The Growth Machine: Sarasota’s USB, 2050 and Portland, Revisited

Sarasota 2050: Disciplined growth through an Urban Service Boundary creates community prosperity and healthy municipal budgets

Originally version published May 25, 2013 in SRQ Daily Revised on August 18th, 2014



In the annals of smart growth planning, community planning that delivers high quality of life and attracts high wage, high tech jobs, Portland, Oregon has set the standard. For more than 30 years, Portland has implemented policies focused on maximizing urban resources and preserving rural lands. Portland’s successful growth policies contain important lessons about economic diversification, attracting educated professionals and their businesses, and creating walkable urban centers for young professionals, families and retirees who want to age in place. How does Portland do it and what can Sarasota learn from Portland’s success?


While Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas and other western cities embarked on a path of unchecked sprawl development (with accompanying congestion, pollution and diminished quality of life) Portland charted a different course. Bucking pressure from commercial and development interests, Portland implemented an Urban Growth Boundary established in the ’70s—a boundary between higher density areas and rural lands. Portland encouraged smart, mixed used development within the UGB, while preserving open space, rural lifestyles and agricultural use outside the UGB. Critics said Portland’s UGB and strict laws against sprawl would kill jobs and ruin property values. But Portland prospered. Homes values soared while high-tech businesses sprang up within the UGB. Many of the newer companies—among them Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Hyundai—say they relocated because of the unspoiled lands adjacent to the contained urban areas. Employers sought relocation to a community that could attract educated workers as interested in quality of life as a paycheck.


Portland continues its strict policies against sprawl and routinely evaluates the position of the UGB to ensure there is enough buildable land to meeting housing demand. The UGB is moved when existing potential housing units are insufficient to meet future demand. And Portland has established performance benchmarks to evaluate how its growth policies are working. Infill development is preferred, efficiently maximizing existing infrastructure. Why pay for new roads, schools and services if existing infrastructure is underutilized?


In 1998, Sarasota followed Portland’s example and established the same kind of boundary.  In Sarasota it is called an Urban Service Boundary (USB) and it roughly corresponds to I75.   Infrastructure investments, or urban services, are focused west of I75 – schools, police, fire, roads, sewers, utilities, etc.  The area east of the Urban Service Boundary is to remain rural.  The County Charter requires unanimous County Commission approval to move the USB.   The fundamentals of smart planning through a USB means you build out an area, maximizing infrastructure investments, before you approve new development, or move the USB.  Maintaining a USB encourages redevelopment and reinvestment in existing commercial districts and neighborhoods. Prioritizing infill and redevelopment prevents surplus infrastructure, debt and high taxes. Maintaining a USB discourages reduced property values and blight.


Some rural landowners were not happy about the creation of the USB. They wanted to be able to develop their land at high density. For a number of years, citizens, developers and landowners collaborated to create Sarasota 2050, an optional overlay district for rural lands outside the USB. Established in 2004, Sarasota 2050 permits high density development if specific open space & design standards are met, and if the development is fiscally neutral. Fiscal neutrality requires that the developer/development pay for its up front and long term infrastructure costs. After all, if someone want to develop at high density outside the USB, before we need to move it, shouldn’t they pick up the tab?
A series of County staff meetings with landowners/developers east of I-75 held in late 2012 and early 2013 resulted in conclusions that Sarasota 2050 should be changed to make it easier for them to build outside the USB. These meetings included Neal Communities, Schroeder Manatee Ranch, Jim Turner, Rod Krebs, Palmer Ranch, John Cannon Homes, representatives from Kimley Horn and Wilson Miller, and no others.    At their urging, the Sarasota County Commission decided in 2013 to move to loosen Sarasota 2050 development restrictions outside the USB. A number of these private interests contribute lavishly to certain County Commission candidates.


Do we need to move Sarasota’s USB? Is there a shortage of build-able land inside the USB?  County data shows we have 44,800 total potential new housing units in the unincorporated County, three times projected 10-year demand of 15,300 units. Those inventory numbers don’t include 70,000 potential units in the City of North Port and over 10,000 potential units in the City of Sarasota (two other incorporated cities – Longboat Key and Venice, should also be included).  There is huge untapped housing potential within Sarasota’s USB where infrastructure investments already exist.


While a well positioned minority lobby for new development east of I-75, empty strip malls along U.S. 41 tell a different story. Banks are sitting on significant residential foreclosures yet to be released. Many neighborhoods west of I-75 are still recovering from the great recession. Stalled infill development and scant affordable, mixed use housing indicate a need for redevelopment in Sarasota County’s cities. What would Portland do? Portland’s example indicates the importance of holding the line on rural development until existing infill and redevelopment needs are met, until the next wave of foreclosures are fully absorbed, until future housing demand exceeds supply.


Perhaps most concerning for all Sarasota taxpayers, the fiscal neutrality requirements of Sarasota 2050 are up for revision. Fiscal neutrality requires developers of new high density development east of I-75 to pay for new infrastructure. But those pushing for easing restrictions on development east of I-75 are also asking County taxpayers to pick up the new infrastructure tab. Tossing fiscal neutrality is bad news for all County taxpayers, and could be considered triple taxation for Sarasota’s municipalities (Sarasota, Longboat Key, Venice and North Port). We already pay taxes twice—to our city and the county. Why should city dwellers pick up the infrastructure tab for sprawl development east of I-75, excess development that will undermine our own land values and the vitality of existing neighborhoods and commercial centers?
Sarasota County is moving toward abandoning sound planning standards by poking gaping holes in the Urban Service Boundary and sticking existing taxpayers with the bill. These moves are exactly opposite the proven policies which have made Portland an economic and environmental success.  If these changes go through, some will benefit, and the rest of us will pay.


Click on image to view the County’s 2050 meetings with private sector  developers and their representatives – no public involvement

2050 Meetings


Vic Rohe (see his public input to the planning commission, below) calls proposed 2050 changes a byproduct of when the development lobby captures  County government.  The term used to describe this special interest group is the “Growth Machine”.

6 Comments on The Growth Machine: Sarasota’s USB, 2050 and Portland, Revisited

  1. Sarasota County needs to get there act together. Infrastructure is more than roads for ingress and rgress. It is definitely more than aesthetics for oprn space. we are still going through a debilitating housing market crash So what does the county do approve more housing developments. Who is going to pay for schools, water and other utlities. Venice is an example of building with no longterm planning on infrastructure. In the meantime those who survived the housing crash watch the vallues of their homes drop in value. It should be stopped. Give the market some breathing room. Get smart on econimic growth.

  2. So, Portland doesn’t share the curse of the 8 or 9 developers buying up every office on every panel? I am surprised Benderson doesn’t see Portland as an opportunity and high-tail it out there!

  3. Thank you for collecting all this info and synthesizing it; and presenting it into something easy to understand for a taxpayer resident like myself, If we can transmit this info to county residents it will be revolutionary!

    • Thanks for your comment and for reading the post. Please share it with others Rick. If enough people understand how they are being betrayed, how some are gaming the system, we’ll get better people elected.

  4. CA- another spot on piece–so the term “growth machine” is code for Neal Communities, SMR, Jim Turner, Rod Krebs, Palmer Ranch and John Cannon Homes ….. for subscribers watch the vid at the 1:58 mark

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