Advocates of the county’s internationally known park warn of other projects they plan to fight while Restaurant Depot attorney defends suitability of the warehouse for the parcel on which it was proposed
Pennsylvania-based attorneys for a company that proposed a 60,000-square-foot wholesale restaurant supply warehouse on property near the Celery Fields have informed Sarasota County staff that their client has terminated the contract to purchase the parcel.
Dated March 20, the letter to Lin Kurant, Sarasota County’s Real Estate Services Department manager, says that the April 26 public hearing scheduled as a follow-up to one continued from March 1 would not occur prior to the “Approval Contingency Date” county staff had set for the contract with JMDH Real Estate of Sarasota LLC. “Therefore,” Austin S. Faberman of Nachmias Morris & Alt in Conshohocken, Penn., wrote, “this letter shall constitute Buyer’s termination of the Contract,” in accordance with a provision in the contract.
Faberman also asked Kurant to make certain the deposit was returned to the buyer. He copied Assistant County Attorney Thomas R. Wolfe on the correspondence.
In concluding the letter, Faberman wrote Kurant and Wolfe, “We wish you luck in the future.”
During the March 1 public hearing, Commissioner Charles Hines won confirmation from Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy that the JMDH Real Estate application for the 6.9-acre parcel located at the intersection of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard did not disclose who all the owners would be; therefore, the petition to rezone the property — which was necessary for the project — did not comply with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Discussion specifically focused on the fact that the beneficiaries of three trusts — who are South African nationals — had not been disclosed. Another one of the owners would be an investment firm representing the government of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the attorney for the applicant — Charles D. Bailey III of the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota — explained to the board.
The commissioners voted to continue the hearing until April 26 to give Bailey an opportunity to try to resolve the issue with the Office of the County Attorney.
Both before and after the March 1 public hearing, protests have been held at the Celery Fields, an internationally known bird-watching area and county park, which is located near the site where the restaurant supply warehouse was planned. The County Commission Chambers also was filled with residents on March 1 who were opposed to the project. Commissioners referenced the number of cards from people who wished to address the board about the petition; it had grown to 46 by the time the hearing was continued. Each speaker is allotted 5 minutes.
Adrien Lucas of Sarasota — one of the primary organizers of the protests — learned of the contract cancellation when The Sarasota News Leader contacted her after the County Commission discussion on March 21.
“To say that I am surprised that investors for the Restaurant Depot pulled out of the county sale is an understatement,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “I am pleased that they did so. However, the fight to save Our Celery Field is not over by a long shot.”
Lucas pointed out that a contract for the purchase of a 10.3-acre county parcel near the Celery Fields relates to a proposal by James Gabbert of TST Ventures LLC in Sarasota to build a recycling and waste transfer facility; yet another piece of property in the vicinity of the park is the focus of a county Invitation to Negotiate.
Gabbert’s agent, Bo Medred of Genesis Planning and Development in Bradenton, is seeking the rezoning of the easterly 11.93 acres of the site on the southwest corner of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road for TST Ventures.
“I have asked the county to retract the newest parcel they put up for sale in consideration of growing interest and concern from the public who are now learning what ‘surplus’ land is and how our county is neglecting Sarasota’s Zoning mission statement,” Lucas wrote the News Leader. “Zoning’s fundamental purpose is to protect a community’s health, safety and welfare.”
After she spread the word of the Restaurant Depot news to her fellow Celery Fields advocates, she told the News Leader, “[M]y email, Facebook messages and phone are blowing up!!”
On the other side of the issue, attorney Bailey responded to a News Leader request for comment on March 23. He wrote in an email, “In short, my client was excited about bringing a Restaurant Depot to this market. But, none of the almost 120 Restaurant Depots it’s constructed in the United States (including 11 it is currently operating in other Florida communities) have ever been the subject of a development approval request receiving such negative public attention, especially without a legal, or even reasonable, basis.”
He continued, “We were discouraged by the public outcry at the County’s selling the subject parcel, which is located within an existing developed industrial area, is within the County’s Urban Service Boundary, has been identified by the County [Comprehensive] Plan for a Restaurant Depot-type use since the 1980s, is owned by the County, and on which the County expended great sums to improve as a development pad to be sold and improved with an industrial/wholesale use so the County and taxpayers can recoup a portion of the tens of millions of dollars spent to construct the Celery Fields Regional Stormwater Facility. The proposed site is ideal and my client looked forward to working with the County on it.”
In March 2016, Gerald Daws of JMDH — which is based in College Point, N.Y. — first appeared before the County Commission to say he was working with Restaurant Depot in an effort to purchase the property.
For a little more than a year, Daws continued during the board’s meeting on March 22, 2016, he had been looking for a suitable site in Sarasota for the warehouse, which he said would provide about 60 permanent jobs. Based on averages reported by the existing Florida stores, Daws noted, the Sarasota store would be expected to generate gross sales tax revenue between $650,000 and $700,000 per year. Restaurant Depot already had 67 Sarasota customers coming to its Tampa store, he added; they spent $1.7 million there in 2015.
In his email to the News Leader, Bailey pointed out that even though the Celery Fields is outside the County’s Urban Service Boundary “and east of and not even adjacent to this [proposed Restaurant Depot warehouse site] … it was perceived by some as being potentially affected by a Restaurant Depot use. Ironically, the substantial existing industrial uses already surrounding the proposed site and the existing FAA-regulated Dove Heliport east of and adjacent to the Celery Fields’ observation mound didn’t seem to be a problem for some of these opponents.”
Bailey added, “Since the original County Commission hearing on March 1, many more unfounded and, in some cases, disturbing communications from members of the public have been received. Restaurant Depot is a great corporate citizen, employer, and wholesale use needed to serve our local businesses (just ask the 200 or so local restaurants, churches and other Sarasota organizations currently relying on the Tampa Restaurant Depot). My client, who is justifiably proud of its brand and reputation, did not want to be a part of any community battle and has, regrettably, opted not to construct a Restaurant Depot in Sarasota County. Sadly, they will be looking elsewhere to provide this use, likely in some jurisdiction other than Sarasota County.”
Yet another concern for Celery Fields supporters
In her response this week to the News Leader, Lucas also pointed to a contract the county inked in 2014 with Benderson Development for 41.34 acres in the area known as the Fruitville Initiative, which is even closer to the Celery Fields than the Restaurant Depot project would have been. On March 8, 2016, the County Commission unanimously approved an amendment to that contract to allow a limited liability company linked to Benderson — Coburn Road LLC — a delay until March 2019 in completing initial construction on that site.
“Considering that Benderson Development was sold county land at a fraction of its worth that is next to Our Celery Field,” Lucas wrote the News Leader, “we should all be prepared that someday Randy Benderson will be back to develop it. [Randy Benderson is the CEO of Benderson Development.] I am resigned to the fact that we will all need to pitch in to defeat any horrible proposed development he may thrust upon us in the future,” Lucas added. Unless Mr. Benderson wishes to be generous and donate that land back to the county to be a preserved buffer for Our Celery Field, we will be battling in the future.”
Lucas also pointed out, “This non-partisan effort to fight the county on these sales has grown into a movement. The effort to fight these surplus land sales would not work and will not work unless everyone lets the county know we have had it with their reckless fiscal decisions in relation to lands that we all own.”
She added, “From homeowners who will be burdened by the types of industry proposed for this region, to ruining a blossoming eco-tourism park, to protections afforded to endangered and threatened birds, it is imperative that county officials quit snowing the public and heed the call that we are watching and we expect better from them.”
During the County Commission discussion on March 21, Hines also asked County Administrator Tom Harmer what the next step would be for the site JMDH Real Estate no longer wanted to purchase.
“It’s been declared surplus,” Harmer responded, “so it would automatically be considered surplus.” If the board members wanted to provide specific direction on how staff should proceed with it, he added, “we’d be happy to take it.”
Staff already has planned another update on surplus property, Harmer noted — a follow-up to a board discussion during the Feb. 17 budget workshop. “We can bring [the issue] back at that time.”
Then Hines asked whether the commissioners have to be consulted in such a situation, or whether staff simply can proceed with advertising the property for sale once again.
Harmer replied that he would check on the county ordinance relative to those procedures and report back on his findings.
“That would be good to know,” Hines said.
The News Leader on March 21 requested details of staff’s conclusions about that ordinance in the aftermath of the discussion, but county spokesman Jason Bartolone was not able to provide details prior to the News Leader’s deadline.
Part of the focus during the board’s Feb. 17 workshop was on how to pay for several high-priority projects, including the North Extension of The Legacy Trail into downtown Sarasota; new South County courthouse facilities in Venice; the Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility on Laurel Road; and a new Central Energy Plant that supplies air conditioning to the county’s detention center and other county buildings — including the judicial facilities — in downtown Sarasota. The commissioners have made it clear that sales of surplus properties the county owns would reduce the total amount of money the board will need to borrow or raise through other means to pay for those projects, the cost of which staff had estimated at up to $124.4 million.