In February, Hugh Culverhouse Jr., the Miami-based developer and owner of Palmer Ranch, celebrated with county officials and residents after he donated land to the county for a park whose principal feature would be a community garden.
Eleven months later, Culverhouse, acting as McCann East LP, filed suit against the county, alleging it has violated his U.S. and Florida constitutional rights by thwarting his development of about 2,300 acres of land east of I-75.
Filed Jan. 17 in the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida, the lawsuit lists six counts, including the alleged taking of private property without adequate compensation. It demands a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages as well as court costs and fees.
According to the lawsuit, prior to 2002, almost all property east of I-75 — including the McCann tract — was designated “rural” in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. That designation limited future development to one residence per 5 acres; therefore, McCann would be limited to constructing 462 homes on the site.
That designation, the lawsuit alleges, has been one factor preventing McCann from developing any of the property, because it would have to construct utilities, roads and infrastructure costing several million dollars to serve the community. Such development, the suit says, “would be economically impossible, because a mere 462 residential units could not support construction of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure.”
The lawsuit further states that, to encourage “smart growth east of I-75,” the County Commission in 2002 enacted zoning regulations called the Sarasota 2050 Plan, as a companion to the Comprehensive Plan. That 2050 Plan “supposedly makes development more feasible by increasing the number of units that can be developed per acre, while preserving open and ‘green’ spaces,” the lawsuit says.
To achieve that goal, the suit says, the 2050 Plan required future development of almost all sites east of I-75 to be in the form of “villages” or “hamlets.” Those designations, the lawsuit says, would permit more density than the one unit per 5 acres allowed by the “rural” designation. The permitted density for village land use would be a minimum of three dwellings and a maximum of six per developable acre, the lawsuit says.
Therefore, the lawsuit says, a maximum of 3,468 homes could be developed on the McCann property. “Thus, in theory,” the suit adds, “the Sarasota 2050 Plan should promote development east of I-75 at a density that is able to support construction of millions of dollars in infrastructure.”
However, the lawsuit alleges, although that might be the case for other landowners, it is not true for McCann, because of other provisions of the 2050 Plan. By enacting those provisions, the suit says the county “took” McCann’s property and violated its constitutional rights.
The lawsuit points out that the 2050 Plan requires a “developed area” in a village to be at least 1,000 contiguous acres, if those acres are not adjacent to the county’s Urban Service Area Boundary. Areas separated from that USB by I-75, the lawsuit says, are not considered adjacent to the USB.
The county has construed the USB to be on the west side of I-75, next to the McCann property, but on the east side of the interstate “for all other properties covered by the Sarasota 2050 Plan,” the lawsuit alleges. “In other words,” the suit adds, “McCann is the only landowner adjacent to I-75” required to have a minimum developed area of 1,000 contiguous acres.
The lawsuit also says the 2050 Plan requires the minimum open space outside the developed area to be equal to or greater in size than the developed area. Moreover, a “greenbelt” at least 500 feet wide must be included outside the developed area.
The Fox Creek Greenway, which encompasses 1,064 acres, bifurcates the McCann property in such a manner that the parcel does not have 1,000 contiguous acres, the lawsuit says. However, the county prohibits that greenway from being considered part of the open space required for development of a village on the site.
Additionally, the lawsuit points out that the McCann parcel has been designated part of the “South Village Area,” with further development restrictions. Among those, an interchange must be fully funded and ready for construction at I-75 and Central Sarasota Parkway if the landowner is to be allowed to exceed the density level of one dwelling per 5 acres.
The lawsuit says that, at one time, the county and the Florida Department of Transportation had a contract to construct a partial interchange at I-75 and Sarasota Central Parkway, at a cost of $91 million. However, the county voided the contract in 2010, after almost $2 million was spent on design and planning, according to the lawsuit.
Furthermore, the lawsuit says, “The FDOT has removed Central Sarasota Parkway from its Long Range Transportation Plan. In short, no interchange will ever be built (there).”
The Sarasota County Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for a comment on the lawsuit before The Observer’s deadline Wednesday.
Hugh Culverhouse Jr.
• Culverhouse, 62, is the owner and developer of Palmer Ranch.
• An attorney in Miami, he is also a CPA who earned an MBA from New York University.
• His father paid $16 million for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1974.