Celery Fields Sell Out

Exit 210 is supposed to be different, not a typical highway interchange.  The Sarasota lands at Fruitville Rd, just east of Interstate 75 and north of Palmer Boulevard, have been slated for high quality development for over a decade. Instead of a collection of gas stations and industrial uses, our community vision includes walkable development (the Fruitville Initiative, a taxpayer funded $500,000 plan ), healthcare or information technology businesses, work/live units for artists, and an unexpected bonus.  The adjacent Celery Fields, a $24 million flooding prevention project, has fortuitously become a national and international birding ecotourism draw.  So big, that Sarasota Audubon invested $1 million for a new Celery Fields visitor center. Yet recent Planning Commission votes have paved the way for changing rural public acreage next to the Celery Fields into ordinary, polluting, industrial development. The County Commission can reverse course, respect a community vision with millions of dollars and over a decade of planning invested, or they can sell out to their preferred bidders.

 
How did we get here? Last spring, the County put the SW and NW corners at Apex Rd and Palmer Boulevard, public land next to the Celery Fields, up for sale.*  The 12 and 7 acre parcels are currently designated Open Space or Rural uses. The County received exactly one bid for each parcel of land. You read that right – one bid. Getting only one bid for each public land offering is reason enough for concern.

 
Who are these “winning” bidders – buyers who face no competition, buyers poised to purchase public land near a wildlife refuge, bidders who will only buy if they are permitted to develop these rural lands for industrial uses?
The bidder for the 12 acres at the SW corner is a company owned by an elected County official, James Gabbert. Gabbert serves on Sarasota’s Charter Review Board (CRB).  Mr. Gabbert served on the CRB alongside Mark Hawkins (both representing District 4) until Hawkins resigned from the CRB for a position on the Planning Commission. Hawkins is one of the Planning Commissioners who approved the Mr. Gabbert’s petition for a Critical Area Plan (CAP) change for the SW lot from rural to industrial use.  The industrial CAP change is required build the waste transfer facility described in Mr. Gabbert’s uncontested bid for the public’s 12 acres.

 
Who exactly is the bidder for the 7 acres at the NW corner? Good question. Presiding County Attorney Alan Roddy advised the Planning Commission at their February 2nd meeting that the corporate entity(ies) which bid on the NW corner lot may fail to meet County transparency standards. Our County Charter requires purchasers of public lands be identified as human beings. The attorney for the opaque purchaser(s) call the transparency provision “archaic”. The private entity bid, once again the only offer submitted for the rural public acreage, requires an industrial CAP change to build the wholesale depot.

 
Had enough? There are more problems – pollution, noise – but consider this.  At a recent meeting, our Planning Commission heard from numerous citizens who asked them to deny the proposed industrial development due to existing traffic problems on Palmer Boulevard. Planning Commissioners said a number of times, in different ways, that State Law prohibits them from rejecting a rezone petition based on traffic concerns, and they are right. But the petition for industrial use requires both a rezone and a Critical Area Plan (CAP) change. The Planning Commission was told at least 4 times, by 3 different advisors (the County Attorney, County Transportation Planning Manager and a staff member) that traffic problems ARE a legal basis for denying a request for a Critical Area Plan (CAP) change. Despite being advised of their clear power to deny a CAP due to traffic problems, our Planning Commissioners insisted that their “hands are tied”. Whether they were confused, obfuscating or inattentive, the Planning Commission misled many citizens when they continued to claim they were unable to deny the industrial use development due to traffic problems. What a disservice.

 
This is how bad planning happens: one decision at a time. Uninspired at best and damaging at worst, approving industrial land use near a premier ecotourism wildlife habitat would be a spectacular betrayal of community planning, interest and investment. The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners (BCC) can embrace our community vision and chart a different course.

 
What can you do?

 
Attend the Sarasota County Commission meeting on March 1st at 1660 Ringling Blvd in downtown Sarasota, when our County Commission will vote on whether or not to approve the rezone and Critical Area Plan (CAP) petition from OUR (Open Use Rural) to ILW (Industrial Light Warehouse). Sign up to speak during the hearing, and tell the County Commission to represent US, DENY the requested land use changes ,and find higher and better uses for these 19 acres of public land.

 

 

 

At the March 1st meeting, the County Commission can represent the public, and

  • Acknowledge that receiving only one bid on each property is a red flag and reason enough to halt the process.
  • Recognize that single bids, from a public official and an opaque private entity, create public distrust.
  • Acknowledge the pollution generated by industrial uses creates unnecessary risk to over 130 species of birds which inhabit the Celery Fields, threatening an environmental, recreational and ecotourism asset, degrading rather than enhancing the area.
  • The BCC can acknowledge that existing traffic problems are a legal basis for denying the Critical Area Plan (CAP) change from OUR (Open Use Rural) to ILW (Industrial Light Warehouse).
  • The BCC could choose to leave these lots as open space.
  • The BCC could look at how these two lots – a short walk a grocery store (Detweiler’s) and a bike ride away from existing major employers – could be developed as walkable work/live units for artists, and/or affordable housing for nearby mall, hospital and other workers. Work/live units for artists – including street level galleries – would encourage the burgeoning photography and other art inspired by the Celery Fields wildlife.
  • The BCC could initiate a bike share program from affordable housing on these public parcels, and have other bike share sites located at nearby transportation and employment hubs.

 

 

The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners can be reached via e-mail at commissioners@scgov.net

 

 

*Why would the Sarasota County Commission sell these 19 acres of rural public land, near a premier birding ecotourism site?   You have to wonder about the pressure on the County to get the Benderson Rowing Facility built in time for the World Rowing Championships this October.  Facilities for the event – spectator stands, a timing tower and boathouse – were supposed to have been funded and constructed by now.  SANCA – the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association – the non-profit founded to fund and operate the Benderson Rowing Facility – pledged to raise up to 22 million in “private donations” for construction of facilities.   The failure to raise sufficient private funds to complete the rowing facility construction is one possible reason for a ill-conceived offering of public acres which attracted a single buyer for each parcel.

 

 

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  1. [SRQ Magazine] Guest Column: Celery Fields Sell Out – CeleryFields.org

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