Nokomis residents object to the site, calling it the gateway to Venice that should have a more appropriate use
Almost exactly four years ago, Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight and members of his staff sat before the County Commission to discuss a desperate need for a new fleet maintenance facility.
During that Jan. 8, 2013 meeting, Knight talked about how his office’s command post, bomb truck fuel tanker and the SWAT “Bearcat” could be wiped out in a major hurricane. “We have virtually nowhere to store them,” he said.
On Dec. 13, Knight referred to the equipment worth “nearly $8 million … that’s sitting out in the open in our fleet yard” that is used by not only his personnel but also by the county’s municipal law enforcement agencies.
With a unanimous vote on Dec. 13, the current members of the County Commission voted to rezone approximately 52.8 acres at 2101 Laurel Road — at the intersection of Laurel Road and Interstate 75 outside the City of Venice — with plans for a new Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility to be constructed on the site. It will replace the existing facility located on Old Venice Road in Osprey, Sheriff’s Office Community Affairs Director Kaitlyn Perez told The Sarasota News Leader.
Brad Gaubatz, a manager in the Public Works/Capital Projects Division for the county, told the board it would take about 18 months to hire a firm that could complete the design for the structures on the site.
Nearby residents and representatives of the Nokomis Area Civic Association had written to the board in opposition to the rezoning, citing the area as a gateway to the area that should be preserved for some other purpose. Three of them addressed the board prior to the vote.
However, Knight himself pointed to the easy access for his staff from the site to areas north and south of it, via I-75 and Honore Avenue — which divides the parcel; and to areas east and west of it, thanks to Laurel Road and Clark Road.
“It’s about having it centrally located in our county now,” he said of the Fleet Maintenance Facility.
He noted that the county has been rebuilding fire stations over the past three years. “They’ve been improved, and they fit the aesthetics of the community. … I gotta believe that [county staff members] would work with the City of Venice [on the design of the fleet facility],” if it were to be built on the Laurel Road property.
Knight pointed out, “This county doesn’t do anything that’s not going to improve their communities.”
Commissioner Charles Hines made a similar remark earlier: “This would be our project. … It’s within our ability to approve the design … to mitigate any type of adverse impacts through landscaping and setbacks …”
In seconding Hines’ motion to approve the rezoning, Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo added, “I’m very confident that what would be constructed [on the property] is going to look as good as it could possibly look … a very attractive design, because that is just what we do.”
Caragiulo also concurred with the sheriff about the convenience of the location. “Our decision should be based on what’s good for the whole county,” Caragiulo explained. Furthermore, referencing Hines’ comments about the design, Caragiulo said, “We know that folks are going to hold our feet to the fire, if you will.”
Chair Alan Maio remarked on the fact that a number of his very good friends in the audience were opposed to the project. Nonetheless, Maio said, “I think we have to trust in the staff. … I also think you have to trust us that something ugly is not going to be built there. … Our buildings are not un-plastered block buildings that will look ugly.”
Earlier that day, Isaac Brownman, the county’s chief engineer, explained that the proposal for the Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility call for it to have 13 vehicle bays, a shops and parts department, offices, lockers for South County deputies, a vehicle storage area and space for an additional five bays for which shells will be provided.
Gaubatz of Public Works/Capital Projects Division told the board during the rezoning hearing that all the maintenance bays would be indoors. The primary structure would have three main doors similar to those on a garage.
The tentative cost is $20.9 million.
However, Brownman pointed out, that estimate could be reduced by use of about $1,650,000 in law enforcement impact fees the county collects, as well as about $1,690,000 in justice impact fees and $250,000 in federal forfeiture funds the Sheriff’s Office receives. Combining those figures, he said, would bring the budget down to about $17,290,000.
The goal was to try to get the expense under the County Charter cap of $22.6 million for borrowing without the need of voter approval.
During the public hearing, county Planner Jack Wilhelm said that the property is zoned Open Use Estate; the county’s initiated petition was to change that to Government Use (GU).
In response to a question from Commissioner Nancy Detert,
Gaubatz explained that the GU zoning “does allow any government use to be placed on the site.”
The county has owned the parcel since 2003, Gaubatz added. No prior development has occurred there, other than the extension of Honore Avenue, which began in 2014 and was completed earlier this year.
“It’s limited by wetlands,” he said, “and it is right on the floodplain elevation.”
During his public comments on Dec. 13, Bruce Dillon of the Nokomis Area Civic Association (NACA) told the board that when the county’s Planning Commission considered the rezoning petition, “there was not a sole in the room” in favor of the project.
Dillon pointed out that landscaping worth about $1 million is underway near the property to make the area a gateway to Venice.
Bill Cantrell, president of NACA — which, he noted, represents 39 homeowner associations “with 13,000 rooftops” — had presented county staff petitions with 134 signatures opposed to the rezoning. He added that the staff also had 86 pages of negative comments from residents. Putting a fleet maintenance facility at that intersection of Laurel Road and I-75, he said, “will not enhance, improve or add value to the community.”
Cantrell and a third speaker — Mariah Wozniak — told the commissioners that it would be more productive to sell the property and then use the proceeds to find an alternative site for the Sheriff’s Office facility.
Both Cantrell and Wozniak talked of the potential use of acreage near the intersection of Knights Trail Road and Rustic Road. The land is near the Sarasota County Gun Range and the location of the stables for the Sheriff’s Office’s Mounted Patrol, they noted.
However, during his presentation to the board, Sheriff Knight explained that Rustic Road is a two-lane route, part of which is not paved. A segment of it also runs through private property. “I wouldn’t drive my personal car on it,” he said. Moreover, he told the commissioners, he could not move the valuable equipment he would store at the Fleet Maintenance Facility “on a dirt road. I just can’t.”