County commissioners agree to allow Office of County Attorney to work on licensing and permitting process and sunset provision
On split motions, the Sarasota County Commission has approved a pilot program for the Amish and Mennonite community of Pinecraft that would allow one occupied recreational vehicle (RV) on a single-family residential lot for four months during the height of tourist season.
However, given concerns they themselves expressed — which speakers underscored during the Feb. 25 public hearing — the board members also directed the Office of the County Attorney to work with other county staff members to incorporate a licensing and permitting provision into the ordinance. Additionally, the motion by Commissioner Alan Maio called for a sunset provision in that ordinance, which will make it possible for the board to revisit the new regulations after tourist season ends in 2021.
Finally, Maio agreed to Assistant County Attorney Josh Moye’s suggestion that Chair Michael Moran could sign off on the modifications in the ordinance included in Maio’s motion. That way, the issue would not have to come back to the commission for final approval.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler seconded Maio’s motion.
The ordinance implementation process necessitated two motions on Feb. 25, with the first focused on whether the proposed changes in the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) would be consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Maio made that motion, as well, making a finding of consistency.
Commissioners Nancy Detert and Charles Hines already had voiced opposition to the RV proposal, which will go into effect in an area designated as the Pinecraft Overlay District. Thus, they cast “No” votes on both motions.
When Maio initially made his second motion — to approve the ordinance — he said, “I think a 3-2 vote on [the first motion] sends an exacting and distinctive message [to the supporters of the initiative]: You barely got it through.”
However, after Ziegler offered his second, Chair Moran questioned Moye about whether the motion needed to be clear that the ordinance would have a “sunset provision,” so the changes in Pinecraft would be handled on a trial basis. That resulted in Maio’s and Ziegler’s agreement to modifications of the motion.
“I’m going to have to be a ‘No’ on this,” Detert explained before the votes, adding that when the board in 2018 approved an overlay district for part of Pinecraft, “I think the thing that was probably furthest from our mind … was we didn’t expect an increased petroleum transportation problem going on [there]. … I think [we are] pushing too far on this.”
Referring to the potential of rescinding the ordinance if problems became abundant, Detert talked of her time in the Florida House and Senate, when some legislators worked on the assumption that they would just get bills passed and then work on amending them in a later session if problems arose. With the RV ordinance, she said, “I think we should fix it now and pass it later. … I think if we pass it now, we’re going to have to deal with the repercussions.”
Commissioner Hines referenced exchanges he had had with a couple of the speakers during the public hearing that day. He had sought explanations about why Pinecraft is unique. “I can’t get my hands around how a 30-foot RV fits into that [concept],” he told his colleagues.
He concurred with Detert that the ordinance was a step toward allowing too much loosening of county regulations in Pinecraft. “The cohesiveness and the unity [speakers referenced], I’ve not seen, because [Pinecraft leaders have] not self-policed the violators [of the existing county regulations regarding RV use],” Hines said.
Details and pleas for support
At the outset of the public hearing, county Planner Steve Kirk reminded the commissioners that in March 2018, they approved the Pinecraft Neighborhood Overlay District to encompass the boundaries of the historic Amish and Mennonite community whose eastern boundary is Beneva Road and whose western boundary is Phillippi Creek.
That overlay district, he noted, provided for county development standards that took into account the small lots and small homes that are abundant in the area.
Kirk explained that the UDC — which combines the county’s land-use and zoning regulations — allows up to two RVs to be stored anywhere on a residential lot in the county, but no one can sleep, live or keep house in those RVs.
The amendment proposed for the Pinecraft Overlay District, he continued, would allow just one occupied RV as an accessory use on single-family residential lots from Dec. 1 through March 31 each year. The RV would have to be connected to utility services “when such connections are legally permitted,” he added, and it would have to conform to all other applicable standards in the UDC.
Because of the small dimensions of many Pinecraft parcels, Kirk pointed out, “Not all lots could accommodate an RV.”
When staff undertook a survey of the overlay district, he added, it found 443 single-family residential lots. About 177 — or 40% — of them “are of a size and configuration that could support a 30-foot RV under the proposed limitations.”
Kirk also noted, “This is a conservative estimate.” The number could be smaller, he said.
The first speaker during the public hearing was Bo Medred, president of Genesis Planning and Development in Bradenton.
Speaking on behalf of the Pinecraft Steering Committee, Medred thanked the commissioners first for recognizing “that unique history and culture of Pinecraft,” which “is a pedestrian- and bicycle-oriented community.”
The members of the Pinecraft Steering Committee, he continued, “expressed their firm belief [that implementation of the proposed ordinance] would actually decrease [the number of RVs on lots in the community during tourist season]. They said it would finally establish some specific rules within their overlay … and give specific setbacks” that county staff could enforce.
Medred added, “I did an inventory and I was surprised at the number [of RVs] on vacant lots [in Pinecraft].”
Moreover, he continued, the Steering Committee members had told him they would work to ensure visitors and residents abide by the provisions of the ordinance.
Medred was the first to suggest that the commissioners could try the changes on a temporary basis — perhaps 12 to 18 months — and then rescind the ordinance if abuses proved rampant.
“Put everybody on notice today,” Medred urged them.
David Swartzentruber, a member of the Pinecraft Steering Committee, also supported the pilot program concept. Still, he said, “I think once this is implemented … there will be overall less motor homes there, or campers, than what is there now.”
Commissioner Maio told him that if the ordinance won approval, “It’s on you all to make sure that this doesn’t get out of hand. Is that understood?”
“Yes,” Swartzentruber replied.
Another steering committee member, Ola R. Yoder, talked, too, about Pinecraft residents and visitors abusing the existing regulations. “This would at lest give us a little bit of discipline.”
Why make an exception for Pinecraft?
“There’s a lot of people throughout this county” who would like to have occupied RVs on residential lots, Commissioner Hines told Medred. “Put in the record, please, why this is unique to Pinecraft, not just the size of the district,” Hines added, so he could tell other constituents, “‘We do look at this community differently from yours.’”
“They’re a close-knit community,” Medred said of Pinecraft residents. People want to be close to friends and relatives who come to visit during tourist season, Medred added. “As a whole, they are more tolerant of each other in the Pinecraft community.”
Hines posed similar questions to Fred Hershberger, a member of the Pinecraft Steering Committee.
His understanding, Hines pointed out, was that Pinecraft residents were “pushing away from technology, pushing away [from] the driving. … Here, you’re asking for a special exception to bring in motor vehicles with televisions and all the technology that goes with [them]. … How do RVs fit in a unique culture that is different than our overall community? It seems to me like [this is] going away from that culture.”
The residents of Pinecraft represent many different churches and faiths, Hershberger replied. “The more liberal ones are the ones that are bringing the RVs in, obviously. But it’s still all one culture, more or less, with different standards.”
The opposing viewpoint
The second speaker to address the commission during the hearing was Carolyn Fitzpatrick, who spoke on behalf of the Village Green Section 12 Condominium Association.
“To some degree, she began, “I feel as though we are standing in front of a tsunami with no high ground to flee to.”
Already, she said, the occupied RVs in Pinecraft are making the community unsightly during tourist season.
She then thanked the board members for their decision last year to implement specific rules for golf cart use in the overlay district. “That is definitely a step in the right direction.”
Fitzpatrick proceeded to tell the commissioners she wished they could do something about children in carts towed behind bicycles “[who are] not strapped in and chancing flipping out on Beneva Road in front of a line of traffic — which, of course, is always going to get worse over time.”
She stressed that the number of vehicles moving through Pinecraft has continued to increase over the years. “The backups of traffic at Beneva Road and Bahia Vista [Street] are absolutely impossible. … I don’t see how adding a 40% increase in density in the high season of Sarasota is going to [ameliorate that problem].”
“We love the Pinecraft community,” she told the board members, “but I feel that [its residents’] tolerance of us is lessening, and they’re not giving due consideration for the greatest good for the greatest number [of people] around them.”
A second speaker, John Morris, told the commissioners, “I’m afraid that your plan is putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.” Numerous motor homes in Pinecraft are “already hooked up to sewer and electric [service illegally]. … It’s just not right.”
He also concurred with Fitzpatrick about the dangers to children because of their lack of protection in conveyances moving so close to motor vehicle traffic. He referred to people on bicycles “with little kids in their arms,” as well.
Referring to the Amish and Mennonites in the community, Morris added, “It seems like they have a steady thing of being above the law, to an extent.”