Location, Location, Location

Guest Correspondence

BY CATHY ANTUNES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY APR 23, 2016

Why do you live in Sarasota? Whether natives or transplants, if you ask us why we chose to live here most Sarasotans list the natural environment as a major reason. Sarasota residents value our water and green space, so much so that we tax ourselves extra to purchase land for preservation. Weaving environmental preservation into commercial and residential development is a community value, so it is critical that standards and ordinances created to achieve sound environmental stewardship are upheld and not redefined by outside interests. The recent approval of a Whole Foods development on a preserved and functioning wetland and the subsequent litigation around this approval highlight important questions: Whose interests are going to be paramount in defining Sarasota County’s environmental standardsthose who live and work here, or those who wish to profit?

During the County Commission land-use hearing, a Whole Foods’ development representative described how the company looked at 12 locations before settling upon the forested wetland at the southwest corner of University Parkway and Honore Avenue. He described how Whole Foods has many metrics they consider before choosing a location. He mentioned demographics. I expect the company also looks at nearby population, incomes, competitors and their locations, such as the Fresh Market across the street from their preferred location. Whole Foods must also consider the cost of development. What’s more cost effective for Whole Foods? Building a new store on undeveloped land? Redeveloping an existing site? These are appropriate questions for Whole Foods to consider. 

According to testimony, of the 12 locations Whole Foods considered, the corner at University and Honore was “the only location that was viable for Whole Foods.” Really? I’ll bet there are a lot more than 12 possibilities for a Whole Foods site in northern Sarasota. It would be interesting, though, to know the locations of those 12 sites. How many were in blighted areas? How many were redevelopment opportunities? One thing is certain—in their search for a “viable” site, Whole Foods is looking to maximize their bottom line.

Local government exists to work for the public. In this case, county policy permits disrupting a wetland “when no other reasonable alternative exists.” The law doesn’t permit Whole Foods to define what “reasonable” is. By approving the Whole Foods development on a functioning wetland, our County Commission chose to permit Whole Foods to define what is reasonable, based on what is “viable” for their business. Our county’s environmental preservation policy became worthless in the process.

Whole Foods recently defended their plan by promising to repurpose the wetland forest they plan to destroy—into tables and wall art. As one citizen put it, this is akin to making a hunting trophy out of Cecil the Lion’s head.

Whole Foods can find another location. Redeveloping an existing site would be the “greenest” option. If Sarasota is to uphold our commitment to the environment, we can be sure more decisions like this one are in our future. In the end, a healthy environment is what keeps us all “viable.” 

Cathy Antunes serves on the boards of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government.

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