Sarasota County has controlled the land since 1985, and leaders approved a conservation easement for three of the four quadrants.
Dozens of protesters — and a horse — lined each side of Palmer Boulevard, most of them holding homemade signs: “Save public open spaces,” “Sarasota commissioners: Vote like your kids play here,” “No rezone; no dump: Save our Celery Fields!”
The display was a brief distraction to much of the Saturday morning traffic, but there was a steady stream of drivers honking their horns and giving thumbs-up signals to show their solidarity with the demonstrators.
Surrounding this scene was the space in question: four grass fields dotted with trees, which could turn into developed land.
In May, County Commissioners held a workshop to hear residents’ thoughts on what to do with the land. In the past, commissioners said they’d like to see some sort of development on the land near the Celery Fields, commonly known as The Quads, but the residents’ message was the same at the workshop as it was at the protest: Keep the land green.
The land has been under county control since 1985 and is zoned for minor agriculture or single-family residences.
The northeast Quad is developed with a stormwater pond that would allow development of the other three Quads without additional on-site stormwater detention. Additionally, the northwest Quad is home to the Apex Road fire station.
The protesters said those developments were enough.
“It’s one thing having the development come in and build some things here and there,” said Ellian Rosaire, the owner of Rosaire’s Riding Academy & Pony Rides. “All of this encroachment is going to damage everything. We’ll lose all of the animals and all of the nature. And eventually, people are going to have to take their kids out 45 or 50 miles to see some country.”
Many of the protesters compared the land to New York’s Central Park and suggested that commissioners develop the land similarly — with vendors and other recreation opportunities — if they want it to produce cash for the county. Protestors said if the county were to do so, people could still walk through nature, exercise, ride horses or simply spend time with family.
There are no plans for development on the parcel. However, a waste-transfer station is planned for a 6-acre lot just east of I-75 at Porter Road and Palmer Boulevard, adjacent to the southwest corner of the Quads.
The original proposal for the area, completed in 2015 completed in 2015 by developer and TST Ventures Owner James Gabbert, includes an office building and truck-weighing area.
However, in 2017, Gabbert also proposed a construction-materials recycling facility at Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard, west of Celery Fields.
Around 50 homeowners formed “Fresh Start” a county-based activist coalition, and successfully pushed the commission to block the recycling plant. However, the waste transfer station is still planned.
“No one in Sarasota wanted a waste dump in the Celery Fields where an Audubon Society is,” protester Dennis Robertson said.
County staff conducted a Critical Area Plan for the area, which will help the county build a comprehensive plan for land use and regulations for the area.
In a Wednesday meeting, commissioners unanimously voted to put a conservation easement on the northeast, southeast and southwest quadrants.
The easement would mean for future development on the site to be possible, the County Commission would have to vote to overturn the easement.
County staff will now work with Conservation Foundation and The Audubon Society to create a plan for the area.
Staff writer Brendan Lavell contributed to this story.