Planning Commission votes 6-1 to oppose business park corridor along the northern and southern stretches of Lorraine Road

County Commission to conduct Aug. 30 public hearing on proposed change in county’s Comprehensive Plan

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, the Sarasota County Commission will conduct a public hearing on a process that it launched in June 2021: the creation of corridors where business parks could be located in the county.

Dave Bullock, then the interim CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, provided a presentation on June 9, 2021 about the need for more designated areas for major employment centers, office parks, and places for manufacturing facilities. “The market forces are so strongly residential,” he pointed out, that the county had lost more than 500 acres of Major Employment Center (MEC) land from 2007 to 2018. That acreage went to residential development, he said.

Moreover, he noted, the remaining MEC sites “are pretty close to being built out right now.”

Over the prior two to two-and-a-half years, Bullock continued, the EDC had not been able to respond to 12 requests from companies interested in land or buildings for relocation or expansion in the county.

Therefore, Bullock presented a proposal that the County Commission create areas where businesses could be located.

As a result of that day’s discussion, the commissioners assigned staff to undertake research and provide a report on such an initiative.

The request ultimately let to the commission’s July 13 approval of an amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan that would allow for business parks outside areas designated as MECs on the county’s future land use maps. They also agreed to business park corridors along Fruitville and Bee Ridge roads, as well along as the State Road 681 interchange with Interstate 75, and South River Road.

Officially, Comprehensive Plan Amendment 2022-A created a Business Park Corridor as a new designation in the county’s 2050 Plan for development east of I-75. Owners of property on those four corridors could request rezoning to implement the Business Park or Office, Professional and Institutional (OPI) zoning districts for properties fronting on those corridors.

The parks could have light industrial/flex office space with associated outdoor storage areas, upon approval of a Special Exception on land zoned Commercial General; and light industrial uses and flex office space by right within any 2050 Village Center.

Business Park Policy 1.1 in the Comprehensive Plan does point out, “Business Parks consist of office, light industrial and limited commercial and service uses supporting [their] activities and employees. Heavy industrial and residential uses are not allowed. Frontage along the corridor designation provides the opportunity for consideration; however, not all adjoining properties will be appropriate for the implementing zoning districts.”

Further, the commissioners on July 13 approved a corresponding amendment to the county’s Unified Development Code, which contains all of the land-use and zoning regulations. That calls for a Business Park district implemented in a 2050 Plan area to have a minimum of 10 acres, a maximum building height of 35 feet, primary access to a county arterial road, compliance with specific architectural design standards, and a 50-foot-wide greenbelt when the business park is located within a 2050 Village or a Rural Heritage/Estate Resource Management Area.

The Florida Department of Transportation defines an arterial road as a divided or undivided roadway that provides a continuous route to serve through traffic, high-volume traffic, and long average trip lengths.

On April 7, the county’s Planning Commission had voted unanimously to recommend that the County Commission approve the Comprehensive Plan and UDC amendments.

However, on July 21, faced with another proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment — this one for business parks along Lorraine Road north of Fruitville Road and south of Clark Road — only one member of the Planning Commission felt the idea was appropriate — Colin Pember. (Pember is the director of the Land Acquisition Division of the Pulte Group, which is a builder of homes.

As a result, the board that night voted 6-1 to recommend that the County Commission back away from the idea of business parks along the Lorraine Road corridor.

Details of the latest proposal

As county Planner Steve Kirk explained to the Planning Commission on July 21, the northern Lorraine Road corridor runs from University Parkway to Fruitville Road, and the land primarily is designated for 2050 Villages. All of the planned extension of Lakewood Ranch into Sarasota County, with 5,000 homes — called Lakewood Ranch Southeast — plus the new Waterside development are located in that area, Kirk added.

The very first planning commissioner to address the proposal was Kevin Cooper, who pointed out that Rex Jensen, CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch — the developer of Lakewood Ranch — had sent a letter to the board members. Summing up the gist of that correspondence, Cooper added that Jensen made it clear that he was opposed to the creation of business parks in Lakewood Ranch Southeast.

Through a Sarasota News Leader public records request, the publication received a copy of two July 18 emails that Jensen sent to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, and to Planner Kirk. In the first one, sent at 8:21 a.m. that day, Jensen wrote, “To all it may concern. This is to express total opposition to the designation attempted by unknown parties to our land in northern Sarasota county [sic] along Lorraine Road between University Parkway and Fruitville Road. No one consulted us in this AND ALL OF OUR LAND IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR A DIFFERENT PURPOSE as part of our Waterside development. I would like to know what human (by name) thought that this was a good idea. Are folks sure that you don’t mean to cartoon someone else’s land?????????????????”

Then, at 12:03 p.m., he sent them the following: “I oppose it as it relates to our land and would like it removed from our property as it is: 1) inconsistent with our land use; 2) inconsistent with existing agreements concerning the property; and 3) generates concern among existing residents and neighbors who somehow think we have had something to do with this…which we have not.”

“I don’t know how much we’re spinning our wheels there,” Planning Commissioner Cooper continued during the July 21 meeting. He also expressed doubt that the developers of Skye Ranch — another 2050 Plan community that also is known as LT Ranch — would be interested in any business park facilities.

“I think the [County Commission’s] vision for this was to … broadly offer the opportunity to provide [business parks along the corridor],” Kirk said. That goal, he noted, was to reduce the county’s deficit of such potential sites.

Kirk did acknowledge, though, “There’s generally not a lot of desire of the developers to develop these kind of uses,” so the county commissioners were trying to create as much opportunity as possible countywide.

“I agree we have a deficit,” Cooper responded, but “Is this the right spot? Is [this amendment] actually going to produce anything?”

Four members of the public contended that the northern part of the Lorraine Road corridor was not the right spot for business parks.

“You have a very successful area; beautiful section of Lorraine Road from University to Fruitville,” Chris Bales of Sarasota told the board members.

She also was the first of the speakers to point out that Lorraine Road, which will extend to Venice, will provide an alternate route to drivers who wish to avoid “bumper-to-bumper traffic” on other north-south routes in the county.

Further, Bales pointed to a recent remark of Erin Silk, vice president of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County for business development services: People want to live no farther than 15 minutes from where they work.

“Well,” Bales continued, “who in Waterside wants to work at a paint factory?”

“Light industry,” she added, is “not just nice little offices.”

It “can cause health and safety and environmental risks,” Bales pointed out. Business parks also would create more traffic, she stressed, as well as more noise. The parks “would be next door to Sarasota families,” Bales told the board members.

Since direct access to a major arterial is one of the few requirements, Bales continued, “You could have these uses right across from Waterside.” It and other developments in the affected area, she emphasized, “are successful communities with million-dollar houses.”

The second speaker, Jeremy Whatmough, who lives on Cow Camp Lane, explained that he and his wife bought their home in 2003, when a CVS store at the intersection of University Parkway and Lorraine Road was one of the few commercial structures nearby.

“We knew it wasn’t going to remain the way it was forever,” he said of the area. “But it was a paradise. It was a wildlife preserve … Today, it’s pretty much all commercial.”

If the new, proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment won approval, he added, traffic on Lorraine Road would increase, and wildlife would vanish.

Karen O’Donnell, who lives on Whiskey Pond Lane in the Sarasota Polo Club community, also stressed that the northern part of Lorraine Road runs through land that is primarily rural and residential. She called the area “completely inappropriate” for business parks.

She had a Sarasota address, O’Donnell continued, when she moved into her home 28 years ago. “I have watched the decimation of 28,000 acres of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. … It has been devastating to an area that is heavily populated with wildlife.”

“Not long ago,” she continued, “behind me were crops and cows. Now it’s Waterside.” Although she said she and her family “have come to accept that,” they have seen more flooding that they attribute to all of the development around them, as well as greater acidity and silt in their well water.

She, too, stressed the fact that Lorraine Road “is a beautiful corridor.”

The final speaker during the public hearing, Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino, a Democratic candidate for the District 2 seat on the County Commission, told the planning commissioners that they all were put on that board to make more development of the county possible.

After he criticized one member of the board for seeming to be paying attention to something other than his remarks, Chair Teresa Mast called for a 5-minute recess. When the meeting resumed, Cosentino continued, “This [amendment] isn’t a slippery slope; this is ‘We fell off a cliff.’ ” He added that people moved into the eastern part of the county to get away from development.

A lone call for approval

Following the public hearing, Planning Commissioner Pember said he had looked at the area that would be affected by the amendment, using the county’s Geographic Information System (GIS) software. “You have four major property owners, all master-planned communities. … They don’t want a noxious, obnoxious, unsightly building or industry within their master plan because then they can’t sell their property to builders for top dollar.”

He understood the County Commission’s goals, he continued, but he did not believe that many people would be interested in amassing 10 acres to create a business park on the Lorraine Road corridor. “I don’t see it highly likely that this would come to fruition,” he said of such facilities, even if they would have “nice buildings, nice landscaping,” as the county commissioners and the leaders of the Economic Development Corp. envisioned.

After he made a motion to recommend County Commission approval of the Comprehensive Plan amendment, no one seconded it.

Then Chair Mast asked whether someone wished to make a motion recommending that the County Commission choose not to approve the amendment.

Planning Commissioner Donna Carter did so, saying she did not believe that business parks were appropriate on the corridor. Further, like Pember, she added that she doubted sufficient interest exists to make any likely.

Planning Commissioner Cooper seconded the amendment. “I think this is a worthwhile endeavor,” he pointed out. “I really do.” However, he added, he did not believe Lorraine Road was the best corridor for such development.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Justin Taylor told his colleagues that he did not feel comfortable supporting the amendment without its having provisions for big buffers between the parks and the residential areas.

Then Carter’s motion passed 6-1.