Celery Fields Sell Out
Exit 209 is supposed to be different, not a typical highway interchange. The Sarasota lands at Fruitville Road, just east of Interstate-75 and north of Palmer Boulevard, have been slated for high quality development for over a decade. Instead of a collection of gas stations and industrial uses, our community vision includes walkable development (the Fruitville Initiative, a taxpayer-funded $500,000 plan), healthcare or information technology businesses, work/live units for artists and an unexpected bonus. The adjacent Celery Fields, a $24-million flooding prevention project, has fortuitously become a national and international birding ecotourism draw. So big that Sarasota Audubon invested $1 million for a new Celery Fields visitor center. Yet, recent Planning Commission votes have paved the way for changing rural public acreage next to the Celery Fields into ordinary, polluting, industrial development. The County Commission can reverse course, respect a community vision with millions of dollars and over a decade of planning invested, or they can sell out to their preferred bidders.
How did we get here? Last spring, the County put the southwest and northwest corners at Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard, public land next to the Celery Fields, up for sale. The 12- and 7-acre parcels are currently designated Open Space or Rural uses. The County received exactly one bid for each parcel of land. You read that right—one bid. Getting only one bid for each public land offering is reason enough for concern.
Who are these “winning” bidders—buyers who face no competition, buyers poised to purchase public land near a wildlife refuge, bidders who will only buy if they are permitted to develop these rural lands for industrial uses?
The bidder for the 12 acres at the southwest corner is a company owned by an elected County official, James Gabbert. Gabbert serves on Sarasota’s Charter Review Board. Mr. Gabbert served on the CRB alongside Mark Hawkins (both representing District 4) until Hawkins resigned from the CRB for a position on the Planning Commission. Hawkins is one of the Planning Commissioners who approved the Mr. Gabbert’s petition for a Critical Area Plan change for the southwest lot from rural to industrial use. The industrial CAP change is required build the waste transfer facility described in Mr. Gabbert's uncontested bid for the public’s 12 acres.
Who exactly is the bidder for the seven acres at the northwest corner? Presiding County Attorney Alan Roddy advised the Planning Commission at their Feb. 2 meeting that the corporate entity(ies) which bid on the northwest corner lot may fail to meet County transparency standards. Our County Charter requires purchasers of public lands be identified as human beings. The attorney for the opaque purchaser(s) call the transparency provision “archaic.” The private entity bid, once again the only offer submitted for the rural public acreage, requires an industrial CAP change to build the wholesale depot.
This is how bad planning happens: one decision at a time. Uninspired at best and damaging at worst, approving industrial land use near a premier ecotourism wildlife habitat would be a spectacular betrayal of community planning, interest and investment. The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners can embrace our community vision and chart a different course.
Cathy Antunes serves on the board of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government.