County policy change to allow Lee Wetherington Homes to build a corporate headquarters outside Urban Service Area Boundary

County planning staff and area residents voice support for a Comprehensive Plan change with restrictive criteria

Editor’s note: This article was updated late on the morning of March 23 to clarify the action the County Commission took.

A graphic shows the site planned for the new office building. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On the recommendations of staff and their Planning Commission — along with support of people who live adjacent to the site at the heart of the request — the Sarasota County commissioners have voted unanimously to approve a policy change to allow the construction of an office building outside the Urban Service Area Boundary on Fruitville Road.

The March 14 action necessitated a super-majority vote, as stipulated in the Sarasota County Charter.

The action will enable Lee Wetherington Homes to build a 15,000-square-foot, two-story office building to serve as its new corporate headquarters. The structure will be across from the Sun N Fun RV Resort, which is located at 7125 Fruitville Road.

Officially, with their vote, the commissioners approved a Small Area Comprehensive Plan amendment, which modifies Future Land Use Policy 3.1.2 and the county’s Future Land Use map designation for the 1.88-acre parcel in the southwest quadrant of Fruitville Road and Shannon Road. The new designation is Light Office; the former one was Semi-Rural.

Additionally, in a separate vote, the commissioners agreed unanimously to rezone the Wetherington parcel from Open Use Estate-1 to Office, Professional and Institutional.

“The area within the Urban Service Area Boundary [is] where the County has planned, or is in the process of planning, for the facilities needed to support development including roads, sewage collection and water transmission lines, stormwater management facilities, schools and public libraries,” the Comprehensive Plan says.

A graphic shows developments near the location of the planned Lee Wetherington Homes corporate office (the yellow square outlined in red) on Fruitville Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Representing Lee Wetherington Homes, Shawn Dressler, a planner and landscape architect with consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc. of Sarasota, explained that the project team “took a long time developing the criteria” a developer would have to meet to be able to gain approval of any other light office projects outside of the Urban Service Area Boundary.

Those criteria are as follows:

  • The proposed use shall have frontage along a 4- to -6-lane major arterial roadway as classified on the Sarasota 2040 Future Thoroughfare Plan.
  • It shall be located “within a corridor where more than 50% of the existing parcels within 1,000 feet of the subject parcel,” as measured along the 4- to 6-lane major arterial roadway, are

non-residential uses;

  • It shall be located within a corridor where adequate infrastructure is available to serve the subject property.

Fruitville Road is “starting to function as an urban infill corridor,” Dressler pointed out during the public hearing.

Nonetheless, the Wetherington Homes project team wanted to make certain that any development outside the Urban Service Area Boundary would be in keeping with the character of that section of the county, he added.

“I do believe the proposed [Comprehensive Plan] change would be compatible with the existing land use pattern … and future land uses” in that area,” Commissioner Michael Moran said in making the motion for approval of the amendment.

Commissioner Alan Maio seconded the motion, noting that the people who live next to the site for the project “seem to feel comfortable with this. I think that says a lot.”

A graphic shows the site of the proposed office building (in yellow) in the vicinity of other development on Fruitville Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

One of the residents who spoke during the public hearing, Mary Beth Humphreys, told the board members, “The direction of this corridor is headed toward commercial. … The office use does fit …”

Furthermore, Humphreys urged them to follow through with a Planning Commission recommendation. That was for a planning workshop to discuss a corridor plan for Fruitville Road, she noted. However, she cautioned, because of the number of special exceptions already approved for projects in that area, “we may be too late to go back and look at this.”

Humphreys pointed out that she has been a member of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department staff for more than 29 years. She has been a professional planner in the department since November 2008, according to her LinkedIn account.

Details about the project

The sole goal of the Lee Wetherington Homes’ project, Dressler told the board, is to build a corporate office for the company, which has been renting space in Lakewood Ranch. “They’re ready to move permanently to Sarasota County.”

The facility also will make it possible for employees of the firm to work closer to sites where Wetherington Homes has construction underway, he added, resulting in “less vehicle miles our staff has to put on the road.”

Shawn Dressler. Image from his LinkedIn account

Additionally, Dressler pointed out, the building will encompass a showroom, where potential customers will be invited to look at features Lee Wetherington Homes offers. “[The structure] needs to be high-quality architecture,” he explained, if it is to demonstrate what people can expect of the company’s houses.

Dressler also noted Lee Wetherington’s charitable works in the community, as evidenced by a Boys & Girls Club that carries Wetherington’s name. In fact, Dressler told the board, Wetherington is far better known “in many circles” as a philanthropist instead of as a homebuilder.

In her presentation to the board, county Planner Vivian Roe, provided maps showing the variety of development within the immediate area of the site proposed for the corporate headquarters. Along with Sun N Fun, she said, they include the Southwest Florida Water Management District office, the Kimel Lumber and Hardware Store, Stottlemyer’s Smokehouse and Texaco Station, Fruitville Grove and Critter Ridge Landscape Contractors.

Additionally, during her public remarks, Humphreys noted that the County Commission has approved projects under the aegis of the Sarasota 2050 Plan that will bring about 10,000 new homes to the Fruitville Road corridor.

“The area has transitioned away from the typical semi-rural characteristics, which are large lots and agricultural-type uses,” Roe said.

When Commissioner Charles Hines asked whether the USAB had been moved at any time since the figurative line was included in the County Charter, Deputy County Attorney Alan Roddy responded that he remembered a legal challenge in 1996 that resulted in such action, leading to the development of the Fox Creek community. “I don’t know of another one.”

As for the site plan: Dressler explained that the property “does have a relatively high quality but small functional wetland … that we are preserving,” along with a “high-quality live oak in the middle of the site.” The 60 parking spaces will be located around that tree, he added.

The project was deemed to have a de minimis impact on traffic, he added, so county staff did not require a detailed transportation analysis.

“The biggest piece of infrastructure” in the area is Fruitville Road, he pointed out. Fire Station No. 10 is only 3 miles away, he continued.

The property has an on-site sewage treatment and disposal system, Roe noted. The only access into the property will be from Shannon Road, both Roe and Dressler said, but Dressler added that the company plans significant improvements to the right of way of Shannon Road.

Other public remarks

An engineering drawing shows plans for the site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the public hearing Ray Humphreys followed his wife to the podium, telling the commissioners he has lived on Shannon Road since 1961. “I want the building to go in there,” he said.

One other resident voiced support for the project, while another, Sharon Schlabach, conceded that the area is “going to change.” However, Schlabach, said, “I do object … strongly” to the access into the property being planned from Shannon Road.

“We don’t believe we’d be allowed to access [the property] off of Fruitville Road,” Dressler told the commissioners.

Only Glenna Blomquist spoke in opposition to the Comprehensive Plan amendment.

“The applicant seemed to make this a very benign case,” she said, “but I don’t think it is.”

Instead, Blomquist continued, she fears that the change in the Comprehensive Plan might lead to an expansion of activities in the area that the commissioners have prohibited.

Why should the Urban Service Area Boundary be changed for one individual? she asked.

After Moran made his motion to approve the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, he addressed Lee Wetherington, who was seated in the audience. “I truly appreciate your philanthropy in the community and your investment in our county very much,” Moran said.