Stakeholders, Drive the Stake

The Detail


Advocates for Sarasota’s celebrated birding and recreation park, the Celery Fields, gained a victory this past month when the Planning Commission recommended denial of James Gabbert’s petition to build an industrial waste recycling facility on Celery Fields’ lands. But that doesn’t mean the Celery Fields is safe.

Last year, Sarasota County put the 12- and 7-acre public land at the southwest and northwest corners of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard up for sale by issuing Invitations to Negotiate (ITN). The County sale offer resulted in just one bidder proposing and incompatible use for each parcel of land - County official James Gabbert, with his industrial waste project, and the now departed Restaurant Depot, purveyor of wholesale restaurant supplies. Restaurant Depot flew the coop when the firm understood the ferocity of public opposition to their project. Mr. Gabbert’s industrial waste facility proposal comes before the Board of County Commissioners on Aug. 23. While the Planning Commission’s recommendation to deny the project is positive, this ill-wrought industrial proposal is not dead. Testimony during the Planning Commission meeting shined a light on prolific political donor Gabbert's inside track.

In the fifth hour of the June 1 public hearing, City of Sarasota Director of Neighborhood and Development Services Tim Litchet came to the podium to give public input on Gabbert’s proposed industrial waste transfer facility. Seeing a City official give public input to the County against a development project is rare. I’ve never seen it happen.

Mr. Litchet explained his position and credentials, and thanked the Planning Commissioners for their service. He stated he had reviewed County’s staff’s report, which was well prepared and pointed out “weak areas and potential pitfalls” with the plan. First, he noted it was interesting that the County chose to dispose of the property by issuing an Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) rather than an Request for Proposal (RFP). Mr. Litchet noted that an RFP would have solicited the highest bid for the property, while and ITN allows the County more flexibility to get both “the use and the person they want.”

It has been widely reported that Mr. Gabbert's businesses donated over $17,000 to the campaigns of four of five sitting County Commissioners, along with $10,000 to a local Political Action Committee.

Mr. Litchet then went on to say that the County apparently wants to make the site a dump or recycling center because the applicant (Gabbert) was “apparently instrumental in drafting the changes to relevant zoning section 5.3.5.b.2.b, as reflected in ordinance 2016-08… that was a new designer ordinance which really only applies to this site which reduces the dump recycling center acreage from 35 acres to 15, and it appears to allow the dump recycling center to not necessarily be in an enclosed building.” Litchet then relayed how the designer ordinance specifically reducing the industrial recycling land requirement from 35 acres to 15 acres for Mr. Gabbert’s project was approved on Dec. 14, a full month after Gabbert submitted his Nov. 13 dump recycling center petition. “How do you file a petition utilizing new zoning code language that has not even been approved? he asked. “I don’t think you can legally do that”.

While other industrial waste facilities must be on 35 acres, Mr. Gabbert has been successful in getting a special law passed reducing that requirement to 15 acres solely for his project, with no guarantees that the facility be enclosed. Given the applicant’s success at gaming the system, let’s recognize that public outcry is the only thing that has stopped this train wreck. An 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. If the public wants to drive a stake in the heart of this polluting blight, we all better show up at the County Commission meeting on Aug. 23.

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

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