Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Comments submitted to Sarasota County regarding the 2050 Comprehensive Overlay

This is one perspective on the County's ambitious plans to change the 2050 Comprehensive Plan for the rural areas of Sarasota - mostly East of the highway. The comments have been submitted to the County planning department. If others have comments that they wish to share, they can send them to LakeSarasota at gmail dot com and we'll post them.
An important public hearing about these changes to 2050 is set for Wed. Aug. 27th, 5 pm at the County Commission, Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.

August 19, 2014


Anyone who looks back at how Sarasota County’s 2050 Comprehensive Overlay was developed has to be impressed by both its inclusiveness and its methodical approach. The county took years to work with residents, developers and commercial interests to produce a vision for East Sarasota County looking out to 2050. It hired the distinguished Urban Land Institute to provide a broad perspective and in-depth analysis.


The result didn’t please everybody, but it brought order to the contentious question of how to plan for future growth and development of our large rural areas. Certain priorities were clear thanks to the plan. This basic starting point did not come cheap -- it took time, patience, hard work, and cost $2 million in taxpayers’ dollars. We residents felt we had a share in it.


The county now proposes to make changes to 2050 -- changes which have once again stirred old arguments. Some say this initiative comes at the instigation of a few large developers who have their eye on five substantial parcels amounting to 17% of the total land mass east of I-75.


As others have noted, if a complex agreement worked out at great expense is to be changed, it would seem reasonable to revise it in accord with the methodology used to create it. Bring back the consultants (or hire even better ones) and work through the process of revision in the open, publicly shared manner used so effectively before.


This has not been the case. The changes have been authored “in-house” and have provoked strong criticism from some of the most articulate and informed citizens of Sarasota County.


I won’t rehash the many, many excellent points made by others regarding the potential problems that could result from these changes. Many of these alterations seem to have been made with no thought as to the purpose, use, and future vitality of the “open spaces” that are being reduced to meaninglessness, perhaps merely to accommodate certain builders’ wishes.


I will simply ask three questions:


1. Will the end result of the proposed changes expedite rapid, large-scale community development East of I-75? If so, then how does this consort with the cautious priorities embodied in the original plan, and with concerns about the risk of over-building, which could dilute home values throughout the county, especially for existing home owners?


2. Will developers anxious to build and sell really take the time to study East Sarasota?


  • It is unclear what would make people who are attracted to the intellectual and artistic values of Sarasota want to live at a great distance from the urban center.
  • How will developers of East Sarasota compete against the large-scale communities of East Manatee that offer exceptional riverfront amenities?
  • The values of Americans are in flux -- they’re changing rapidly, and often in the direction of returning to a more agrarian world -- the very thing that some proposed changes in 2050 threaten to eliminate.
  • Large-scale construction built in haste could fail to be responsive to key shifts in the overall economy that will shape the market of 2025 and beyond.


3. At stake may be nothing less than the brand we now identify as “Sarasota.” This brand includes certain key features:


  • Educated and affluent retirees.
  • Hi-tech, clean businesses.
  • Lovers of art and music, theater and film, the life of the intellect in all its forms.
  • Lovers of nature, of parks and conservation lands, of birds and wildlife of all kinds.
  • Folks with large life-experiences who came to Sarasota because it offered a place in which such quality-of-life values were widely shared and expressed in its fabric.


If Sarasota County acquiesces in turning its rural sector into a cliched reflection of the tawdry helter-skelter developments that have sprouted up all over Florida (see, for example, what has become of the land between Fort Myers and Naples) it will lose the attractive power of its brand. The very thing people came here for will have been sacrificed -- and for what?


It takes time and many conversations for authentically grounded, complex vision to arise. The future shape of Sarasota County should not come from corporate templates or business models hauled out of MBA syllabi and imposed on us at random. Nor should it be directed by those whose vision is driven by outdated development practices and shaped by self-serving prognostications of endless growth.


It is not yet 2015. The Internet did not exist for most of us 25 years ago. Today the Net is transforming fundamental structures of living. Shopping malls are going the way of newspapers and vinyl records. Automobiles will eventually be petroleum-free, and move according to cues from “the cloud.” We cannot today imagine what the world of 2050 will be. Yet the developers wish to build for it now?


When this process began, Sarasota County took measured steps to ensure that the collective instincts of those who dwell here were deeply involved. If our interests are now to be ignored because we "fail to grasp the intricacies of code revision," then honest governance risks being usurped by the profit motives of the few. When this happens, quality gets sacrificed to cheap style. And good sense? One might have to seek it amid the sprawling maze spawned by ill-conceived revisions to the 2050 Comprehensive Overlay.


Tom Matrullo
Sarasota, FL

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