With unanimous vote, County Commission approves land-use change to facilitate development of Hi Hat Ranch in eastern part of county

Representative of family that owns the property stresses that flexibility in planning will lead to greater preservation of environmentally sensitive land

This is a 2019 aerial view of Hi Hat Ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Just before they voted in full support of a Comprehensive Plan amendment regarding the development of the Hi Hat Ranch property between Fruitville and Clark roads, Sarasota County commissioners pushed back against numerous members of the public who urged them to deny the petition.

“This is the definition of long-term planning,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger told the audience after making the motion to approve the amendment. “This is essentially how planning should take place. Urban sprawl is unplanned encroachment into rural areas,” he continued.

“I’ve been somewhat frustrated,” Cutsinger added, by individuals testifying that the Comprehensive Plan amendment will fail to protect native habitat in the eastern part of the county. Cutsinger stressed that by supporting the amendment, the commissioners would ensure that 5,400 acres of native habitat would be preserved and maintained.

The amendment — formally CPA-2019-D — modifies the county’s designation of approximately 1,258 acres located in the northeastern section of Hi Hat Ranch from “Hamlet” to “Village.” The maximum density for a Village, as governed by the county’s 2050 Plan, is five dwelling units per acre, or six, if the additional units will be sold as affordable homes. The maximum density for a Hamlet is one dwelling unit per acre.

At a minimum, 60% of a Hamlet must be open space, the 2050 Plan zoning regulations say. For a Village, the minimum open space requirement is 50%, the County Code notes.

This graphic shows the 2050 Plan designations for Hi Hat Ranch prior to the adoption of the amendment on Sept. 8. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This graphic offers information about the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment, which was adopted this week. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Comprehensive Plan amendment also moves the county’s Countryside Line further east to include that affected portion of the ranch property, as explained in the county staff report for the Sept. 8 commission hearing.

The Countryside Line is the line of demarcation between areas of the county with appropriate infrastructure — such as roads and utility lines — to serve development and those areas without such services.

Jim Turner, whose family owns the approximately 9,960 acres of the ranch, emphasized during his Sept. 8 presentation that the change from Hamlet to Village for the northeastern segment of the property is what will allow the preservation of the 5,400 acres.

This section of the staff report for the Sept. 8 public hearing offers more details about the Master Development Order for Hi Hat Ranch. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commission’s preservation of county land stressed

During his remarks, Commissioner Cutsinger also stressed that one-third of county land has been protected from development through county purchases or conservation easements.

Chair Alan Maio emphasized that point, as well, in addressing the audience. Voters approved an annual tax of 0.25 mills, Maio said, that raises between $6 million and $6.5 million per year; 60% of that is used to purchase environmentally sensitive lands, while the other 40% goes toward buying more parkland.

“It’s heartbreaking, what people say,” Maio added, referring to public comments that the commissioners are making no effort to save any of the county from development. Looking at the audience members, he continued, “One-third of your county is in public ownership and in conservation. That’s 185 square miles with 640 acres in a square mile. … This county is an absolutely great steward of its land.”

A graphic shows the location of Hi Hat Ranch in the eastern portion of the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Cutsinger also pointed out of Turner, “This petitioner is maintaining the 500-foot buffer [on Fruitville Road],” as called for in the county’s 2050 Plan for development east of Interstate 75. “I believe he’s the first petitioner to do so,” Cutsinger added. Cutsinger was referring to the setback for the developed portion of property from the affected road. Other developers have sought board approval to reduce that buffer, he added.

Years of planning have gone into this,” he emphasized of the Hi Hat proposal.

Additionally, Cutsinger pointed out, the change from Hamlet to Village will not increase the number of dwelling units that can be built on the ranch.

During his presentation, Turner told the board that, following “extensive meetings” that he and his consultant conducted with county staff about Hi Hat, “Staff came to us and said, looking at this property in its entirety, it may be appropriate [to change that Hamlet designation to Village], so we can plan this all together.”

Cutsinger also admonished audience members for expressing opposition that day to the Master Development Order for the property, reminding them that the commissioners approved that after a June 9 public hearing.

A graphic shows the areas reserved for open space and greenways as Hi Hat Ranch is developed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When the Turner family is ready for development to begin, Cutsinger explained, staff and then the county’s Planning Commission and the County Commission will consider all of the facets of the rezoning petitions. The development proposals will be “very thoroughly vetted, and, yes, [the Turners] have to pay for the infrastructure,” Cutsinger stressed again. “They have to pay for the roads.”

All 16 of the affected roads will be considered, he added.

That build-out is anticipated to take 30 or 40 years, Turner said.

Commissioner Nancy Detert asked if Turner, “really, for the edification of the audience,” could give the board members “a little elevator speech … on the ownership of the property. … You’re not real estate developers that came from New York,” she said, seeking to “flip” the land if the commissioners approved the Comprehensive Plan amendment.

His grandfather bought the land in the early 1940s, Turner explained. The seller lost his only son during World War II, Turner added, and the seller realized that Turner’s grandfather valued the land as much as the seller did.

This is a slide that Jim Turner and Jim Paulmann of the Stantec consulting firm in Sarasota showed the commissioners on Sept. 8. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We’ve owned it ever since,” Turner pointed out. “My granddaughter’ll be the fifth generation of people that own this property.” He added that he expects her to remain involved in the development over the following decades.

Further, Turner stressed, “We are proud of the environmental care that we have taken of the property. Our northwest corner is the only land, I believe, in the county that’s designated Land of High Ecological Value,” and the amendment will preserve it.

Cutsinger made the motion to approve the Comprehensive Plan amendment, and Commissioner Michael Moran — in whose district the property is located — seconded the motion. It passed 5-0 at 5:02 p.m. on Sept. 8, a little more than two-and-a-half hours after the public hearing began.

Sticking to the rulebook

This graphic offers more details about the ranch and the planned development of it. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Altogether, The Sarasota News Leader counted 27 members of the public who addressed the commissioners during the hearing. Thirty-two had signed up to speak, Chair Maio announced at one point, but, as time ticked by, several left before being called to the podium.

The very first speaker, attorney Susan Schoettle-Gumm, also was the first to tell the board she is a member of the Miakka Community Club, which comprises residents in the far eastern part of the county.

She urged the commissioners to “stay with your adopted 2050 Plan,” and showed them a list of principles in that plan.

Referring to Turner, she pointed out that he analyzed those principles in the context of “his land, not in reference to the entire 2050 Plan,” in regard to the potential impacts on people living on the eastern side of the boundary for the Hamlet area of the ranch.

These are the principles that Susan Schoettle-Gumm showed the commissioners during her remarks. Image courtesy Sarasota County

If they approved the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that afternoon, Schoettle-Gumm continued, “The applicant gets a windfall,” but the public gains no benefit.

She had reviewed purchase prices for land in the Lake Park Estates development, she noted, which is designated a Hamlet. The average, Schoettle-Gumm noted, was $12,000 an acre. “Hi Hat’s Hamlet area at that price would be worth approximately $15 million.” If the switch to the Village designation won approval, she said, and that added another $10,000 to the price per acre, then “Hi Hat walks off with an instant increase in windfall of $12.5 million.”

This graphic in a 2015 demographics and growth report produced by Sarasota County staff shows the location of Lake Park Estates and other developments. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment provides no public benefits to compensate for the loss of additional buffering that the 2050 Plan requires for Hamlets, she pointed out.

When members of the Miakka Community Club appeared before the commissioners last year, Schoettle-Gumm said, to advocate for their own proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment to try to lower residential density in an area governed by the 2050 Plan, Chair Maio acknowledged “that the Hamlets were a compromise to try and lessen the impact of the Village development.”

That day, Commissioner Detert told the club members that as long as she and her colleagues “stuck to [their] own rulebook,” Schoettle-Gumm added, that was the best they could do.

“What we’re asking you today is to stick with your own rulebook,” Schoettle-Gumm said.

Yet another Miakka Community Club member, Paige Farr, told the board members, “When a government is reliable, people can make long-term planning in the community — one key to a successful local economy.”

Becky Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club, talked of having participated in all of the workshops and hearings that were conducted during the development of the 2050 Plan. “Not once did I hear Hi Hat Ranch object [to the Hamlet designation for that part of the property],” she stressed.

Becky Ayech addresses the Planning Commission on June 20, 2019. File photo

“There are promises that have been told to us throughout decades,” she stressed. “These are promises that we used to purchase our property, our major investment. … These promises should be kept to us,” she added, unless the board members wanted to reopen the 2050 Plan and engage all county residents in debate about potential changes.

Ayech estimated that “thousands and thousands of dollars” paid for outside consulting services to help create the plan.

An old joke says, “Whoever has the highest stack of papers wins,” Ayech continued. All of the work that went into the 2050 Plan resulted in “bigger stacks of paper than what [Turner] has, by volumes.”

(Prior to the Sept. 8 board vote, Commissioner Moran pointed out that, during both his campaigns for election to the District 1 seat, he “made it very, very clear” that the 2050 Plan and other county regulations guiding development “are all living, breathing documents.”)

Mike Hutchinson, president of the Bern Creek Homeowners Association, used a graphic to show the board the site of his community; then, he pointed to the area to the northwest of it, which is designated a Hamlet. He has read recently, he said, that “Lakewood Ranch would like to expand east to the Verna [Road] line.” He expects the developer — Schroeder-Manatee Ranch — would prefer a Village there, too, Hutchinson added, instead of the Hamlet. The commission’s approval of the Comprehensive Plan amendment that day, he said, would set a precedent.

Hutchinson added that, during prior Hi Hat Ranch hearings, owner Turner insisted no precedent would be set if the board agreed to the amendment. Turner did not mention that during the Sept. 8 hearing, Hutchinson pointed out.

“Obviously, Rex Jensen is looking at this as a precedent and will probably be using it,” Hutchinson added, referring to the president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.

This is the graphic that Mike Hutchinson showed the board members. The Hamlet area he referenced is in lavender, northeast of the yellow area representing Bern Creek, where the ‘hand tool’ can be seen. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The rural character preservation principle

One predominant theme among speakers was the need to preserve the rural character of the county.

Sara Lewis, another Miakka Community Club member, defined rural character as “wide open spaces with few homes and few people.” She noted the existence of dairy farms, citrus groves and acres of timber, for examples. On the side of the road, a passerby might find eggs, honey, citrus and vegetables for sale, Lewis said.

“Rural character is starry nights without light pollution. … It is the sounds of crowing roosters or the bellowing bull or the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes.”

Old Miakka was established in 1850, she continued. “At one point, it had two general stores, a post office, a schoolhouse, a church and a gas station. Today, the church and the schoolhouse is all that’s there. The community doesn’t want any commercial development.”

Yet, part of the overarching plan for Hi Hat Ranch calls for 450,000 square feet of commercial space, along with 13,081 residential units, as noted in the county staff report.

Ayech of the Miakka Community Club also talked of the value of agricultural land. “Agriculture is a finite source,” she pointed out. Yet, she noted, “We have continued to lose agricultural land over the 42 years that I’ve been here.”

Robert Wright addresses the board on Sept. 8. News Leader image

Another speaker, Robert Wright, said he worked for about 15 years as coordinator of the county’s Environmental Stewardship Team.

“What I have seen over the years is pretty much rampant development going on,” he added. “That little treasured area you used to go to,” he continued, becomes so popular that, “suddenly, everybody’s there.”

He told the commissioners, “You’ve got to hold the line with the 2050 Plan.”

“For 15 years,” he added, “you paid me to go to communities and help them take what they had then and become more environmentally friendly.” He did not want to see a reversal of that, Wright pointed out, with county staff having to address problems “down the road” if the Comprehensive Plan amendment were approved.

He asked how many of the board members recalled county leadership discussions years ago about keeping development west of I-75. “Where are we today?”