According to county commissioners, Sarasota’s future has yet to be written.
The Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners moved forward Wednesday on making key changes to a plan designed to regulate East County growth and shape what Sarasota County will look like in the year 2050.
In front of an audience of about 60 people, and after a round of heated public comments that pushed the meeting into the evening, county commissioners unanimously approved an amendment that loosens Sarasota 2050 Resource Management Area Policies relating to environmental protections, land use mix requirements and other restrictions on how future East County developments should look and be organized.
Commissioners said easing the rules would make the area more appealing for real estate developers and a more lucrative resource for expanding the area’s tax base.
The original 2050 plan, approved by the County Commission in 2002, was designed to prevent urban sprawl in Sarasota County east of I-75, protect the environment and set rules to make developments more pedestrian friendly. The original 2050 plan also required fiscal-neutrality safeguards to prevent the costs of development from being passed on to taxpayers.
But development stalled after the plan’s inception. Some blamed the recession, while others pointed to 2050’s strict rules as a disincentive to developers. By 2013, more than a decade after 2050 passed, only one project has been built through it: Neal Communities’ Grand Palm in Venice
In an effort to jump-start the county’s post-recession economic growth, county commissioners, by a 4-1 vote, agreed in May to reopen Sarasota 2050 to possible revisions such as loosening some of the design and density requirements and opening the door to county-funded infrastructure projects that could incentivize developers
The move sparked a controversial debate that, as of Wednesday, was still in full swing.
Opponents of the suggested modifications say the County Commission is bending to the will of developers, and that the changes will damage downtown Sarasota’s economy and burden taxpayers with the costs of building and maintaining new urban infrastructure and utilities in East County.
“You're asking city residents to subsidize communities that will eventually poach opportunities from us,” Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) Vice President Cathy Antunes said at a recent CONA meeting.
Fiscal neutrality was included in the original version of the growth plan to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill for the new infrastructure and urban services needed to accommodate new developments.
According to CONA, any proposed change to the fiscal neutrality requirement is“shortsighted,” and new development should happen first in urban areas closer to the coast with an existing utilities infrastructure 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.
Wednesday’s County Commission meeting came after several days of sparring between the Board and the CONA. The two groups, however, found a rare patch of common ground on Tuesday — disappointment in a report intended to analyze the impact of key changes to the comprehensive plan.
At a Tuesday meeting, county commissioners sounded off on the outcome of a draft report produced by consultants Laffer and Associates, which was intended to analyze the effects of modifying 2050’s fiscal neutrality rules.
The report comes with $90,000 price tag, but county commissioners are so far obligated to pay only $43,000, with the remaining payment tied to the board's decision on whether or not to move forward with the report's completion. County commissioners uniformly criticized the draft, saying that it overreached in its scope and failed to adequately address the issues it was intended to study.
“This report went off track,” Commissioner Joe Barbetta said on Tuesday. “It was supposed to be limited to fiscal neutrality and timing issues.”
Barbetta joined other commissioners in expressing disappointment that the draft ultimately focused on other issues such as modifying the urban service boundary.
“We wanted an analysis, not a theoretical report,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said. “I'm very upset that taxpayer money was spent to go on an intellectual vacation.”
Although commissioners shared common misgivings about the final direction of the report, there was some disagreement about who was ultimately to blame. Barbetta and Robinson laid the blame on former County Administrator Randall Reid, saying that he overstepped the bounds of what the commission originally intended the report to look at.
“The direction given to the firm were for things that shouldn't have been in discussion at all,” Barbetta said, referring to the requirements handed down by Reid to Laffer Associates. “The urban service boundary was never supposed to be up for debate."
Barbetta suggested the report may need to be completely redone for the commission to glean the information it needs.
“They did what they were asked to do,” Robinson said. “We can't hold Laffer accountable for what was asked for in the contract. We're going to have to fix this.”
“We got your answer from their perspective about what we should do with fiscal neutrality — which is to scrap it,” County Commissioner Nora Patterson said.
CONA, which has set opposition to 2050 changes as its post-recession priority, held a press conference on the steps of the County Administration Building on Monday, blasting the report for a different reason. CONA Vice President Cathy Antunes said the report was biased toward developers’ interests.
“We want to see a credible report,” Antunes said, claiming that the BCC’s proposed changes to the 2050 plan were likely driven by political contributions. “There are six firms pushing for these changes, those six firms also contribute heavily to political campaigns.”
At Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, Barbetta pushed back against claims that the move to modify 2050 was for political payback, offering a more pragmatic explanation.
“We need to get this back on track,” Barbetta said. “We are only growing at 1.6% annually over the past 10 years — that’s not rampant growth. We need to expand our tax base, and that’s why we need to get 2050 to work right.”
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]