Ecotourism or Insider Industry?

The Detail

BY CATHY ANTUNES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAR 25, 2017

The fate of so-called “surplus” lands at Sarasota’s premier bird sanctuary—the Celery Fields—may be turning in a positive direction. Restaurant Depot recently withdrew an offer to purchase the public’s seven acres at the northwest corner of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road.  The controversial land deal generated considerable public outrage; over 200 opponents attended Restaurant Depot’s County Commission hearing. The sale would have shrunk the footprint of the popular birding and recreation park, trading the public’s open space for an industrial entity, pollution and traffic. While Restaurant’s Depot’s exit is a positive development, the fight against the degradation of the Celery Fields continues. The Sarasota County Commission recently put a third parcel of land at the Celery Fields up for sale—a signal that our government continues to dodge a careful evaluation of the public value of these lands and their obligation to appropriately update the applicable planning policy (the CAP or Critical Area Plan). Perhaps the biggest threat to the Celery Fields is the sales contract and industrial proposal for the southwest corner of Apex and Palmer being proffered by County official James Gabbert.

Mr. Gabbert is an elected member of Sarasota County’s Charter review board and a prolific local GOP campaign and PAC donor. Gabbert Investment Group donations include $10,000 to the Eric Robinson-managed PAC “Making a Better Tomorrow.”  In addition, Mr. Gabbert’s firms have given over $17,000 to the campaigns of County Commissioners Paul Caraguilo, Alan Maio, Mike Moran and CharlesHines.  These activities certainly make him an insider when it comes to County politics.

That insider status may explain why Mr. Gabbert’s is the only bid the County received for the public’s 10 acres at the southwest corner of Apex and Palmer. Unlike Gabbert, the Audubon Society was not aware that these lands were put up for sale last spring. This land, like the northwest corner of Apex and Palmer, is included in the county maps of the Celery Fields footprint. According to Audubon Conservation Chair Rob Wright, removing any of the parcels from the Celery Fields lands shrinks the available foraging area for the abundant wildlife populating the park. Mr. Gabbert's proposal claims that the industrial waste recycling use (concrete and construction waste, not glass bottles and aluminum cans) is compatible with the surrounding area, an absurd claim. It ignores the reality of what the Celery Fields has become—a national and internationally recognized ecotourism destination.

To seriously consider putting an industrial waste facility at the Celery Fields, you have to ignore the value of ecotourism to our local economy. The County’s failure to update the Critical Area Plan governing development alongside the Celery Fields (it hasn’t been updated in 25 years) is evidence of a huge blind spot. When campaign donors are permitted to define what is good for business (their business), the rest of us are collectively poorer. Degrading ecotourism to benefit a donor is a bad move. Time for the County Commission to do the right thing.

Cathy Antunes serves on the board of Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. 

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