Charles Hines covers range of activities — from water quality and affordable housing initiatives to preservation of county property next to Celery Fields
As chair of the Sarasota County Commission in 2019, Charles Hines appeared before governing boards of the county’s municipalities, so he could provide updates on county initiatives and invite discussion about topics of interest to those boards.
In that same vein, Hines closed out the year with a letter to county residents. It provides a summary “highlighting how your County government worked diligently to support our set strategic goals. This past year we strived to provide exceptional county services aligned with our resources, develop a high-performing county team, foster world-class quality-of-life amenities, create a great place to live, and provide robust, and growing business opportunities,” he wrote.
“[W]e are proud of our many accomplishments and equally proud of how we have addressed challenges — the most prominent of which was to address improving our community’s water quality,” he pointed out in the letter.
Among the related accomplishments, he continued, were hosting the June 5, 2019 Water Quality Summit, adopting a new Fats, Oils, and Grease Ordinance, “and approving the design phase for the improvements to the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility [WRF].”
The latter project — with a preliminary estimate of around $160 million — will transform the facility to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status.
The Bee Ridge WRF was the focus of a Consent Order the County Commission approved with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and a settlement agreement with three nonprofit organizations that filed a complaint against the county in March 2019. The lawsuit listed a multitude of illegal discharges from county facilities into waterways that flow to Sarasota Bay. The Bee Ridge WRF alone was responsible for close to 1 billion of those spills.
“At the same time,” Hines pointed out in his year-end letter, “we focused on improving the quality of life for our residents and visitors through these major initiatives/projects:
Affordable Housing — “The Board made great strides in improving the environment for increased affordable housing development by passing the Accessory Dwelling Unit and Half Dwelling Unit ordinances, which loosen development restrictions to encourage affordable housing construction. Additionally, a market analysis was performed to identify county-owned land that could serve as affordable housing development parcels.”
Legacy Trail — On June 27, 2019, Sarasota County closed on the purchase of the $30.1-million railway corridor that will become the Legacy Trail extension. The nearly 8-mile corridor “will enhance connectivity from North Port through Venice to downtown Sarasota,” Hines wrote.
River Road Transfer — In October, the board approved a resolution to transfer portions of River Road to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for ownership. “This is the first step to giving FDOT the ability to begin construction to widen River Road from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75. Once completed, this corridor will serve as an enhanced hurricane evacuation route,” Hines noted.
For decades, the County Commission had implored FDOT and state leaders to make River Road a high priority for improvements. However, commissioners have said, they always were told that as long as River Road was part of the county’s road system, it would have a low ranking for state funding.
In September 2017, then-County Administrator Tom Harmer announced that staff was working with FDOT on the potential swap of Siesta Key roads to the county, with the state assuming authority over River Road between U.S. 41 and I-75.
Atlanta Braves Stadium — In March 2019, the commissioners welcomed the second Major League Baseball team to call Sarasota County home for Spring Training, opening “a facility that will be a year-around amenity for all of our residents,” Hines wrote.
The complex — CoolToday Park — is in the West Villages.
The Braves join the Baltimore Orioles — who conduct Spring Training at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota — as county seasonal residents.
William H. Jervey, Jr. Venice Public Library — “The new Venice public library opened to much fanfare and delight,” Hines pointed out.
Bob Johnson’s Landing Park — “This new park was dedicated and opened up the Wild and Scenic Myakka River to the public with easy and ample access to this unique river,” Hines noted.
The park is located at 9083 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice. Among its amenities, the county website says, are birding, a canoe/kayak launch, fishing, grills, a restroom, a shelter/pavilion and both paved and unpaved trails.
Celery Fields — “Lands surrounding the Celery Fields were set aside to protect and enhance this great birding and recreational area,” Hines continued.
On Nov. 6, 2019, the commissioners voted unanimously to work with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and the Sarasota Audubon Society to create conservation easements over three of the county four “Quads” parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields. The latter property, in eastern Sarasota County, was designed as a major county stormwater project. However, in the intervening years, it has become an internationally known bird-watching area.
With the easements, the three Quads would see minor improvements — such as the addition of benches and walking trails. However, those parcels would remain in a natural state in perpetuity, the commissioners decided.
Advocates for the Celery Fields who fought development proposals on the Quads over the past several years voiced delight at the board action.
An update on the easements process will be presented during the Jan. 10 meeting of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA). That program will begin at 7 p.m. at the county fire station located at 2070 Waldemere St. in Sarasota. (See the related article in this issue.)
South County Courthouse — “Design was completed and construction began on the much needed updating and expansion of the [Robert L. Anderson] government complex to serve the growing South County population,” Hines wrote.
On Dec. 10, 2019, the commissioners heard an update on that project.
On Nov. 7, 2018, a staff memo pointed out, the board “approved a concept for a two-story courthouse addition that would be designed to accommodate four courtrooms now and two future courtrooms [with ‘shells’ provided during construction]. These future courtrooms would be outfitted for court-related offices,” the memo added, until the extra judicial space is needed.
The new courthouse would comprise 42,000 square feet, staff pointed out.
All court-related functions will be accessed through secure screening, Brad Gaubatz, the county project manager, explained on Dec. 10, 2019.
The project groundbreaking tentatively is set for April 16, Gaubatz noted.
“The forgoing are just a few of the major accomplishments and projects that we worked on this past year, while maintaining the second lowest millage rate in the State and [an] AAA credit rating,” Hines continued in his year-end letter. “Your Board of Commissioners and County employees are committed to providing exceptional service to all Sarasota County residents, visitors and businesses, and to being responsible stewards of our natural resources. In addition to the accomplishments above, Sarasota County is responsible for a wide range of vital services, including health and human services, arts, culture, recreation, growth and development, and attracting new businesses and industries.”
Hines concluded his letter with the following: “There is no way we can always agree on every issue facing our community, but we should be able to agree that we live a wonderful and diverse community that has many amenities and opportunities for all to enjoy. We look forward to another outstanding year in 2020.”