County Commission approves the project at Honore Avenue and University Parkway on a 4-1 vote
For a 4.5-acre area on University Parkway that Sarasota County staff has called a rare piece of wetlands, it came down to a matter of allowing infill, with mitigation about 6 miles away, or preservation, and infill won.
A 4-1 Sarasota County Commission vote on Jan. 26 almost literally will pave the way for a second Whole Foods in the community, which will be joined by a Wawa, other retail space and possibly a Zoes Kitchen restaurant near the intersection of University Parkway and Honore Avenue.
Vice Chair Charles Hines cast the “No” vote, citing what he called “the potential domino effect on other areas that we have protected …” He added, “This is a good location for [a Whole Foods store], except there’s a wetland right on it,” and staff testimony had shown that wetland “still has value; it still has use.”
Moreover, Hines told his colleagues, if the store intended for the site was a Walmart, he wondered whether county residents would have been as enthusiastic in their support of the project.
On the other side of the issue, Commissioner Christine Robinson pointed out, “We want to encourage urban infill for the preservation of large spaces.” She regularly drives by that open parcel on University Parkway where the new Whole Foods store will be constructed, she said, and “It’s baffled me as to why that hasn’t been [developed].”
While the project will destroy the wetlands, she noted, “Forty-one acres in the watershed will certainly benefit the region, including Sarasota County.”
Robinson was referring to the mitigation plan outlined by members of the Whole Foods team: They characterized the acreage as a “doughnut hole” in the middle of the Rye Preserve in Manatee County, which Whole Foods will donate to Manatee County.
Robinson added, “My decision is not at all based on the end user.”
Jeff Garrison of S.J. Collins Enterprises in Fairburn, GA, a member of the development team, told the commissioners that Whole Foods has signed a 20-year lease for the 8.24-acre property encompassing the wetlands on University Parkway and plans to open its new store in the summer of 2017. The firm will hire 140 employees to work there, offering an average salary of $40,000 per year, he said.
Nonetheless, Hines asked attorney Charlie Bailey of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota — another representative of the development group — whether staff was accurate in saying nothing legally binds Whole Foods to the site. “Correct,” Bailey replied, adding, however, that the businesses there “will be Whole Foods and Wawa.”
The site and the Comprehensive Plan
During his presentation, county planner Jack Wilhelm explained that the development team was seeking a Small Area Comprehensive Plan Amendment for the property at 5901 and 5911 Honore Ave. in Sarasota and a rezoning of the site at University Parkway and Honore Avenue.
In regard to the rezoning, Wilhelm explained that the 8.24-acre parcel contained pine flatwoods and forested wetlands. The site previously was rezoned in 1997 and in 2006. The earlier action included a stipulation that the wetlands and buffer around it be preserved, he pointed out. The development would impact 100 percent of the wetlands, Wilhelm explained.
According to the staff report prepared for the Planning Commission’s review of the project on Dec. 17, 2015, the Whole Foods project encompasses a grocery story of 40,116 square feet; 11,811 square feet for a restaurant and neighborhood retail shops; and the 6,128-square-foot Wawa, for a total of 189,957 square feet.
Robert “Bo” Medred, president of Genesis Planning and Development in Sarasota — another member of the development team — said the Zoes Kitchen proposed as the restaurant would be making its debut in the community.
The environmental question
As he had explained to the county’s Planning Commission on Dec. 17, Matt Osterhoudt, senior manager in the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, told the board that under the guidelines of the county’s Comprehensive Plan, certain tests have to be applied in deciding whether to allow construction in a wetlands area.
Staff’s research on the University Parkway property, going back decades, showed no degradation of the wetlands, Osterhoudt said. In examining the road construction and other development that has taken place in that corridor, he continued, “We just have not found any impacts. … This particular wetlands seems to be functioning as designed in the context of an urban landscape.”
Therefore, Osterhoudt explained, in the view of county staff, the property does not meet the standard required by the Comprehensive Plan to allow for the destruction of wetlands. Reasonable use of the entire piece of property has been achieved, he noted, as a result of the earlier rezoning initiatives and development.
Wilhelm also pointed out that the area surrounded by the Rye Preserve where the Whole Foods team plans mitigation “does not provide any substantial connectivity [to wildlife corridors] in Sarasota County.”
However, Dana West, senior vice president of Environmental & Technological Consulting (ETC) of Sarasota, told the board — on behalf of Whole Foods — that the the Southwest Florida Water Management District already has provided the team with the necessary permit for the mitigation plan. Further, he said, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed its review of the proposal and has indicated it will issue its permit within two to three weeks.
During the public comments portion of the hearing, Geraldine Swormstedt, who identified herself as a representative of the Sierra Club for Sarasota and Manatee counties, urged the board to preserve the wetlands. While it seems like a small area, she noted, “there is death by 1,000 stabs.”
Too much of the surrounding property already is paved, she added.
Larry Grossman of Longboat Key agreed with her.
However, Alice Womble, who has lived with her husband for almost 30 years on property adjacent to the project site, said of the wetlands, “We don’t have the animals that we used to, or the birds.” By allowing construction of the roadways and the Sarasota Memorial Hospital complex in that same area, she added, “You’ve already damaged the wetlands.”
Dan Lobeck of Control Growth Now pointed out that the county has no plans for road expansion in the area within the next five years, “so this intersection is going to be gridlocked.”
Several other speakers — including Mary Dougherty Slapp of the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange — voiced support of the project. Dougherty Slapp noted that Whole Foods is known for employing local contractors for its projects.
Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department, applauded the mitigation plan, saying “It serves as a great example of two counties working together.”
Discussion and a vote
After the presentations, Vice Chair Hines raised the issue of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) facility near the project site, asking Osterhoudt what the SMH team had had to preserve to proceed with its construction.
To the east of the SMH site is a largely forested area of wetlands, Osterhoudt replied.
Then Robinson asked Wilhelm to put up county maps created to show long-range county plans for the University Parkway site. “It is designated for a very intense use,” she noted.
Referring to the earlier rezoning history, Wilhelm responded that the plans originated in the mid-1990s in conjunction with projections for University Parkway corridor development.
As the board prepared to vote, Robinson pointed out, “We can talk about the principles of growth in general terms and then the practical applications of them; they collide in big ways.” The Whole Foods project, she said, “makes sense to me on more than one level.”
Robinson made the motion to approve the Small Area Plan Amendment to the Comprehensive Plan and the rezoning. Commissioner Carolyn Mason seconded it. With Hines in the minority, the motion passed 4-1.