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Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 3 years ago

CONA sets priorities

by: Nolan Peterson News Editor

Sarasota County neighborhoods have chosen a fight against changes to Sarasota 2050 as their raison d’être in the post-recession development and construction uptick.

The Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) has put a laundry list of other important issues on the backburner to dig in on a fight to preserve the 11-year-old plan to regulate East County development.

“Our No. 1 priority is 2050, no question about it,” CONA President Lourdes Ramirez said. “If they had left it alone, we would focus on other issues.”

The original 2050 plan, which the County Commission approved in 2002, was designed to prevent urban sprawl in Sarasota County east of I-75, protect the environment and set rules on community layout based on “New Urbanist” design principles such as walkable communities and increased housing density. The original 2050 plan also required fiscal-neutrality safeguards to prevent the costs of development from being passed on to taxpayers.

Advocates of changing 2050 claim the plan’s original form is not workable and could lead to “rural sprawl” eating up space for future development with low-density ranch homes.

Due to sluggish growth during the recession and after listening to developers’ concerns, Sarasota County commissioners recently proposed modifying 2050 to loosen some of the design parameters and density requirements and open the door to county-funded infrastructure projects that could incentivize developers.

According to CONA, the proposed changes to Sarasota’s 2050 plan are “shortsighted,” and new development should happen first in urban areas closer to the coast with existing utilities infrastructure already in place that can absorb population growth with no additional cost to taxpayers. Other changes, such as rezoning city land to allow for higher-density housing, would also help take advantage of existing growth capacity, Ramirez said.

“We need to convince Sarasota County to bring more people into these existing municipalities, to use what we already have, and then move people out east,” Ramirez said. “We don’t want to have to pay for new infrastructure, and it’s been shown that people want to live in urban areas, anyway.”

CONA prioritized Sarasota 2050 to focus its efforts on an issue that affects the entire county. And, according to Ramirez, the timeline of the debate was also important.

“We still talk about other things, but we need to focus our efforts to really make a difference,” Ramirez said. “They want to do this six months from now, so we can’t afford to sit around and wait. We have no choice but to focus on 2050 right now.”

CONA, which was created in 1961, represents more than 70 area neighborhoods, homeowner associations, condominium associations and civic organizations, which comprise more than 70,000 area residents.

Ramirez admitted that CONA’s focus on 2050 diverts attention from other issues, such as curbing government spending and diversifying Sarasota County’s economic and demographic base.

According to Ramirez, projects such as the $21.5 million Siesta Beach improvements are not fiscally responsible.

“Some of this stuff is completely wasteful,” Ramirez said, referring to the Siesta Beach improvements.

Ramirez also reported that area neighborhoods would like to bring in more young families, highlighting the need for a more diversified economy to attract the young-professional demographic.

“One thing I keep hearing from neighborhoods is how they’d love to see jobs not related to the same old retail and tourism industries," Ramirez said.

Ramirez added that accessible urban areas could also attract young professionals to the area.

“We’re not anti-development,” Ramirez said. “We’re just concerned that county isn’t being smart about growth.”

Top 10 Hot Topics
CONA President Lourdes Ramirez outlined the neighborhood council’s stance on some post-recession hot topics.

2050: Growth in existing urban areas should be the priority. The county needs to take advantage of the capacity for growth within the existing urban infrastructure before spending taxpayer dollars to fund new utilities and urban services east of Interstate 75.

Government transparency: A dedicated, public computer to easily access county records should be made available. “The county is trying to make it easier for building permits, but they're putting more bureaucracy around public records,” Ramirez said, referring to a recently created online building permit application. “We want a dedicated computer.”

Form-based code: No official position, but the potential exclusion of public discussion and input from zoning discussions is a concern. According to CONA, neighborhood participation is essential to the new zoning plan’s success.

SCAT privatization: More urban density is needed to improve the transit system’s effectiveness. “SCAT needs help, but it’s not their fault,” Ramirez said.

Fruitville initiative: “We’re keeping a close eye on this,” Ramirez said. There is a concern that the county initiated a project without looking at the whole region. Developing a commercial center so close to the new University Mall will stack competition too close to each other, potentially resulting in market saturation.

Big Pass dredging: No official position, but CONA recognizes the concerns of Siesta Key residents regarding the inclusion of three erosion-control groins in the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans.

Siesta Beach improvements: The project is too expensive and will not do enough to improve parking. The added parking spots and new amenities do not justify the cost of the project, which grew in budget from $12 million to $21.5 million. Ramirez called some aspects of the project, such as the purchase of $2,000 chaise lounge chairs, a “complete waste of money.”

Legacy Trail extension: No official vote yet, but discussions have so far “been in favor” of the initiative, Ramirez said, calling the proposal a “great idea.”

Bike safety: Sarasota County needs more dedicated bike trails and lanes. Bike safety should be a priority, and improvements need to be made to bridge gaps in sidewalks and bike lanes along major roads.

Homelessness: There have been a lot of discussion about homelessness at CONA, but an official position is still pending. There was an uptick in reports and complaints about homelessness from neighborhood associations following the lifting of the panhandling ordinance, Ramirez said.

Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]


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