars and drive somewhere else to get some food, or read a book, or buy some groceries.”
The budget quandary
The Nov. 28 County Commission decisions were part of an effort to plug a $5.4-million budget gap for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The $5.4 million represents the revenue county staff had anticipated to be generated by a Public Service Tax on utilities. The board opted in September not to proceed with implementing that tax, after members of the public protested. Instead, the commissioners agreed temporarily to take $5.4 million from their Economic Uncertainty Fund to make up the difference in the 2018 fiscal year budget. Then they also agreed they would work before the end of the calendar year to identify another $5.4 million to replace the money from the Economic Uncertainty — or ‘rainy day reserve’ — Fund.
In early October, the board members asked staff to focus first on county-owned property that the county does not need — surplus lands — as a source of revenue.
Along with their decisions on the Quads properties, they voted on Nov. 28 to put three parcels on Bee Ridge Road up for sale — pending a final staff check that the land will not be necessary for stormwater control.
In their fastest move regarding the surplus lands list, they also voted unanimously to direct staff to work with a commercial real estate broker to sell land the county owns at 20 N. Washington Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. Commissioner Hines’ motion on that point called for removing all restrictions that had been imposed on the future use of that parcel, including one calling for the buyer to replace the number of parking spaces there. The site is across from the Historic Sarasota County Courthouse.
Commissioners in the past discussed the spot’s potential as the location for a new hotel, along with a public parking facility. However, all efforts years to sell the property with the stipulations have failed.
Staff has estimated that the land’s purchase could generate $3,950,000.
“Get it out there and get it sold,” Hines told Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho on Nov. 28. “Everyone benefits from that property being sold.”
Of the 59 parcels on the surplus list, Lewis noted at the outset of the discussion, staff had identified 13 with a value each of more than $100,000. Those comprised the group he and Botelho presented to the board for consideration. Altogether, the county’s surplus lands on that list ranged in value from the approximately $4 million for 20 N. Washington Blvd., Lewis said, to “maybe … $800 bucks” for a parcel that is about 365 square feet.
Of the 13, he continued, staff recommended six be kept off the market for the time being. Among the reasons for that, Lewis said, were a range of factors — from environmental concerns that need to be addressed to the expectation that some of the parcels will increase considerably in value over the next couple of years, thanks to their locations. In the latter group, Lewis pointed to property in the vicinity of the new Spring Training stadium for the Atlanta Braves, which is under construction in the West Villages near North Port.
Turning to the Quads, Botelho explained that the southeast parcel (No. 1), at Palmer and Apex, has been the focus of two solicitation efforts since 2015, with no bids or proposals received. Two solicitations that same year for the southwest Quad (No. 2) did not result in a contract. Then, after TST Ventures failed to win County Commission approval in August for a construction and yard waste recycling facility on the land, owner James Gambert cancelled a 2016 contract to buy the parcel; the purchase was tied to a successful rezoning initiative.
The northwest Quad (No. 3) was the focus of another cancelled contract this year, after questions arose at the County Commission dais about ownership of the company that wanted to construct a restaurant supply warehouse on the site.
Regarding Parcel 3, Commissioner Detert suggested, “Let’s just zone it for what we actually want to see on there. To me, it’s false advertising to do it the way we did it before,” she added of the JMDH Real Estate of Florida/Restaurant Depot rezoning petition that was withdrawn in March.
“The whole rest of that area is industrial, basically,” Detert added. However, Parcels 1 and 2 — the southeast and southwest Quads — should come off the surplus list, she said. “[That land] blends with the Celery Fields.”
Maio pointed out that when he was working as a consultant prior to his 2014 election to the board, he and his colleagues always viewed the canal that runs north and south between the Celery Fields and the Quads as the dividing line between those two areas. If the commission removed Parcel 1 from the surplus list, he continued, that would make Apex Road the dividing line between land the county would keep and Parcels 2 and 3, which could be sold.
He joked then — and emphasized that he was joking — that if he won the lottery, he would purchase Parcel 2 and build a hotel or bed-and-breakfast inn on the site, which would fit in with the ecotourism attraction of the Celery Fields.
No land west of Apex Road in the Quads “is hydrologically or stormwater linked to the Celery Fields,” he added.
One big question before the board, Chair Paul Caragiulo said, was whether the Quads properties should be seen in a different light, in contrast to the County Commission view a decade ago that the land should be sold for development. “When you look at it now from a planning perspective, it’s quite an interesting board game.” Still, he said, he did not want to turn the future of the property into a “10- or 15-year visioning plan.”
In his one-on-one discussions with representatives of Fresh Start, Maio responded, they indicated that they would not be totally opposed to any development on the Quads.
Referring to the three parcels, Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out, “From Day 1, [this] was designed to be surplus property.” Nonetheless, he said of the Celery Fields, “It’s just an amazing place out there.”
Finally, as they began voting on the parcels, Maio made the motion to remove Parcel 1 from the surplus list, with an understanding that the Fresh Start group will work with staff about potential uses of the land. That motion passed unanimously.
Regarding Parcel 3: Maio called for keeping it on the surplus list but hiring a consultant — at an estimated expense of $30,000 to $40,000 — to handle its rezoning for the county. That motion also passed unanimously.
As for Parcel 2: Detert continued to call for the county to keep it. “I think there’s a vision to beautify the area,” she said. Moreover, she explained, she had watched YouTube videos showing people pursuing a variety of recreational activities on that land — from doing flexibility exercises to practicing golf swings. “While all the young people run up and down the hill at the Celery Fields, all the older people can be across the street at the exercise field, such as it is.”
No one seconded her motion to remove it from the surplus list.
Ultimately, Hines made the motion to keep it on the surplus list for the time being, but without advertising it for sale. That would enable representatives of “organizations in the neighborhood [to] come back with some suggestions … before we direct staff to put it out for sale.”
Moran offered the “friendly amendment” that the Fresh Start group be allowed six months to return with what Hines called “realistic options.”
Hines and Maio — who had seconded the motion — said they were happy to accept that amendment, as a short time frame was their intention. Only Detert voted against the motion.
The Bee Ridge parcels
In May, Deputy County Administrator Botelho reminded the board members, residents who live near three parcels remaining from the county’s construction of a new roundabout on Bee Ridge Road asked that the board consider preserving the land, as they said it had become a vital wildlife corridor.
At the commission’s suggestion, staff subsequently held discussions with the residents — who had no organized homeowners association for their community — about purchasing the land, Botelho said. Eventually, the residents offered $65,000 for the three parcels — a rough average of $1,000 from each of 65 homeowners in that area, he pointed out.
“I think that’s pretty much out of the question,” Detert responded.
Based on the chart Assistant County Administrator Lewis and Botelho showed the board, the estimates for proceeds to the county’s General Fund from selling the three parcels on Bee Ridge Road were $103,107, $153,536 and $308,000.
Discussion ensued about the current residential zoning of the parcels and the market values two of them would have if they were rezoned to their highest and best use.
Chair Caragiulo then raised the question about whether Lewis and Botelho were absolutely sure the parcels would not be needed for stormwater control in the area. Based on email he had received from residents, he added, flooding in that area had become a problem.
“Going forward,” Caragiulo told Lewis, “I am going to be incredibly aggravated if we have to go and identify assets for stormwater in places and pay retail for property to put ponds [on it],” if these parcels have been sold.
“Yes, sir; makes sense,” Lewis responded.
Finally, Commissioner Maio made motions to sell the two smaller properties with deed restrictions limiting each to one house. The stipulation was suggested by County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, as commissioners sought to limit the amount of construction that could occur on the land.
With the deed restrictions, DeMarsh said, “you wouldn’t have any risk.”
“Perfect,” Maio replied.
Only Caragiulo voted against the motions.
The third parcel is about 3.86 acres, Botelho said. However, the Future Land Use map in the county’s Comprehensive Plan would make it necessary for the property to remain zoned for residential purposes only, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department explained. The zoning would allow up to five houses on the site, Osterhoudt added.
Finally, Maio made a motion to offer that parcel for sale with a deed restriction calling for a three-house limit.
Commissioner Moran joined Caragiulo in voting “No.”
At Caragiulo’s direction, Lewis said he would have staff take another look at the stormwater issue before proceeding with putting those parcels on the market.