Environmentalists and developers have tried to cooperate on a growth plan for the county that both can live with. Did they reach consensus?
By Stacie Kress Booker
In Sarasota County, Interstate 75 has been a battleline for years. The county's growth plan established the interstate as a boundary of sorts to eastward development, but as the narrow western part of the county along the coast has filled in, developers have eyed the prime real estate east of I-75 hungrily. For their part, environmentalists and others have fought hard to keep the land east of the interstate subdivision-free. In 1995, an unsuccessful effort by developers to breach the I-75 line left both sides bitter -- and didn't resolve the issue. In response, with some prodding by county officials, the Multi-Stakeholder Group (MSG) was formed; the advisory panel put representatives of both pro-growth and hold-the-line factions together in hopes they could craft a unified vision for growth. After four years of meetings, the group has issued recommendations -- but the question of real consensus still hangs in the air.
The task of the MSG, which includes developers, environmentalists, landowners and others, was to make recommendations about the county's growth plan to the Sarasota County Planning Commission, which recommends changes to the county commission, which in turn recommends them to the state Department of Community Affairs. County officials say they're pleased with the MSG's work, but it's unclear exactly how much consensus it represents: The MSG report presents two sets of conclusions, one based on controlled growth, the other adamantly no-growth.
Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce executive Bill Couch and Sarasota County planner Rick Drummond say the dueling recommendations overlap substantially on some key issues: The need for greenways, the preservation of some rural communities, and the extension of University Parkway -- a key east-west thoroughfare loaded with traffic from booming residential development in southern Manatee County. But there's still plenty of discord. MSG member Dan Lobeck, a firebrand attorney instrumental in sandbagging the pro-growth initiative four years ago, says if the county sides with developers on the issue of changing the I-75 boundary line, he will "legally challenge" it and make it "very uncomfortable for the politicians to adopt."
But landowners such as Jim Turner, an MSG member whose family owns the 10,000-acre Hi Hat Ranch, say growth is inevitable as it becomes more difficult to make a living off the land. "With federal estate taxes, we will have no other choice but to sell our properties, and the only buyers willing to pay the prices the lands are worth will be developers."
Meanwhile, Lobeck and other no-growth advocates haven't bought into the planning commission's so-called "Optional Sector Planning" approach, a compromise that pleases developers and some environmentalists. Sector planning would regulate growth by promoting self-contained communities surrounded by greenspace. Orange County uses the approach, but Lobeck says developments there are so closely squeezed together that very little greenspace remains. He sees the sector approach as a "radical pro-growth plan" and charges the planning commission with trying to "hoodwink the public."
Drummond says the planning commission will hold public forums on the issue and consider the MSG's report as it begins to formulate its recommendations, expected in late summer. What's next for the MSG is less certain. One MSG member struggles with his own feelings along with making public policy recommendations. Architect Bill Zoller lives just west of I-75 on land that's been in his family for five generations, most of it east of the interstate. He wants to preserve the rural character of the area, but is not opposed to growth, as long as it's good growth and the time is right. He does not want to see land "disappear into a replication of nondescript subdivisions," and says "all the rhetoric in the world can't legislate good design and good planning."
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