Planning Commission endorses amendment for Lakewood Ranch Boulevard overpass of I-75

Exact route of overpass could yet be changed in the future, one board member emphasizes

A graphic shows the proposed connector, looking northeast, with Benderson Park and its lake on the left. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A mix of views was aired over the exact route, with a few speakers readily conceding that their preference was a matter of “NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard).” And while the Sarasota County Planning Commission voted unanimously on Dec. 15 to approve inclusion in the county’s Comprehensive Plan of an Interstate 75 overpass from the planned Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to Cattlemen Road — between University Parkway and Fruitville Road — Commissioner Laura Benson cautioned that the board was not endorsing one of the four alternatives considered for the route. Indicating that any of them is “somehow a done deal,” she said, “sets unrealistic expectations.”

Still in making the motion to offer Planning Commission support of the amendment as proposed that night, Planning Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said, “It’s not the ideal, but it’s the best [of four alternatives staff evaluated].”

In seconding the motion, Benson stressed, “Clearly, this is a simple pass-through [to the County Commission].”

The route county staff cited as appropriate at this point is Alternative 2, which calls for the overpass to cross from the planned Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to North Cattlemen Road at the southern end of Nathan Benderson Park. Alternative 3 called for the overpass to cross I-75 at the southern end of the park but extend to Honore Avenue. The staff report provided to the Planning Commission said that based on traffic analysis, “Alternative 3 provides the most beneficial connectivity to the overall roadway network.” However, Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, explained that in response to concerns largely expressed by residents of The Meadows community on Honore Road, county staff supported Alternative 2.

A map shows the general area of the planned overpass. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Alternative 1 called for the overpass to cross from Professional Parkway to North Cattlemen Road at the northern end of Benderson Park. Alternative 4 called for it to cross from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to North Cattlemen Road at the southern end of the park and extend to Deer Hollow Boulevard.

The overpass is not on the county’s five-year Capital Improvement Project list, Wiggins pointed out to the Planning Commission during its regular meeting in Sarasota. As a result, she continued, “I can’t say that it’s going to be done in the next five years, 10 years, because it’s going to depend on when we get the funding.” Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, is bound by an agreement with the county to handle the design and permitting of the connector, she added. However, it will be up to the county to seek state and federal money to help pay for the project.

The County Commission tentatively is scheduled to address the amendment on Jan. 24, county spokesman Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader this week. A second public hearing will be required because the action would entail a change to the Comprehensive Plan’s Transportation chapter, but the date of that second hearing has not been decided, he added.

The background and commission questions

Paula Wiggins. Filephoto

During her Dec. 15 presentation, Wiggins told the board, “As we all know, there’s been a lot of development in the northeast quadrant of University and Cattlemen roadways in Sarasota County.” Not all of it will be in Lakewood Ranch, she pointed out, adding that site plans had been submitted to county Planning and Development Services staff for projects in the Fruitville Initiative area.

“With all the development and all the existing congestion issues that we’re seeing, there’s been several transportation models that have come in,” she told the board. A number of studies, especially, have pointed to the need for more east/west connectors, she said.

Richard Bedford, vice president of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR), noted during his public comments that work is underway on the four-lane segments of Deer Drive, Lakewood Ranch Boulevard on SMR’s property and Lorraine Road, all of which are scheduled to be completed in June 2017. (Lorraine Road will run from University Parkway to Fruitville Road, the staff report noted.) Referring to planning for its Villages of Lakewood Ranch South, Bedford continued, SMR plans to have all the infrastructure completed — water, sewer, stormwater systems, irrigation and roads — “all done before anybody moves in.”

He added that, based on his most recent discussions with county staff, the county should conclude its purchase of the rights of way for its portion of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard within the next 30 to 60 days. Afterward, he said, construction of the segment to Fruitville Road should take about 14 months.

Bedford told the board that “the right answer [for the overpass] really, probably is to connect to Honore. But that’s a whole other battle,” because of what Bedford called “massive [Florida Power & Light Co.] utilities” that will have to be taken into consideration in reaching Honore: “Millions of dollars of stuff that you don’t even see.”

Richard Bedford showed the board this graphic with the three roadway segments Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is constructing: Lorraine, Lakewood Ranch Boulevard across its Villages of Lakewood Ranch South property and Deer Drive. News Leader photo

When Commissioner Kevin Cooper asked Bedford whether he felt Alternative 3 offered an optimal location for the Honore connection, Bedford replied, “The answer’s, ‘No,’ and that’s because of the utilities.”

When Commissioner Robert Morris asked Wiggins about the “dog-leg” design of Alternative 2, she explained that the goal was to avoid interfering with the road into Nathan Benderson Park. The signalized intersection, Wiggins added, “will be just to the north of that entrance.”

When Morris responded that the design still did not make sense to him, Wiggins said, “This is the best scenario not to attract more people to use the park as a cut-through, and that is a concern that several of the residents raised [at neighborhood workshops the county hosted].”

Laura Benson. Image from the Michael Saunders & Co. website

Commissioner Benson also pointed out that traffic would be heading out onto Richardson Road, with the connector stopping at Cattlemen. “Richardson has a number of neighborhood streets that empty out onto it,” she said. It made more sense to her, Benson continued, for traffic to spill out onto Honore, which was planned as a major north/south road.

That was when Wiggins stressed the “large number of [people] in opposition” to the Honore connection. “Staff said we would stop the [connector] at Cattlemen Road.”

“But Richardson Road goes to Honore,” Benson responded.

“Yes, it does,” Wiggins said.

“So we’re still going to Honore,” Benson told her.

Wiggins concurred.

Benson told Wiggins she understood the concerns of The Meadows’ residents, but “how long can you avoid using [Honore] in order to effectuate good flow of traffic?”
“Honore is still designated as a major arterial [road] in our Comprehensive Plan,” Wiggins replied. If, in the future, the County Commission chooses to extend the overpass to Honore, it can work on another Comprehensive Plan amendment to make that possible, Wiggins explained. The current concept, she added, “is basically a line on the map.”

Public comments

Among the dozen members of the public who spoke during the Dec. 15 public hearing was John Spillane, president of The Meadows Community Association, which, he explained, represents almost 8,000 homeowners. “Our residents have been very concerned about this for the longest period of time,” he said, “and they have just absolutely horrified at the thought of all of this traffic coming into our community.”
He thanked county staff for taking the residents’ worries into consideration.

John Spillane. News Leader photo

However, Spillane continued, they felt that Alternative 1 would be the best, which would include the DeSoto Road corridor.

Taking the opposite view, Robert Ennis said he believed DeSoto Road — which, he noted, is only about one-sixth of the distance from University Parkway to Fruitville Road — would not serve the residents in the southern portion of the affected area as well as Alternative 2.

Gary Heffner, chair of the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance and therefore representative of its 27 neighborhoods, concurred with Ennis. And while his organization originally favored Alternative 3, he continued, it would accept Alternative 2, “if we must.”

He further advocated for multimodal transportation considerations in the design of the connector. “That’s part of the model for the Fruitville Initiative,” he pointed out.

Other speakers, as well, voiced support for the connector to run to Honore Avenue.

Jonard Solie, representing the Deer Hollow Homeowners Association, told the board he felt Alternative 3 was best, but his group would support Alternative 2. “The Meadows does not want anything to go through The Meadows,” he added.

Howard Finkel, representing the Longwood Run Community Association, also advocated for Alternative 2 or 3.