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Siesta Key Monday, Nov. 18, 2013 4 years ago

CONA braces for 2050 fight

by: Nolan Peterson News Editor

The Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) on Monday staked out their position on proposed changes to Sarasota's 2050 plan, which will be up for public hearings before the Sarasota County on Wednesday

In the courtyard off the front steps of the Sarasota County Administration building, with members of the local media and a representative of the Sierra Club present, CONA Vice President Cathy Antunes publicly announced the combined neighborhood association's six-point addendum to the Public Interest Coalition's suggested 2050 amendments, which will go before the County Commission this week.

CONA's report focused on several key points, including criticisms on a recent report commissioned by the county commission on the financial impact of changing 2050's fiscal neutrality requirements, a lack of a coherent county urban infill policy, and the financial burden to taxpayers that changes to the plan’s fiscal neutrality provision might cause.

Antunes criticized a report commissioned by the County Commission, which analyzed the financial impact of adjusting fiscal neutrality provision of the 2050 plan, calling it “not credible.” The report, completed by Laffer Associates at a price tag of $90,000, was overly biased in favor of developer interests, Antunes said.

Antunes claimed an $85,000 study proposed by former County Administrator Randall Reid and to be completed by a team from FSU would have been less biased toward development interests.

The addendum presented on Monday also criticized the county commission for a failed urban infill policy. Antunes pointed to a string of vacant properties along U.S. 41 as evidence of the county’s failed policies.

“Just drive up and down U.S. 41 and see all the empty lots, all the blight,” Antunes said. “And that's what a lack of a good infill policy will do.”

Following her prepared remarks, Antunes responded to statements made by downtown developer Jesse Biter, founder of the HuB, at a recent CONA meeting. At that meeting Biter pointed to restrictive downtown zoning rules, which make urban living cost-prohibitive to young professionals, as the most serious threat to the city of Sarasota’s economic future.

Antunes disagreed, saying Monday that Biter “needs to take a second look” at the changes to proposed to the 2050 plan.

“I think he's discounting that when you have a huge supply of easy, already-existing infrastructure it doesn't make sense to burden taxpayers with the long-term costs of maintaining new infrastructure,” Antunes said, referring to Biter’s comments and the potential effects of changing the 2050 plan’s fiscal neutrality requirements.

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 on community layout based on “New Urbanist” design principals 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 a 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 in a recent interview. “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 chose defending Sarasota 2050 as its priority 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.

The Sarasota County Commission's first public hearing on changes to Sarasota 2050 will be on Wednesday, Nov. 20 at the Sarasota County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.

Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]

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