City Commission must lobby against sprawl
Originally published March 23, 2013 in SRQ Daily
Sarasota’s County Commission is currently engaged in revisiting the County’s comprehensive land use plan, also known as the 2050 plan or Comp plan. Among other regulations, the plan establishes an Urban Service Boundary to curtail urban sprawl. Landowners with property outside the USB are lobbying for zoning changes that would make their parcels more build-able and therefore, more valuable. No surprise there. In questionable sequence, after multiple meetings with these landowners, the County has invited the public to participate. Notably absent from the discussion: our City Commissions.
Sarasota County has three municipalities—North Port, Venice and Sarasota—which are pursuing vibrant city centers as and are served by three separate commissions. All three are looking to encourage strong economic development. This week, the City of Sarasota and the Downtown Sarasota Alliance hosted Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City, who educated city residents on the importance of walkability in achieving thriving downtown centers—livable downtowns that set the stage for strong economic development. Mr. Speck shared how walkable cities attract highly educated people, companies and business start-ups. Speck’s book outlines the elements needed to create thriving downtowns, which include increased density, a tree canopy, investments in transit, safe bike paths and safe, interesting, comfortable and useful walking corridors (the last three offset the congestion of increased density). Speck also recognizes the importance of holding the line on an Urban Service Boundary to limit sprawl.
Closer inspection of how “Walkable City” criteria and our politics line up reveal key problems.
First, our county and city commissions are conducting their planning in silos. You can’t have it both ways, claiming to want thriving downtowns and making plans to move the Urban Service Boundary, encouraging the sprawl that undermines thriving downtowns. The City of Sarasota may be most vulnerable to the negative impact of sprawl, yet City Commissioners have taken no position on maintaining the Urban Service Boundary. So far, every municipality is MIA in the 2050 plan conversation. The County Commission doesn’t even notice their absence.
Second, increased density must be accompanied by investments in transit, bike paths and other elements to ensure the sought-after walkability that creates thriving community centers. Speck shared how developers are often the source of such transit investment, as they know transit will make their denser projects successful. Yet there is no discussion about developer investment in transit in the City of Sarasota, where increased density is being considered.
Third, County development interests are lavishly financing one City Commission candidate’s campaign. If elected, is it reasonable to expect he will disappoint his donors by advocating for the existing Urban Service Boundary? Will he work to maintain the planning discipline so necessary to our cities’ economic growth? Is the USB on any of the City Commissions’ radar? You can’t be an advocate for a thriving downtown if you won’t say no to sprawl.
Cherry picking some walkability elements (density) and ignoring others (transit and the USB) is a recipe for failure. We must walk the “walkability” talk.