Commissioner Nancy Detert proposes that the county remove from its surplus list property it owns near the park, including a parcel the applicant has sought to purchase
Three motions; approximately five-and-three-quarters hours of public comments; 73 speakers (out of 81 who submitted signed cards asking to address the board); and two extra rooms accommodating all the audience members who could not fit into the County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota.
On Aug. 23, what Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo acknowledged he had been dreading played out between 9:10 a.m. and 6:56 p.m.: a public hearing on petitions submitted by TST Ventures LLC that would enable it to construct a recycling facility for construction and demolition material, as well as yard waste. A waste transfer station — for which TST Ventures won county approval in 2015 — also would be part of the project on a 16-acre site at Palmer Boulevard, Apex Road and Porter Road, close to the county’s internationally known Celery Fields park and stormwater area.
As the board neared its 3-2 vote to deny the petitions, Caragiulo pointed to the “remarkably sensible and substantive discussion” that had transpired over the day.
For months, a group called Save Our Celery Fields had gathered thousands of signatures on petitions, organized rallies and communicated with the commissioners to fight the proposed project. Speakers on Aug. 23 pointed out that the county has invested between $25 million and $30 million in the Celery Fields — a figure county spokesman Drew Winchester confirmed on Aug 24 for The Sarasota News Leader.
In 1994, the county bought 303 acres encompassing what is now the park and the property at the heart of the TST Ventures’ proposal, county Planner Kirk Crane explained. Since then, numerous speakers told the board, the Celery Fields has become a major draw for bird-watchers because of the vast number of migratory species that appear there each year. Additionally, neighborhood leaders testified, more than a dozen subdivisions have sprung up in the immediate vicinity, with hundreds more homes planned.
In spite of several last-minute stipulations James Gabbert of Sarasota, president of TST Ventures, offered to the board — to make the project more palatable to the public — Caragiulo and Commissioners Charles Hines and Nancy Detert said they could not support it.
“This is a risky thing for me,” Caragiulo said. “It’s just a question of comfort. … The problem is … once it gets out there, it can’t be undone.”
“I’m a big property rights guy,” Caragiulo added. Nonetheless, he continued, “I don’t think [the project] squares with what an evolved vision of that area is.”
TST Ventures had made an offer on 10 county acres — what staff refers to as one of the county’s “Quad” properties — near the Celery Fields, with plans to combine that and 4.3 acres TST Ventures already owned, so Gabbert could construct the recycling facility. The county property is zoned Open Use Rural, which limits it to one dwelling unit per acre, county Planner Kirk Crane said.
Among its petitions, TST Ventures wanted to amend a Critical Area Plan (CAP) governing the property, so the entire project site could be designated Light Industrial.
Crane explained that the site has been labeled on county future land use maps as a Major Employment Center (MEC).
“If we continue to try to sell the property,” Detert pointed out of the county’s 42 total surplus acres near the Celery Fields — including the land Gabbert sought to buy — “then we’re going to have these meetings often. … I wish we’d be more clear about identifying land that we will approve [for a recycling facility]. Part of our job as county commissioners,” she told her colleagues, “is that we can design the best community that we can design. Everything’s changed out there [in the proposed project area] because of the Celery Fields. … We should take [the county land] off of the surplus list and, frankly, use it to [enhance the Celery Fields] …”
At one point, Detert asked Lin Kurant, manager of the county’s Real Estate Services Division, whether it ever occurred to Kurant that, given the growth in popularity of the Celery Fields, that the property should be taken off the surplus list.
“No,” Kurant replied, because a previous County Commission directed her to put it out for bid.
Among his other concerns, Caragiulo referenced Gabbert’s final proffers — as well as an updated traffic study the project team submitted to county staff on Monday morning: “Dumping loads of information [at the] last minute is not something that fills someone like me with confidence.” Moreover, Caragiulo continued, “that doesn’t help people have confidence in government. I don’t want anything to do with something that doesn’t give people confidence in government.”
After Detert made a motion to deny the CAP amendment, it failed for lack of a second. Commissioner Michael Moran subsequently made a motion to approve that amendment.
“What keeps me grounded when you have an emotional debate on a topic,” Moran said, is “focusing on fact-based testimony.” In his years of service on the county’s Planning Commission and his time on the County Commission, Moran added, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such misinformation, exaggerations … and erroneous input coming into a hearing.”
Commissioner Alan Maio seconded Moran’s motion.
After he and his wife moved into their house 24 years ago, Maio said, the county expanded the Knights Trail Pistol and Rifle Range, which is “less than 2 miles from my house,” the state “put a third lane on I-75, [the county] built two lanes of Honore [Avenue] even closer than Interstate 75, and you all are fortunate to have a gigantic, state-of-the-art landfill” only 3 or 4 miles from his house. “We all face this,” Maio added. “There’s no hard hearts here,” he stressed.
“This is a good business. It’s a needed business,” Hines said. “To me, it’s the location [that is a concern].”
When Hines asked the TST Ventures project team members to explain why they felt the Palmer Boulevard location was the best, Bill Merrill III, a land-use attorney with the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota, replied, “We have demonstrated so far … that … we’re offering 950 feet of buffer from us to the Celery Fields.” That is almost twice as much as the 500 feet required in a Village development as part of the county’s 2050 Plan for residential construction projects east of I-75, Merrill added. Referring to Gabbert, Merrill continued, “He’s wiped out dust. … It’s a non-issue. The noise is drowned out by I-75. It’s less decibel meters than I-75. … This has no impact whatsoever on the Celery Fields, despite the political and anecdotal information that you have received otherwise.”
However, when Caragiulo called for the vote, Moran and Maio were in the minority. Complying with a recommendation by Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy, Detert made a formal motion of denial on all three TST Ventures petitions. Then Caragiulo and Hines joined her in approving it.
Early on in the project team presentation, Robert “Bo” Medred of Genesis Planning in Bradenton talked about a 1993 memo regarding the county’s purchase of the acreage to create the Celery Fields stormwater management project. That memo says the county could sell the 42 acres it did not need for stormwater purposes and get a return greater than its purchase price, “based on growth and development of industrial sites along I-75,” Medred read.
When Caragiulo asked whether the Major Employment Center (MEC) designation for that area existed at that time, Medred responded that the designation dates to 1981.
“When we’re reviewing these applications,” Caragiulo said later, “we have discretion to … decide what might or might not be appropriate and/or good to do in a specific area, and it doesn’t necessarily come down to what somebody said in 1993.”
“I think that the area has changed so dramatically,” Detert concurred. In 1993, she continued, she would have approved the plan for the recycling facility. “Every town has an area where you send your junk businesses to. [In 1993, this property] was so far out, nobody thought about it.”
Referring to Gabbert, she said, “I think he is an honorable businessman. I think he’s being unnecessarily vilified for trying to do the business that he does, [but] I think Mr. Gabbert missed the market.”
“I never thought or intended [for this piece of county property to] be a passive use or a park,” Hines said of the county land Gabbert sought to buy for the facility. “I fully supported this piece being surplused and sold. It clearly fits in [with the surrounding Industrial Light Warehouse zoning uses].”
However, Hines continued, the only petition from TST Ventures that the board could address from the standpoint of traffic concerns was the request to amend the CAP.
In response to questioning from Caragiulo, Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, confirmed Hines’ remark. However, she pointed out, “those land uses [under the existing CAP] would actually generate more traffic than what [the TST Ventures team is] proposing …” Still, she continued, the traffic flow on the affected segment of Palmer Boulevard “most likely will never meet the adopted [level of service],” because the segment is so short.
“Any use will provide the environment for the road to continue to fail?” Caragiulo sought clarification.
That is correct, she said, because any use of the property is going to generate more traffic.
Trying to make it work
After the public comments ended, Gabbert offered his new stipulations in response to testimony. First, he said, “I think we could come to a way where there could be an air-quality monitoring system at the edge of the Celery Fields,” with a third party handling the data collection. He would agree to have the system checked on a monthly basis during the first year of the recycling facility’s operations, he added, and then quarterly thereafter.
Second, he would be willing to modify an earlier stipulation to reduce the height of stockpiled material from 35 feet to 20 feet. He also pointed out that if an alert indicated a major storm could threaten Sarasota County, protocol called for his employees to reduce the height of all stockpiles to 3 to 4 feet.
Third, Gabbert said he would be willing to put a cover over the waste transfer facility on the site. “But it is virtually impossible,” he added, to handle the bulk crushing of concrete in an enclosed facility.
In response to concerns Hines raised, Gabbert added that he also would stipulate for the record that no materials would be processed on the site except between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
When Commissioner Maio asked whether Gabbert had worked with the Office of the County Attorney on the language for those stipulations, Gabbert replied that he had not.
Then Commissioner Moran asked Deputy County Attorney Roddy if he would like some suggestions on the wording.
“I would probably like some more staff input on what they think would be workable,” Roddy responded.
“I would think, before we put the staff to more trouble and delay the proceedings … that we take a vote on if those stipulations are even acceptable to us,” Commissioner Detert said. “I applaud you for trying,” she told Gabbert, “but I don’t think those stipulations solve the problem.”
Other points of inquiry
During his part of the presentation, Bo Medred explained that a recycling facility must be on a minimum of 15 acres, under the county’s zoning regulations, and it has to be at least 1,000 feet from any residentially zoned property. The TST Ventures site, he continued, would be 950 feet from the Celery Fields. The closest neighborhood to the project site, on Palmer Boulevard, is more than three-quarters of a mile away, he added. No residences would be within half-a-mile of the recycling facility, Medred added.
Early on in the presentation, Commissioner Maio said to Gabbert, “Jim, I’m going to ask you a direct question, and I expect you to look me in the eye. I buried my mother, who died of complications of asthma. I have had it my entire life. People have heard me choking up here.”
Maio added that his three children have had asthma, and the two in their 40s still are dealing with problems; all four of his grandchildren have had asthma. “Are you doing anything that’s going to hurt my family when we visit the Celery Fields?” Maio asked.
“No, sir,” Gabbert responded, prompting laughter among the audience members, leading Caragiulo to chastise the offenders.
“I’ve processed concrete since 1990,” Gabbert then continued. “I’ve had my children on the picking line. They’ve worked within the facility the whole time. … I’ve never had an employee that’s had any … respiratory issues or any of that.”
Gabbert added that he always has used best practices for his recycling operations, noting, “Our dust control system is comprehensive.”
Hines asked why Gabbert’s proposal did not call for the operations to be enclosed. “Obviously, it’s going to cost more,” Hines pointed out. Other than that, Hines said, why would Gabbert forgo that option?
Medred explained that prior to a county zoning code update in 2003, a recycling facility could be located on just 10 acres — with approval of a special exception petition — and the operations did not have to be completely enclosed. When the TST Ventures team asked county staff why the change was made in 2003 to require the enclosure of recycling operations, Medred pointed out, staff had no explanation.
Then Gabbert told Hines that customers with yard waste could bring to the proposed facility a range of materials — from bags in their cars to 40-foot pine trees with stumps. “They have to unload the material,” Gabbert added. Having them do that inside a building with the processing machines creates safety hazards, he said.
Caragiulo followed up later on the zoning change, asking for verification from Medred that the TST Ventures team won approval last year for a county zoning text amendment that would enable a recycling facility to operate without being enclosed. Medred acknowledged that the amendment was not approved until December 2016, but TST Ventures submitted its application for its project in November 2016.
From dust to least bitterns
The speakers who addressed the board over close to six hours talked of many concerns with the TST Ventures proposal — from the potential of respiratory problems to the marring of the Celery Fields as an international attraction.
Among those who stepped to the podium were past Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell, who said she was going to make her remarks “personal, passionate and about family.”
Noting her own affinity for the park, she also talked of the affection her stepdaughter and her stepdaughter’s husband have for the Celery Fields. They are veterinarians who live in Wisconsin, and they are “extreme birders,” cyclists and marathoners, Atwell pointed out. “Each time they visit us, first on their list is heading to the Celery Fields.”
When the couple visited Sarasota in May, Atwell continued, they came back to her home after their initial day at the park with a list of all the birds they had seen; Atwell read it. Among the species were varieties of herons, egrets and ibis, a purple martin and a least bittern.
“Quite frankly,” she said, “I’m blown away by this. … To me, anything that puts this plethora of fauna and/or flora at the Celery Fields at risk is of great concern.”
Another former city commissioner, Susan Chapman, told the commissioners she has been a practicing attorney for 40 years, she served as a Code Enforcement special magistrate for 16 years and she was on the city’s Planning Board for five years. “I feel that the applicant has not met the burden of producing competent substantial evidence,” she added.
As for the property being part of a Major Employment Center, she noted that when that designation was bestowed, “it was an agricultural area, and it is not an agricultural area anymore.”
Adrien Lucas, one of the leaders of Save Our Celery Fields, referred in her public comments to “this year’s mantra”: The county’s zoning regulations, as provided for in the code, are “for the purpose of promoting the public health, safety and general welfare of the citizens of Sarasota County.”
On the opposing side, Angela Walker talked of her long association with Gabbert as one of his employees at the Knights Trail Road recycling plant he established in Nokomis. She went back to work for him a second time after she had a baby with special needs, and he let her bring her son to the plant with her, Walker pointed out — “an immune-compromised infant, highly susceptible to respiratory illness.” He is 13 now, Walker said, and he has had no problems from all the time he spent with her at the facility. “None of the people [who worked there] have ever suffered any ill effects [from exposure to the materials],” she added.
Bob Waechter, a past chair of the Sarasota County Republican Party, pointed to all the misinformation that had been spread about the TST Ventures proposal — from assertions that the facility would poison the groundwater and air, to statements that it would overburden the road network.
“I’m the closest neighbor to the proposed project,” Waechter said. “I share a common boundary across the drainage canal. If I believed for one second that this project would cause me harm, I would oppose it. I don’t, and it won’t.”
When Commissioner Detert asked for clarification about his neighboring property, Waechter said it is in the industrial park. “Your Barcalounger, your TV, they’re not at that location?”
“I don’t have a Barcalounger and my TV is not at that location,” he replied, acknowledging that the property was not the site of his residence.