Comprehensive Plan amendment and county policy changes will have to win County Commission approval to go into effect
The Sarasota County Planning Commission has endorsed policy changes and a rezoning petition sought by Benderson Development Co. that would allow for more freestanding commercial structures in the portion of the Fruitville Initiative area that the company owns.
The Aug. 5 vote was unanimous. The recommendations will be provided to the County Commission when it conducts its own hearing on the issues. As of Aug. 17, The Sarasota News Leader found no county Planning Division record showing that the County Commission hearing date had been set.
During the Planning Commission session, Philip DiMaria of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm explained that Benderson’s goal is to modify the county’s Comprehensive Plan so the amount of freestanding commercial space can be increased from a maximum of 12% of the total, non-residential building square footage in the Fruitville Initiative area to a maximum of 22%.
“A commercial use is considered free standing when it occupies more than 50% of a building,” according to the county staff report on the proposal.
Benderson also wants to be able to increase the portion of its standalone commercial space in the Fruitville Initiative from 8,500 square feet to 72,000 square feet. The company has proposed a modification to a stipulation for the Initiative that would allow all owners of what are known as the “sub-planning areas” of the Initiative to convert their land uses to other approved uses as long as the standalone retail portion of one of those sub-planning areas does not exceed 72,000 square feet, the county staff report explained.
“The rationale behind this [proposed Comprehensive Plan] amendment is to provide balance and consistency to land uses” throughout the Fruitville Initiative, DiMaria told the planning commissioners.
The company envisions the development on the site to encompass multi-family housing and medical offices, along with retail and other commercial uses, DiMaria noted. The changes Benderson is seeking, he said, would allow for flexibility and would be in keeping with “best practices associated with the development of mixed-use town centers.”
The retail uses would serve the daily or weekly needs of the residents on the site, he added.
One other point that DiMaria said is important for consideration is that within the Fruitville Initiative, “a single-occupant building of 50,000 square feet or greater is not allowed by right,” but it can be allowed by Special Exception. If people are concerned that the company would bring in a “big box” tenant such as Costco, he continued, they need to keep in mind that the County Commission would have to approve the Special Exception necessary for that.
County Planning Division staff had endorsed Benderson’s proposals, as noted in the Aug. 5 staff report.
On March 9, the County Commission approved the processing of the Comprehensive Plan amendment that would be necessary for the change. The county staff report provided to the planning commissioners in advance of the Aug. 5 meeting noted that the County Commission acted at Benderson’s request.
That staff report also pointed out that the Fruitville Initiative “began some years ago with the idea of creating a coordinated plan for the development of the lands located north and south of Fruitville Road immediately east of [Interstate 75]. The effort developed into a public-private partnership with the major land-owners and the intent of encouraging a preferred development outcome on the properties.”
Officially designated “Special Planning Area 3,” the report said, the Fruitville Initiative site is divided into sub-planning areas A through H. The county’s Future Land Use policies for the affected properties were adopted in 2010, the report added, “providing for a [walkable], traditional town center, mixed-use development …”
All but the northwestern-most 16.9 acres of Sub-Planning Area A were rezoned in 2017 and are no longer part of the Fruitville Initiative, the staff report continued.
That “opt-out” area of the site is being developed as Fox Creek Acres, DiMaria of Kimley-Horn told the planning commissioners on Aug. 5.
‘Form-based code’ governs the development
A “form-based code” implemented for the Fruitville Initiative guides how the area looks, county Planner Steve Kirk explained to the planning commissioners. The area has a grid of streets, he continued. The code dictates where buildings can be constructed, he added, as well as their maximum setbacks from the street.
“The code itself is pretty much the master plan” for the Fruitville Initiative, Kirk said.
“We don’t necessarily care what’s in the box,” Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper said of the build-out design governed by the form-based code. “We care how it looks, and things can be kind of fluid …”
DiMaria earlier had pointed out that if the changes the company is seeking go into effect, the Benderson property would look no different than the build-out plan already approved, because of the implementation of the form-based code.
Cooper made the Aug. 5 motion to approve the Benderson requests.
The county staff report further explained that the ordinance governing the development of the Fruitville Initiative includes a “Use Allocation Table” that shows the approved uses for each sub-planning area.
In Benderson’s case, that table noted that the 41.95 acres can have 300 multi-family dwelling units, 400,000 square feet of office space, 57,500 square feet of mixed-use development, and 50,000 square feet of industrial space. (DiMaria told the commissioners that the site encompasses 40.91 acres, while the Property Appraiser’s website says it has approximately 41.3 acres.)
The total amount of square footage in Benderson’s Sub-Planning Area F is 516,000, the chart in the staff report said.
The three other largest sub-planning areas have been allocated 65,000 square feet of standalone commercial uses, the staff report pointed out. The total square footage in those sub-planning areas ranges from 440,000 to 235,000, the chart noted.
“The allocations were worked out with the major property owners during the development of the Master Plan and stipulations,” the staff report added. “There is an obvious inequity in the allocation of [stand-alone] commercial for Sub-Planning Area F that should be addressed,” the report said.
County Commission split on decision to sell site to Benderson
In 2015, Benderson Development bought what has been designated Sub-Planning Area F, which is south of Fruitville Road and just north of the Celery Fields, the major county stormwater project that has become an internationally known bird-watching destination. The company paid $3 million for the site, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s website says. This year, the market value of the land is $7,216,700, the Property Appraiser’s website notes.
On Nov. 26, 2013, the county commissioners voted 3-2 to sell the property to Benderson. At that time, Benderson Vice President Larry Fineberg explained that the company wanted to create a light industrial/warehouse project on the site.
Then-Commissioners Charles Hines and Nora Patterson cast the “No” votes.
Hines voiced concern that the proposal could serve as competition for facilities that already exist in the county, while Patterson said the Benderson plan “really changes the whole concept of what’s been thought of for the Fruitville area.” She added, “This is like your key chess piece in this whole development,” referring to the Fruitville Initiative.
However, then-Commissioner Christine Robinson said of the Benderson proposal, “I was interested in a stable economic driver … The track record that Benderson has had brings a lot of relief to me as far as their ability to attract quality tenants …”
Then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta pointed to Fineberg’s remarks about opportunities Sarasota County had lost to lure new companies because it had no appropriate facilities to offer them. Those comments, Barbetta said, “are precisely what we’ve been talking about at the [Economic Development Corp.] for the past couple of years.”
The lone person to address the planning commissioners during their Aug. 5 hearing was Stephen Stottlemyer, who owns Stottlemyer’s Smokehouse and the Fruitville Texaco, both on East Road just east of the Benderson property.
Expressing opposition to the Benderson proposal, Stottlemyer pointed out that the county hired “consultants of high repute” to work with property owners, residents and county staff on the vision for the Fruitville Initiative.
The price Benderson paid for the county land in the Fruitville Initiative “was, to the business community, shockingly low,” he continued. “And now the most successful, sophisticated development company claims that they need or even require more equitable distribution of freestanding retail space …”
Approval of the company’s requests, Stottlemyer indicated, would be another county gift.
Stottleymer also noted the traffic study undertaken for the Benderson site, as detailed in the county staff report. Almost 4,000 more vehicles per day would be associated with the company’s plans, he stressed.
Moreover, he said, the traffic segment from I-75 to East Road would continue to operate at an “F” in regard to level of service. (Level of service describes how a driver perceives traffic to flow on a roadway, with “F” being the lowest level.)
Although county staff described the company’s proposed changes as equitable, Stottlemyer continued, he did not believe the public would perceive them that way.
Noting that he drives Fruitville Road several times a day, Stottlemyer added of the route, “It is congested all the way from Tatum Road to Cattlemen Road, and when I say ‘congested,’ I mean backed up.”
After making the motion to approve the Benderson proposals, Planning Commissioner Cooper pointed out that he lives east of I-75.
Because of the new development that already has taken place in the Fruitville Initiative, Cooper continued, he no longer has to “drive 20 minutes to go somewhere. … I think part of a vibrant mixed-use community is going to be the things that are coming online here … I think that was the idea.”
In seconding Cooper’s motion, Planning Commissioner Neil Rainford added that he believes the Benderson site is “the perfect location” for more commercial development. As for traffic, Rainford said, “It’s not like you’re driving to the end of Fruitville to get services.”
Planning Commission Chair Colin Pember offered his endorsement, too: Benderson Development is “not a speculator. They don’t just come in and wing it and hope it works. … [Benderson is] one of the largest private developers in the country. They do their analysis; they do their homework. … They want to determine what’s going to work best.”