The 7 million dollar question
Originally published Saturday, September 28th in SRQ Daily
Our County Commission intends to make major changes to Sarasota County’s 2050 Comprehensive Plan without giving the public or cities a seat at the planning table.
Schroeder Manatee Ranch, developer of Lakewood Ranch and the planned Villages of Lakewood Ranch South, has been the leading critic of Sarasota 2050 for a decade, calling it “unworkable” and not “economically viable”. In contrast. Neal Communities’ successful Grand Palm development in Venice is compliant with 2050 and sales are brisk. Despite Neal’s 2050 success, SMR CEO Rex Jensen’s persistent 2050 criticism and lobbying has been effective and lucrative for his company and costly for Sarasota taxpayers.
What is 2050? Rural landowners east of Interstate-75 (outside the Urban Service Boundary or USB) can build one dwelling for every 5, 10 or 160 acres. If developers want more, the 2050 plan allows them to build 5 units per acre if they do three things: provide open space, cluster dwellings in a walkable village and pick up the tab for accompanying infrastructure. The last requirement, called fiscal neutrality, protects taxpayers from being bled by surplus development infrastructure costs outside the USB. Existing approved housing capacity within Sarasota County’s USB is 225 percent greater than projected 10-year demand. It makes sense to encourage new development where we already have capacity and infrastructure in place to serve new residents. When housing is built within the USB first, existing schools, roads and fire stations are maximized. Urban vitality and infill is enhanced by the 2050 plan, urban sprawl is diminished and subsidies for development that competes with existing neighborhoods are eliminated.
But some companies are relentless in the pursuit of subsidies and ways for government to put money in their pocket.
In 2004, the County paid Schroeder Manatee $7 million for development rights to Gum Slough, a 2000-acre parcel east of I-75. The County bought the rights to set aside the land for preservation. With the sale, Schroeder Manatee gave up development rights to build as many as 2,000 homes for the Villages because the company no longer had acreage to satisfy 2050 open space requirements. The self-inflicted reduction was a problem for SMR, but instead of buying Gum Slough back, Jensen blamed Sarasota 2050 for the reduced density. Jensen said “We need to make this practical and economical,” insisting 2050 was neither. Really?
Fast forward to 2010. After six years of SMR discussions, the County Commission provided the firm with open space credits for greenways that included Gum Slough. The County approved 5,144 units for the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South. Commissioner Jon Thaxton was the sole vote against approval. He disagreed with giving open space credit when development rights were already purchased for conservation.
Now SMR wants to diminish fiscal neutrality standards, continuing its relentless lobbying to evade 2050 standards. The firm wants to reduce or eliminate the need to submit regular reports documenting their obligations to finance infrastructure. That’s like telling the IRS “I don’t want to file a tax return, but trust me, I am paying my taxes.”
The $7-million giveaway was so under the radar (it took place over the course of six years), that when I asked critics of 2050 to reconcile SMR’s development rights-density shell game with conservative principles, they believed the transactions must not have occurred. Sorry guys, they did.
The 2050 “problem” claimed by some developers Is a farce, and a lucrative cottage industry for at least one developer. Sarasota 2050’s disciplined growth through infill first protects taxpayers, existing neighborhoods, the environment and our cities.