An economic zone that would attract clean-energy companies to Sarasota County continued to garner support from the Sarasota County Commission Wednesday, despite some concerns raised about program eligibility requirements.
The Energy Economic Zone Pilot Program, which would encompass 685 acres on two separate county parcels, cannot proceed without changes to the county’s comprehensive growth plan. The commission must approve those changes by the end of March.
County staff is drafting an ordinance that would be advertised in February. Then, the proposed ordinance would be presented for comment during a public hearing. It would have to be adopted by March 31, staff said.
In 2009, Sarasota County was picked to engage in one of two pilot programs in the state involving the development of an Energy Economic Zone to help create jobs in new, energy-related businesses.
Both the city of Miami and two sites in Sarasota County — the 7,000-acre Central County Landfill and 1,000 acres along State Road 681, east of U.S. 41, which once was considered a location for a Jackson Laboratories biomedical village — were selected for the program.
Commissioners and residents, however, have raised concerns about the eligibility criteria, saying they plan to scrutinize the ordinance next month.
County staff members said two community meetings already had been held, during which they received comments about how the zone would impact local revenue sources.
Cathy Antunes, speaking as a representative of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations Inc., said the CONA board “has serious concerns with the zone’s impact on expansion and boundaries.”
“We would also request the county perform a quantitative analysis to decide the impact of the EEZ boundaries,” Antunes said. “There are many unanswered questions.”
County staff explained that financial incentives, which are capped at up to $300,000 per year for qualified businesses, would be coming solely in the form of state tax credits.
Commissioner Nora Patterson called Antunes’ point “a misunderstanding on the county’s intent.”
Commissioner Joe Barbetta agreed.
“It’s not a local funding source,” Barbetta said. “There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation out there. In reality, this is an economic development tool that we were chosen by the state to participate in. The true goal is economic development, job creation and reducing property taxes.”
Patterson also pointed out the zone does not allow residential development to receive tax breaks.
“We are considering advertising an ordinance that would lay out eligible businesses and tax breaks participants could receive,” Patterson said. “Part of this is promoting mixed-use development, but it’s not for building residences.”
Commissioners, though, showed some concern about a staff suggestion that the zone would target companies with up as few as 30 employees. Commissioners indicated they would approve stricter requirements next month.
“I understand the logic and sympathize with small companies, but the intent of this was to encourage a synergy everywhere,” Patterson said.
Patterson also questioned whether the county should strengthen a requirement that companies using existing buildings show they are performing at least 5% above Florida energy code requirements at the time they submit applications.
In July, Sarasota County residents also voiced worries that the newly created zone would create too much development adjacent to, and exacerbate flooding problems at, Oscar Scherer State Park.
Commissioners, however, changed the requirements to make sure the guidelines would prevent new development from contributing to any flooding of nearby land.
EEZ Pilot Program Requirements
Applicants interested in a new Energy Economic Zone Pilot Program will be rated by a scoring system focused on the following components:
• Number of new, fulltime permanent green jobs created
• Average wage of employees
• Commitment to local procurement
• Clean technology versus Green Business facets
• Number of transportation strategies/fleet emissions in place
• Land-use qualifications
• Solid waster reduction/recycling plan in place
• Number of water management /conservation strategies in place