Sarasota Audubon makes clear intent to fight proposed 170-unit development on property near Celery Fields

D.R. Horton project application remains under county staff review

This is the Binding Development Concept Plan, completed in July, as shown in the application packet for the D.R. project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During a Sarasota County-required Neighborhood Workshop in late May, Jeanne Dubi, president of the Sarasota Audubon Society, expressed concern about a potentially 170-home D.R. Horton development proposed on approximately 26 of 49 acres on Raymond Road, near the Celery Fields.

Given the proposed density — and the abundance of birds that flock to the Celery Fields, especially during the winter months — Dubi said,
“We are concerned about the noise levels. We know that birds are affected by noise.”

She stressed to Kelly Klepper, vice president and senior planner of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota — who was hosting the workshop on behalf of D.R. Horton — “Whatever is done [on the site], we must protect the Celery Fields and the wetlands.”

Although Sarasota County created the Celery Fields, in the eastern part of the county, as a regional stormwater project, the property has become known internationally as a bird-watching destination.

The D.R. Horton site, which has been used for agricultural purposes, has a solitary single-family home on it. Since the name of the family that owns the land is Smith, the site is called Smith Properties in the application.

Months after that workshop — on Nov. 1 — the Sarasota Audubon Board of Directors issued a statement with the heading Raymond Road aka Smith Property. In bold, that document makes clear the opposition to the D.R. Horton project: “A high-density residential development does not belong here. It will negate and undermine all the millions of dollars and planning invested by Sarasota County and its Stormwater Division.

That statement adds, “Sarasota Audubon Society has invested thousands of volunteer hours in maintenance and in environmental education for all ages at the Celery Fields.”

Then the document notes the following relevant data:

  • 120,000 visitors to the Nature Center since 2015. Sarasota Audubon docents staff the facility.
  • 3,000 volunteer hours per year since 2015, totaling more than 25,000 hours.
  • 8,500 students since 2012 learning about watershed and bird identification.
  • 1,000 teachers and chaperones introduced to the wetland habitat.
  • $1 million raised to build the Sarasota Audubon Nature Center.
  • $4 million target to be raised for ReWilding the Quads parcels, an initiative of Sarasota Audubon and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which is based in Osprey.
This is a view of the interior of the Nature Center. Image from the Sarasota Audubon website

The statement further points out, “Sarasota Audubon Society, with over 1,500 local members, does not want these huge investments to be negated or diminished by a housing development.”

When the May 23 Neighborhood Workshop was conducted, the formal D.R. Horton application had not been submitted to county Planning and Development Services Department staff. Those materials, including maps, were filed in August, as shown in Accela, the county’s new software system for Planning and Development.

Among the documents in that packet, which The Sarasota News Leader obtained through a public records request, was one addressed to Marquis Bing, a member of the county’s Transportation Planning staff, on July 10. It says, “A traffic analysis will be conducted and submitted to the County for review.”

Nonetheless, referencing the 2021 edition of the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) manual used in traffic analyses, that document estimates that the total number of new trips associated with the 170 homes would be 1,644. The relevant chart adds that 121 of those would be expected during the peak morning drive time, with 164 anticipated during the peak afternoon drive time.

Those figures, the document explains, were based on the existing traffic and development patterns in the area. The following distribution of the morning and afternoon peak-hour project trips was used:

  • 15% to and from the east (via Palmer Boulevard).
  • 80% to and from the west (via Palmer Boulevard).
  • 5% to and from the north (via Raymond Road).
This is the trip generation chart included in the formal application. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As noted in the Sarasota Audubon statement, after the county’s Planning staff has completed its review of all of the pertinent materials, it will schedule a hearing on the proposal before the county’s Planning Commission. Then, as the statement adds, the County Commission will conduct its own hearing on the plans. Typically, Planning staff has noted, the County Commission hearing on an application or petition is set about four weeks after the Planning Commission reviews the proposal and votes on it.

In late September, the News Leader learned through its public records request, the application still was deemed “Insufficient.”

Among the Environmental Protection Division staff’s comments were the following: “Please consider enhanced vegetative buffering and more thoughtful orientation of open space with regards to landscape context due to the proximity of the Celery Fields to the proposed project. Sarasota County’s Comprehensive Plan has numerous policies … that attempt to address impacts on nearby uses that protect the environment by providing enhanced buffers and better orientation when land uses such as the Celery Fields are adjacent. [Environmental Protection] staff sees opportunities to relocate some, or all of the proposed stormwater facilities to the perimeter of the project along with vegetative enhancement of upland areas to create a more robust composition and artificial wildlife corridor for the project that would improve the project’s compatibility with the adjacent land use. The final design should be mindful of screening of sources of light, noise, mechanical equipment, etc.”

A call for public action

In the meantime, the Sarasota Audubon board is urging its members and opponents of the D.R. Horton initiative to contact their county commissioners to express their concerns. The board has included a link to “Talking Points” for those communications.

Among those points are the following, with the organization’s emphasis:

  • The Celery Fields is a wildlife, birdwatching, and recreational paradisein the heart of Sarasota attracting thousands of local residents and national and international tourists annually.
  • The Celery Fields is a highly regarded, award-winning feat of creative planning — a triple purpose public facility: 1. a stormwater control and cleansing operation, 2. wetlands protected as a natural haven for local and migrating birds and other wildlife, and 3. a place for people to walk, exercise, kayak, and learn about the wildlife of our area.
  • The Celery Fields represents Sarasota County’s remarkable achievement in highlighting and preservingthe importance of ecosystems, wetlands, native and migrating creatures, and human relationships to all of these treasures.
  • This crowning achievement in civil engineering and in public/private cooperation must not be jeopardized.All these ecological and practical values, underscored by the millions of dollars invested in realizing them, require any impinging development to be examined with extreme care and attention. Just as a dumpsite or commercial development would be totally inappropriate, a housing subdivision would likely destroy or devalue what has been achieved. There is no way to guarantee that the Celery Fields would not be negatively impacted. Once done, it could be destroyed forever.
  • There are an estimated 100,000 visitors a year to the Celery Fields — photographers, nature lovers, walkers, joggers, bikers, families, and education groups — providing an enormous boost to the local economy. Since the pandemic, interest in eco-tourism and birding has surged greatly in popularity. Just this season (Oct – May 2023), Audubon has recorded over 31,000 visitors for bird and wildlife viewing, and for its education programs.
  • The Celery Fields has two famous and incredible boardwalks out into the wetlands one from Palmer Boulevard and one from Raymond Road. On each of these boardwalks, Sarasota Audubon has Bird Naturalists who volunteer with telescopes and binoculars, and are stationed every day, October through May, to enhance visitor birding and wildlife viewing experience. Visitors come from all over the United States and the world to enjoy the wetlands. Increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic from a high-density development will negatively affect access, use, and safe approach to these boardwalks for birders, tourists, and their cars.”

The August application materials

This graphic, shown to the May Neighborhood Workshop participants, shows the general area around the proposed development site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The D.R. Horton Binding Development Concept Plan completed in July and submitted to county staff with the application materials points out that the maximum residential density of the single-family-home project would be 3.5 dwelling units for acre, or 170 homes.

No house would be taller than 35 feet, the plan notes.

As Klepper of Kimley-Horn showed the Neighborhood Workshop participants in May, a stormwater detention pond would be created at the center of the site.

The plan shows two access points to the development from Raymond Road. A Site Data box included with the plan says that the open space in the community would comprise about 22.7 acres (30%) of the approximately 49.32 total acres.

A landscape buffer with 30% opacity would surround the development, the graphic says. That buffer, the Binding Development Concept Plan points out, would “meet or exceed” the county’s 15-foot minimum width.

The setback for homes on the western side of the site would be about 70 feet, the graphic adds, with the eastern side setback reduced to approximately 60 feet.

“Additionally,” another document in the packet explains, “due to the nature of the surrounding properties, including … Sarasota County

This graphic shows typical lot features for the D.R. Horton development. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Canals to the east and south, the proposed development is further separated from surrounding residential development. Because of these canals, 50-foot watercourse buffers are provided from the top of Canal bank on the south and east project boundaries. The canals and the watercourse buffer ensure that surrounding residential property owners will have minimal impact to their properties from this development. The combination of the development setback, watercourse

buffer, and canals between existing residential development and the proposed development will provide upwards of 100 feet of separation between residences in some locations along the eastern and southern boundary of the Property.”

An Aug. 14 document in the packet, which responded to comments from the county’s Development Review Coordination (DRC) team in May, further notes that a 5-foot-wide sidewalk would be provided along Raymond Road “where it abuts the property,” as shown on the Binding Development Concept Plan.

The DRC comment called for 5-foot-wide sidewalks “on all abutting streets where sidewalks do not currently exist. This includes Raymond Road.”

The DRC members represent the various county divisions that handle land-use applications. They work to ensure that applicants provide all of the necessary details before a proposal undergoes its Planning Commission review.

Yet another DRC comment asked the project team to “provide the existing condition information for Raymond Road to the north and west of the proposed property to determine if it meets County standards.” The team responded that such information would not be given to county staff until the project had been approved and was undergoing what is called “Site and Development review.”

As a county document explains, a “Site and Development Plan shall be required for all development other than the creation of a subdivision. … Approval of the Plan by the County shall be construed as authority for the representative/applicant to: a. construct improvements such as stormwater facilities, excavation and fill, bulkheads, sidewalks, paving; and b. apply for building permits.”

The DRC group in May also pointed out that the development would have to be connected to the county’s potable water and sanitary sewer systems. “Comment noted” was the project team’s response.