Eldon Johnson Jr. convinces County Commission to approve a Zoning Code text amendment to make the development possible near Cattlemen Road
For about five years, Eldon E. Johnson Jr. of JW4 Capital LLC in Sarasota has envisioned a single-family residential neighborhood where people could also work out of their homes. Finally, after about two-and-a-half hours of discussion during two public hearings, the Sarasota County Commission has given him the opportunity to create just that kind of community on 42.5 acres in the eastern part of the county.
The project is called Sawgrass at Sarasota, according to the application provided to county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson in July 2016. It has been planned on two parcels: 5700 Sawgrass Road and 700 Cattlemen Road. Palmer Boulevard is to the south of the site, with West Sawgrass Road serving as the northern boundary for most of the property.
Thanks to the County Commission’s unanimous approval of a privately initiated text amendment for the county Zoning Code, Johnson plans to create what his attorney, William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm, characterized as “really a pilot program.”
First, though, Merrill and Johnson had to convince the commissioners that allowing this type of neighborhood in Industrial, Light Manufacturing and Warehousing (ILW) zoning districts is feasible, as county staff opposed it.
“We’re excited,” Johnson told The Sarasota News Leader in a March 17 telephone interview. He hopes Sawgrass at Sarasota will get underway in four to six months, he added. “We’re putting together all the different things right now to get ground broken. … We just think that there is a market for this.”
Small businesses have the same primary needs as big ones, he noted: “central location and parking.” Sawgrass at Sarasota will be close to Interstate 75 as well as Cattlemen Road, and it will have extra parking spaces designated for visitors, he pointed out, including some for handicapped drivers.
In his Feb. 28 presentation to the commission, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained that the amendment “really does focus on single-family residential use with incidental non-residential uses in ILW rather than that typical live/work scenario [already allowed in ILW districts].”
Staff opposed the amendment, Osterhoudt continued, because it would allow single-family subdivisions to be developed in those districts “without a work component,” and it has the potential to overly broaden the primary purpose of the ILW zone. Additionally, he pointed out, by allowing single-family housing developments in Major Employment Centers — another facet of the amendment — the change would not foster the county’s intent to boost economic development in areas established for industrial, office and mixed-use projects.
Still, Osterhoudt said, given the specifics of the amendment, “There likely are a limited number of properties that this would be applicable to, though future amendments could expand the number.”
Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out that the amendment, as proposed, appears to “only fit this property.” If future developers suggest tweaks of the language to create other projects, he added, “that’s our place to say, ‘No, you’re making this far more widespread than we ever intended, and the result would be to use up available [county property zoned] ILW.’”
Given the existing residential and commercial property uses around the Sawgrass site, Maio said, “If I ever saw a transitional use for that piece of property, it’s this one. I just don’t see a big problem here.”
Other commissioners, however, voiced initial concerns about the amendment, including Osterhoudt’s comment that it would reduce the availability of ILW districts for primarily commercial uses. Another worry was that buyers of houses in Sawgrass at Sarasota would show up at future board meetings to complain about their neighbors’ work.
Yet, the county’s Planning Commission unanimously endorsed the zoning text amendment after an October 2016 public hearing. That decision did come with one extra condition though: “[T]he owner shall record a notice, in a form approved by the County Attorney, with each lot or unit notifying subsequent owners that the property is zoned ILW and may be used as allowed in that district.”
After the second County Commission public hearing — on Feb. 28 — Commissioner Charles Hines apologized to Merrill and Johnson for his multitude of questions during the first one, held Jan. 11. “Sorry about the micromanagement,” Hines said. “However, you’ve got to understand where it comes from. We live in a community [where] people buy next to airports and [then] come to local government and say, ‘You need to close the airport.’”
Hines added, “I’m not making this up.”
In Johnson’s situation, Hines continued, “We’re not even talking about a use that’s next door to your property. We’re talking about a use that’s in your property …”
Given the restrictions that will be imposed in the zoning text amendment, Hines continued, if someone does appear before the board in the future to complain about a neighbor in the Sawgrass development being too loud, for example, “I’m gonna have to say, ‘Sorry, [but] you bought in there. That’s what you knew [could] go there.’”
During the Jan. 11 public hearing, Johnson explained that he already had construction plan and preliminary plat approval from county staff when he learned that the county’s Zoning Code would not allow him to go forward.
“We are as far along in the process as you can be without constructing,” Merrill pointed out to the commissioners.
When Johnson’s builder came in to meet with county staff about two years ago, he learned of inconsistencies in the Zoning Code that would prevent the development as Johnson had planned it, Merrill said.
“The project from its inception was to create home-based businesses,” Johnson told the board.
During the March 17 interview with the News Leader, Johnson pointed out, “I do a lot of working from home, a lot of entrepreneurial stuff.” In fact, Johnson is also an author of a book, The King’s Christmas List.
That led to his thinking “it would be great” to create a community where people could have their businesses in their houses without having to worry about homeowner association regulations, he added.
Because the property is ILW, live/work housing is permitted by the Zoning Code, Merrill explained to the commission. To comply with provisions of the code, though, the dwellings would have to have firewalls and sprinklers, for example, Merrill continued.
Those types of safeguards — and the added expense — were not what Johnson had envisioned, Merrill said.
“Nomenclature is everything,” he added. Because of language in the Zoning Code, he explained, a business in a live/work housing situation is treated differently than the same type of business in a single-family residential unit. “That’s the whole reason why we’re doing this [amendment].”
Showing the commissioners slides of housing communities in Dallas and California, Merrill explained that the homes Johnson wants to build would be 1,800 to 2,400 square feet.
In response to a question from Commissioner Nancy Detert, Johnson added that the average price “probably [would be] in the low 300s.” He wanted to keep them affordable, he said.
“One of the largest demographics of people starting new businesses are those over 50,” Johnson pointed out. Moreover, he said, “we felt like this was a very centrally located spot for a development like this.”
“Well, I personally don’t consider $300,000 all that affordable,” Detert replied.
He foresees two-income couples as the primary buyers, Johnson told her. Referring to a 2,400-square-foot dwelling, he added, “That’s a lot of house in Sarasota in that location for that price.”
In response to a question about the types of businesses he expected the buyers to have, Johnson talked of accountants and photographers as potential buyers. Then he asked the commissioners to think about Google, HP and Apple. “They all started in a garage. … That seems like we’re shooting for the sky,” he acknowledged, but this type of residential community could lend itself to the founding of a similar technology company.
“It opens up a lot of flexibility for the way people work today,” he added. “There’s a lot of professional people that work and want to live here. … There’s all kinds of interesting people I’ve met here that have different ideas for businesses … Some are very unique.”
Offering their support
Two speakers during the Feb. 28 public hearing offered full support of the Sawgrass project.
Jordy Anderson, who owns the T & T Shell business at 6001 Palmer Blvd. — southeast of the property, near Interstate 75 — told the board that while he does not know Johnson well, “I can see that this project is a very, very good fit for this community, this area.”
Kevin Campbell, an owner of Campbell RV at 617 Cattlemen Road — west of the Sawgrass property — said his business has been in that area 15 years. Campbell also talked of the vandalism that has taken place on the site while Johnson has worked on his plan. “We’d just like to see this thing get done,” Campbell added, speaking for himself and his wife.
Just before the board approved the zoning text amendment on Feb. 28, Hines said he had found the debate over the project to be worthwhile, “because this is a model that I think we need to probably allow in some other places.”
After making the motion to amend the Zoning Code, Commissioner Mike Moran extended his thanks to Johnson “for pushing through this,” and he thanked county staff members for the time they had invested in the process. “As our community struggles to address attainable housing issues, I think this is a creative and reasonable and attractive concept, and I am happy to move it forward.”
“I think you have a solid concept,” Chair Paul Caragiulo told Johnson.