County Commission to conduct hearing on proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment on Sept. 23
On June 20, 2019, Sarasota County Planning Commissioner Colin Pember made the motion to recommend the County Commission deny a proposal by a group of residents in the eastern part of the county seeking to put a stop to more intensified development in their area.
Almost exactly a year and two months later, Pember — now the vice chair of the Planning Commission — made a similar motion following another public hearing that was slightly longer than the one in June 2019. In both cases, he won unanimous support of his colleagues.
Led by Becky Ayech, the Miakka Community Club in 2019 used a section of the County Code that allows citizens to seek publicly initiated amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The group’s goal, Ayech has explained, is to retain the rural character of 6,000 acres in the northwest quadrant of the intersection of Verna Road and Fruitville Road. This section, near the Old Miakka community, includes wetlands and wildlife corridors, both county staff members and the applicants say.
Last year, Ayech and her supporters were working to counter a privately initiated Comprehensive Plan amendment that sought to double the density in the affected area. Since then, the sale of that property has put the other process on hold, county Planner Vivian Drawneek pointed out during the Aug. 20 Planning Commission hearing.
Yet, while the Planning Commission members opposed the Miakka Community Club proposal in 2019, a split County Commission agreed to let staff proceed with an analysis of it. County Commissioner Nancy Detert led that charge on Sept. 11, 2019. At the time, Commissioner Michael Moran — who was seeking, and continues to seek, re-election to his District 1 seat — and Commissioner Christian Ziegler joined Detert in her motion.
On Aug. 20, near the conclusion of the approximately two-hour-and-10 minute, second hearing on the Miakka Community Club’s proposal, Planning Commission Kevin Cooper offered the view that, perhaps, instead of pursuing the creation of the 2050 Plan that guides development east of Interstate 75, county leaders could have opted for incremental adjustments to the Urban Service Boundary (USB). (The Urban Service Boundary, county planning staff has explained, generally is the line of demarcation for development, with the areas west of the line having become urban and the land east of it considered to be rural.)
“If that had been the case,” Cooper said, “it is highly unlikely that we would have been here talking about these properties,” referring to the 6,000 acres at the heart of the Miakka Community Club’s initiative.
He also pointed out that when the 2050 Plan was being crafted 19 years ago, he doubted anyone on county staff would have expected a discussion about the future of the easternmost boundaries of the 2050 lands would be underway in 2020, 30 years early.
“I feel like there’s some merit,” Cooper continued, to the 6,000 acres not being part of the 2050 Plan. “It’s a tough spot.”
Nonetheless, Cooper said he could not support a recommendation that the County Commission approve the Miakka Community Club’s Comprehensive Plan amendment, as that also likely would result in the county’s being sued over the allegation that it had “taken” private property rights.
One attorney that night — William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota — threatened such litigation if the amendment were to be approved. He noted that his firm represents entities that own more than 5,000 of the 6,000 acres.
The proposed amendment, Merrill said, “allows a small group of citizens to down-zone my clients’ private property and greatly diminish its value by cutting its potential density in half. … This small group has hijacked the county’s planning process.”
“Make no mistake,” Merrill continued: If the amendment were to be approved, it would be a violation of private property rights enshrined in both the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution. Thus, it would result in litigation under the state’s Bert Harris Act, which governs government’s “taking” of private property. The county, he added, would “pay dearly …”
The ‘taking’ of private property
During the Aug. 20 hearing, Cooper asked Assistant County Attorney Josh Moye, who advises the Planning Commission, about Merrill’s — and other speakers’ — assertions in regard to the Harris Act.
That law, Moye explained, applies to cases in which a property owner is unable to get what the owner reasonably expected as a return on investment in the land. Generally, Moye pointed out, the law comes into play in a situation when a parcel has been rezoned to allow for development. Moye added that he believed it would be “a little harder” for someone to bring suit against the county under the Bert Harris Act if the action were based on passage of a Comprehensive Plan amendment. “However,” Moye said, his opinion did not mean the county would avoid lawsuits if the Miakka Community Club amendment were approved.
Following Cooper’s remarks, Planning Commissioner Justin Taylor added of the potential of passage of the proposed amendment, “I would be very afraid about the dangerous precedent that this would set going forward.”
Reprising comments he made in 2019, Vice Chair Pember said, “2050 is not perfect; however, it’s superior to this amendment. Without doubt, this is bad planning. It seeks to degrade and dismantle 2050, which the county spent substantial money, time and resources on.”
He also noted the fact that the County Code allows a minimum of 20 signatures of citizens to propose such a publicly initiated amendment. “I could go to Publix and in 5 minutes easily get 20 signatures. … Twenty signatures are insufficient when the intent is to strip away private property rights of an individual …”
He also called for a modification to the County Code to prevent any future attempt to start such a process as the one before the board that night.
Planning Commissioner Teresa Mast said that she learned through research that that part of the County Code — Section 95-84 — was approved in 1998, prior to implementation of the 2050 Plan. She added that she also understood that the owners of the 6,000 acres purchased those parcels on the basis of the provisions in the 2050 Plan.
Following the board members’ comments, they voted unanimously to approve Pember’s motion recommending denial of the proposed amendment
The County Commission is scheduled to conduct its hearing on the initiative on Sept. 23, Planner Drawneek said.
A fight to maintain a way of life
In her presentation at the outset of the public hearing, Drawneek explained that the goal of the 2050 Plan is to allow for growth in residential developments while protecting open space and environmentally sensitive areas of the eastern part of the county.
The 2050 Plan’s intent is for the 6,000 acres at Fruitville and Verna roads to be developed into Hamlets, she noted. That would allow for the following: construction of 0.4 dwelling units per acre; clusters of homes surrounded by open space; 60% of the project’s remaining permanent open space; and a 500-foot-wide Greenbelt surrounding the developed area, to facilitate wildlife’s transit of the land after homes were constructed.
During public comments, Mike Hutchinson — whom Commissioner Moran defeated in the Republican Primary for the District 1 seat — pointed out that, as a result of a 2016 modification of the 2050 Plan, if Hamlets are built side-by-side, each does not have to have a 500-foot Greenbelt. “They only need 50 [feet].” Therefore, he continued, “You have side-by-side subdivisions.”
Drawneek also noted that the proposed amendment calls for the 6,000 acres to be maintained with Rural Heritage/Estate zoning, which has density of one unit for every 5 acres. The lot coverage could be no more than 20%, and the open space could be used for barns, sheds and storage of recreational vehicles, for example.
The amendment would reduce the number of allowable residential units by 1,200, she pointed out.
The three primary tenets of 2050, Drawneek said, are open space, New Urbanism (walkable communities), and fiscal neutrality. In regard to the latter, she explained, the developments would not have to be on central water and sewer systems; instead, less expensive septic systems would be permitted.
“The rural lifestyle would be compatible with that surrounding area,” including Old Miakka, she added. However, Hamlets also would be compatible with that area, she noted.
If the 6,000 acres were maintained as Rural Heritage/Estate, Drawneek stressed, the county would lose “the ability to master-plan and permanently protect areas” for wildlife corridors and environmental purposes.
Thus, Drawneek said, staff recommended denial of the proposed amendment.
However, many of the Aug. 20 speakers in support of the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment cited their desire for maintaining a rural way of life that allows them to enjoy wide-open spaces and an abundance of wildlife.
Becky Ayech called the effort “the chance to preserve a historic rural community that dates back 170 years.”
She also noted long-range county planning efforts that took place in 1994 in regard to the 6,000 acres focused on only about 18% of the property being developed. Animals have been traversing the land without a problem for years, she said.
Further, referring to one of Drawneek’s statements, Ayech added, “I respectfully disagree: One unit per 5 acres can be master-planned just like one unit per acre can be master-planned.”
As for the 2050 tenet of making open space permanent: Ayech said the County Commission’s approval of the Foxfire community several years ago eliminated a golf course that had been designated as permanent open space for a development. “So how can you permanently — permanently — protect this open space [on the 6,000 acres]?”
Paula Benshoff stressed the value of the shallow wetlands located on the 6,000 acres, which, she said, perform “very important ecological functions,” including improving water quality. Benshoff emphasized, “Load after load of fill” would be necessary before any construction of homes could begin.
Moreover, supporting of one of Ayech’s statements, Benshoff pointed out that the low-density housing already in the area enables wildlife such as bears, panthers, bobcats and sandhill cranes to continue using the existing pastureland as corridors.
The 2,400 homes the county planning staff would allow on the property under the 2050 Plan “is urban sprawl,” Ayech said. “That is like the worst thing that you can do in planning.”
Referring to Old Miakka, she added, “We are a community and a neighborhood, not an investment portfolio.”
Another speaker, Chris Bales, told the commissioners, “We should not diminish the rural landscape and quality of life to satisfy the demand for housing.”
“All of this [proposed] urban sprawl seems to be for the benefit and the profit of the developers,” Gary Dahl told the board. “They are hell-bent on developing every square mile of this county.”
“It is our rights … that will be taken away if these builders go ahead and do whatever they want,” Brad Grandbouche added.
Jono Miller, retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College, reminded the board members that citizens twice have approved a special tax that generates revenue the county uses to purchase environmentally sensitive lands. The county needs a policy to protect the rural lifestyle, he added. Too often, Miller continued, the county “creates new development rights out of thin air.”
On the other side of the issue with Merrill of Icard Merrill, homebuilder John Cannon told the Planning Commission he is “vehemently opposed” to the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, noting that his company owns about 300 of the 6,000 acres.
Approval of the measure, Cannon said, “would strip me of existing property rights that I have relied on for many years.”
Moreover, he added, “As a taxpayer, I am also disappointed that I had to help pay for this attempted larceny.”