Control Growth Now leader decries the action as political payback to developers
Before voting unanimously to approve the future realignment of Lorraine Road in eastern Sarasota County, three of the five county commissioners talked of the need for the route as a major north/south connector.
“This is going to alleviate a lot of traffic problems that our community has,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out after a May 20 public hearing.
“It seems like almost every day [Interstate 75] is shut down,” Ziegler said, which prompts drivers to use the county’s local road network as an alternative. “We don’t have that grid system built out, out east.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert added that, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, people have forgotten how bad traffic congestion was during the tourist season this year. “We were jam-packed,” she said.
And Commissioner Alan Maio talked — as he has in the past — about comments he and his Sarasota County Commission colleagues have heard from Manatee County commissioners about the latter’s difficulties in acquiring rights of way to widen Lorraine Road on their side of the county line. During meetings of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), he said, the Manatee representatives had made it clear “how extraordinarily, painfully expensive it now is” to obtain the property. “We were all shocked.”
That is all the more reason, he continued, that Sarasota County has proceeded with the Lorraine Road alignment and preparation for right of way acquisition.
“We do not want to have ourselves in the same jackpot that we’ve been in for a long time west of I-75,” Maio explained. If housing development occurs first, he continued, then people end up feeling new roads “are coming right up against their backyards.”
However, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, longtime leader of the Control Growth Now organization, criticized the board members’ action, contending that they were approving changes to the county’s 2040 Future Thoroughfare Plans merely as payback to developers who had contributed to their political campaigns.
Further, “This is not the sort of major policy decision with controversial elements that ought to be pushed through during a pandemic,” he told the commissioners. The Comprehensive Plan amendment the board was considering on May 20, Lobeck continued, “has been expedited from Day 1. The scoping workshops were eliminated even before the pandemic.” County staff’s own report on the facets of the Lorraine Road realignment said the route was designed “to open up new areas for development … without any idea of cost and who’s going to pay for it,” Lobeck said. “This violates your Comprehensive Plan.”
Lobeck cited a section of the Comprehensive Plan that calls for a thoroughfare improvement to be “financially feasible.” Yet, he said, not even a “bare bones analysis” has been undertaken to determine the expense of the Lorraine Road initiative.
The original plan called for Lorraine Road to “hug” I-75, as county Planner Brett Harrington noted.
The staff report provided to the commissioners in advance of the May 20 public hearing says the proposed county Comprehensive Plan amendment “would add a realigned routing for Lorraine Road south of Clark Road [State Road 72], add the extension of Dove Avenue south of Clark Road, and a reclassification of Clark Road … as a 6-lane Major Collector from I-75 to Ibis Street and a 4-lane Major Arterial from Ibis Street to Lorraine Road to the 2040 Future Thoroughfare Plan.”
The amendment also re-inserted the I-75/State Road 681 interchange “and associated links” into the county’s future thoroughfare maps.
Lobeck contended on May 20 that the realignment is “being done to benefit [Pat] Neal [of Neal Communities] and other developers who have some clout.”
Neal, a former state senator, appeared before the board during the May 20 public hearing, as well, commending the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment. He pointed out that the county has only two primary north/south connectors: Tamiami Trail, which dates to 1925, and I-75 south to the State Road 681 interchange, which was constructed in 1975.
“We have a pretty good estimate of the physical cost [of the Lorraine Road initiative], and we believe the contribution of the five landowners [whose properties will be affected by the realignment] may be as much as $20 million. So this will be a public/private partnership,” Neal told the board.
During comments to the commission as part of its Open to the Public session after the regular business items had been addressed, Lobeck returned to the podium. “Twenty million dollars of how many million?” Lobeck asked, referring to Neal’s remark. “They contribute tens of thousands to political campaigns and reap millions in return,” he added, referencing developers.
“What are the numbers?” Lobeck pressed the commissioners, referring to the expense of the road changes. “If you know, and you still approve this, and it proves to be a bad decision for taxpayers, he continued, “Shame on you.”
On Feb. 4, after conducting an initial public hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the plan and submit it — as required — to state agencies for review.
During the May 20 public hearing, Planner Harrington reported, “Please note that none of the agencies had any objections to the proposals.”
In showing the board members the original proposal for Dove Avenue and Lorraine Road, Harrington pointed out that the new alignment calls for Dove to head south from Clark Road in a straight line to a future intersection with Lorraine Road.
Then, he continued, “Lorraine Road has been realigned, especially south of the future full interchange at I-75 and [State Road] 681, where you’ll see a dramatic turn eastward, north of Knights Trail Park to eventually connect to Knights Trail Road, near the county landfill.”
In the previous plan, he noted, “Lorraine Road actually hugged I-75 pretty much the whole way down south of the interchange and actually ran eastward, south of Knights Trail Park on Rustic Road. So we’re making a big change there.”
A mix of comments
Before speakers began their public comments, Harrington did acknowledge continuing concerns of Bedstone Holdings Inc., owner of property on Hawkins Road. He reminded the board members that an attorney with Shutts & Bowen in Tampa appeared before them in February to voice concerns about the potential impacts of the Dove Avenue route on that property.
However, Harrington added on May 20, staff has stressed to the attorneys for Bedstone Holdings that the path of Dove Avenue “is conceptual only and [does] not represent any distinct, proposed right of way.”
Attorney Meredith Delcamp of Shutts & Bowen reiterated Bedstone Holdings’ concerns during the public hearing.
One other speaker — John Peshkin of Vanguard Land LLC, who identified himself as the developer of Toscano Isles at the intersection of Laurel Road and Knights Trail Road — voiced his support for the proposed road changes.
Especially because of the growth of housing in the southern part of the county, Peshkin said, “I think there’s a need for a north/south road east of I-75. … This would mitigate traffic congestion on other roads, like Honore,” and provide an alternative route in the event of accidents necessitating the closure of parts of the interstate, he added.
During his remarks, Lobeck also cited the fact that the new route for Lorraine Road will have it crossing areas classified as environmentally sensitive land. “This is a new four-lane arterial road slashed through a protected greenway,” he stressed. That also is a violation of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, Lobeck added, as the county’s road network is supposed to “avoid adverse impacts to the natural environment.”
He contended that that change was incorporated into the plans to benefit developers, as well.
The county staff report did note that the re-routed Lorraine Road would cross some designated greenway areas, which are part of the county’s 2050 Plan for designs of residential developments east of I-75. However, the report added, “This revised alignment generally follows existing historical trails and crossings of the Greenway RMA [Resource Management Area] and, importantly, largely avoids or minimizes impact to Comprehensive Plan protected native habitats,” as illustrated in a graphic included in the report.