More enlightened development, or just more development? A Test Case

Next Tuesday, the Sarasota County Commission will vote on whether to go forward with a planning change or to put it on hold. Here's why we're watching it.

The land in question consists of 325 acres, the north and south quadrants to the east of I-75 at Fruitville Road. Six substantial property owners currently have rights to develop their holdings into whatever might fit the definition of "Major Employment Center." To effect these changes, north-south roads would connect this area -- some of it bordering the lovely, quiet residential neighborhoods on and off of Richardson Road -- to Lakewood Ranch to the north.

There are two reasons for non-residents to be interested: First, thanks to active citizen organizing, those at a meeting of the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance Tuesday night got to hear from and respond to representatives of both sides, in advance of the County Commission's vote next Tuesday. Second, the county's decision involves amending its Comprehensive Plan in a way that will encourage the property owners to cooperatively innovate -- i.e., to find ways to be economically productive, clean, aesthetically pleasing, and sensitive to the priorities of the residents most affected.

At the Alliance on this Tuesday evening, the question came down to whether the Comp Plan amendment, which proposes to create an overlay called a "Special Planning Area," would result in wiser, more coherent planning that benefits from citizen and neighborhood input, or instead, as attorney Dan Lobeck argued, whether it would open the door to a level of development densities and intensities beyond anything allowed by the existing Comprehensive Plan.

Many present expressed concern that Lobeck was right: that the amendment would result in a harsher impact upon the existing residents. But some seemed willing to listen to engineer Stephen Suau and planning consultant Anne Merrill, who both said the special planning area designation could result in a unified design that would bring clean, high-tech jobs to the area, and possibly even offer an example of a new form of highway quadrant design -- both smart and sensitive.

We'll follow to see whether open dialog at the grassroots level can help both to inform citizens and to facilitate consensus on relatively complex land use decisions. What's more, if the county commission approves the change, we'll want to see how well it fulfills the underlying claim that empowering developers need not lead to ugly over-development, but rather to more enlightened development.

The County Commission is set to vote on the proposed amendment on Tuesday, June 22, at 1:30 p.m.

A copy of proposed policies that would be binding on the developers can be found here.


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